Most Vietnamese restaurants in our New Jersey neighborhood tend to be Pho parlors, specializing in the ubiquitous noodle soup that is a staple of Viet cuisine. They may have a a few appetizers (such as spring rolls or grilled beef on skewers) , a selection of over-rice dishes and a few vermicelli dishes but nothing more adventurous. That is a shame because Vietnamese cuisine is much more than merely pho, or grilled beef or chicken curry over rice. Vietnamese cookbooks contain a wealth of recipes that make it clear that this is a cuisine to rival any in South-east Asia. But how and where is one to sample such food ?
The answer came to us on a trip to Washington D.C., a city with a large Vietnamese community. We decided to go Falls Church , VA to the Eden Center which consists completely of Vietnamese restaurants, supermarkets, bakeries , pho palaces and the like. We thought that we would be able to pick and choose among the several restaurants at that location.
We got to Eden Center just as dusk was falling.Now,I’ve never been to Vietnam but I’ve seen quite a few TV shows about that country and it’s food. The ambience of Eden Center with it’s garish, multicolored neon signs must resemble that of Saigon .The shops are arranged around the periphery of a square and the large common parking lot in the center was crowded even on a mid-week evening.Before deciding on which restaurant we would dine at, we walked around all the shops and eateries in Eden Center. In addition to building up our appetites, we got an idea of the place and what our choices were. The large supermarket towards the back of the square was particularly interesting and I wish I’d had more time to prowl it’s aisles. It was very well stocked, better than many others I’ve seen in New Jersey and New York but I contented myself with picking up a bottle of pickled sour chillies and some snacks. The bakeries and the eateries serving banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches) were tempting but we were looking to eat a full meal with the empahasis on trying new dishes. We restrained ouselves from trying out the banh mi or “elephant sandwiches ‘ as they are sometimes called in NYC, perhaps because they are “overstuffed”. The torpedo shaped rolls the Vietnamese use for their sandwiches are excellent: a lightly glazed chewy exterior with a soft interior. The stuffing is of various types , usually melange of sliced cold cuts ( not the usual deli style meats but Vietnamese specialties difficult to describe, turkey and ham) or meatballs. What makes them special are the other garnishes and condiments . The sandwiches are assembled by splitting the rolls, dabbing the inside with mayonnaise and then placing the meats, thin slivers of carrot , batons of cucumber, cilantro sprigs plus sliced chillies and/or hot sauce ( optional). The carrots and the cucumber are ,I think, lightly marinated in rice vinegar and a little sugar. The meat component of banh mi is small but the combination of the meat and the cucumber and carrot is both delicious and refreshingly light.
Having completed our perambulations of the square, we decided on the Huong Viet for or our dinner. It appeared to have more Viet patrons already inside and it had been selected as one of the 100 best D.C restaurants by the Washingtonian in three years 2006-2008. It proved to be a good choice.
We started out with spring rolls, crisp and crunchy, to be wrapped in lettuce leaves and dunked in a sweet dipping sauce. Then we had a mixed vegetable salad, grilled beef, a dish of mixed vegetables in a light brown sauce and caramel fish. The salad was good though I didn’t care for the lotus roots in it . They were cut in thin strips and looked like daikon but they were tough and fibrous; I wish they’d been daikon instead. The grilled beef too was very good ,thinly sliced, slightly charred in spots and delicious when wrapped in lettuce leaves and garnished with cilantro and mint and a dab of hot sauce before we scarfed it down. The vegetable dish contained an interesting assortment of vegetables and the sauce complemented them well. The real winner was the caramel fish (chunks of catfish sauteed and doused in a sweet-sour golden brown sauce ). Itwas excellent .For dessert, we had a sweetened coconut jelly served in a ( young ) coconut shell and a lychee ice. both of them were good but I’d recommend the coconut jelly.Prices were reasonable and for our party of four the check ,including tip, was about $ 90.
The next day we decided to try out another of the restaurants at Eden Square but this time we struck out. Tay Do was a severe disappointment. .The congee dishes were passable and the pho was pretty good but the eggrolls were chewy, the vermicelli dishes flavorless and there were no desserts. Give this place the go by. In addition to the afore-mentioned Huong Viet, the following restaurants at Eden Square are worth a look-see: Viet Royal ( 6767 Wilson Blvd) and Viet Bistro ( 6799 Wilson Blvd).
Huong Viet. 6785 Wilson Blvd, Falls Church, VA 22044. Open 7 days but closed in the afternoons. (703) 538-5728.
P.S I can’t say that Eden Center added much to my knowledge of Vietnamese cuisine. The only new dish that we experienced was the caramel fish which was admittedly very good. Last month I’d watched an episode of “No Reservations” in which Anthony Bourdain visited places in and around Washington D.C. One place he visited was a Vietnamese restaurant which looked exactly like what I was searching for. Lots of unusual dishes and very different from what I’ve experienced so far. I wish I’d made a note of it’s name . Oh well, I guess I’ll have to keep searching.
P.P.S ( April, 2009) I saw a repeat airing of the Anthony Bourdain show and it turns out that he did visit the Eden Center. He walked around the aisles of the same supermarket that I visited . They showed shots of Eden Center restaurants and I glimpsed several of the places that we had checked out including Huong Viet. Bourdain wound up tucking into banh mi at the Song Que and they looked delicious. You might want to give the place a try.