The greater Washington, D.C. area is home to some outstanding, authentic restaurants. Large immigrant populations from Africa, Asia, and Central and South America have set up outposts in and around the District, which prepare all the comfort foods of their native countries. They provide local Washingtonians with the chance to do some culinary tourism. Still, for all of the hole-in-the-wall taquerias and noodle houses that have popped up in obscure spots throughout the suburbs, the area has precious few places that honestly give patrons the sensation of being in another country. Perhaps the single exception is Eden Center, a shopping center in Falls Church, Virginia, devoted entirely to all things Vietnamese.
As visitors to Eden Center drive underneath the pagoda at the entrance, they leave Falls Church and enter Little Vietnam. The stores that comprise the center range from tiny kiosks and stalls to a mega super market, and offer a range of items from Vietnamese DVDs to exotic fruits and vegetables to discount clothing. Of course, the main draw is the food, and for this reason, Eden Center’s various cafes, delis and bakeries are seldom empty. Hundreds of bowls of pho, banh mi sandwiches and cups of bubble tea are served up every day, as well as more exotic fare.
Any discussion of food at Eden Center begins and ends with Rice Paper, the most popular of the center’s restaurants, boasting its most comprehensive menu. A pungent smell pervades the small dining room, which is usually packed at meal times. The décor is simple and elegant, as if content to let the flavors take the spotlight. Good Vietnamese food tends to rely on contrasting flavors – sweet basil and smoky grilled chicken, for example – rather than on pure spiciness, and many dishes on the menu appeal to every taste bud on the palate. The complex spices of the thrice-cooked chicken pair well with sweet coconut rice. And savory fried “rocket” shrimp is only improved by a splash of the tangy, red dipping sauce that accompanies it. The real show-stoppers though are the bubbling clay-pot casseroles, which when coming out of the kitchen, tend to provoke jealous stares from the fellow diners.
A few doors down from Rice Paper is Huong Viet, a sort of Vietnamese diner with quick and efficient servers, who zip around the small dining space during lunch hour, in particular. Huoung Viet specializes in noodles – specifically, huge bowls of piping hot pho or vermicelli in flavorful broth, served with anything from chicken to tripe. Most visitors tend to stick with noodles, but one of the hidden gems is the sweet and smoky quail – perhaps a cousin of the Buffalo wing. The boldly flavored shrimp and tamarind soup, a zesty concoction that includes chunks of pineapple in its many ingredients, is a totally original treat.
Of course, several spots in Eden Center specialize in pho, the rich Vietnamese soup that over the last ten years or so has become its country’s most popular export. It would be difficult to throw a stone without hitting a place that serves great pho, but one of the center’s best is Pho Va, a modest hole-in-the-wall located in the mall-within-a-mall at the rear of the complex. Eden Center, a hidden gem in its own right, offers its own hidden gems within its labyrinthine layout. The ever-popular banh mi sandwich – meat and Asian vegetables on a French baguette – is never better than at Nhu Lan Sandwich, a tiny stall tucked in an obscure corridor of the mall. Perhaps a result of French colonialization, Vietnam boasts some excellent desserts, all of which can be found en masse. Conveniently located next to both Rice Paper and Huong Viet, Cha Kim Phung Bakery dishes out all kinds of sticky confections, as well as a variety of bubble tea and Vietnamese coffee. (The secret ingredient is sweetened condensed milk.)
Eden Center is the kind of place every Washingtonian should know about, if for no other reason than to wow guests from out of town. Anyone can take friends on a trip to the Smithsonian. But not everyone can follow that up with a quick trip to Saigon.