When I have a hankering for Vietnamese food (which is at least once a month), the Washington, D.C., area, where I live, is a trove of riches. There are pho food trucks on city streets and high-concept Viet-Thai mashups downtown, and shrimp-and-sprout stuffed summer rolls in every suburban supermarket. But for me there is only one place to go: Eden Center in Falls Church, Virginia, the largest Vietnamese-themed mall on the East Coast.
That’s not just because this suburban strip mall offers an intense concentration of culinary offerings (there are some 50 food and drink vendors among about 115 stores) that keeps quality high, prices low, and promotes the virtuoso-level development of specialty dishes. It’s because every visit to this ethnic enclave comes with a free trip through both space and time (Saigon in the late 1970s). There’s nothing quite like this portal through culture, history, and cuisine, even in places with larger Vietnamese immigrant populations, such as California’s Orange County.
This is an enclave that gradually rose in the years following the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, when thousands of people fled—many by boat—the grip of Ho Chi Minh and the communist takeover. A large contingent, many of them military or professional elite, settled in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. They opened stores and businesses catering to their community—jewelry shops, travel agencies, mini-groceries, barbershops, and of course restaurants. In the 1980s, a flagging mall with empty slots gradually filled with Vietnamese stores. By 1995 the mall’s owners decided to capitalize on the reality, giving the old shopping center a new name, installing an ornate lion’s gate and a clock tower (its design cribbed from a famous shopping center in Saigon), hosting annual lunar new year festivals in the parking lot, and flying the twin flags of the U.S. and the former South Vietnam.Read More