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.
But what began as a place for Vietnamese immigrants to shop for trinkets, drink their coffee, and socialize has become a food destination for others: dining adventurers, cheap eaters, weekend chefs, travelers looking for an ethnic bite. Even as Vietnamese food became ubiquitous, the cognoscenti came here. “You can get dishes you’d never get anywhere else,” says my friend Anh Phan. Recently the mall has seen and upscale incursions of non-Vietnamese eateries offering Korean soup, Mongolian wok, Thai street food, and its first Asian chains. Older vendors complain of rising rents and mom-and-pop shops worry about getting priced out. It’s a caution for the future, but for now, Eden Center thankfully retains its unsophisticated, bygone air and remains the cultural center of Vietnamese-American life on the East Coast, with visitors coming from Boston, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia.
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Many of the region’s non-Vietnamese residents have heard of Eden Center, perhaps even eaten there. But most hit up one of the handful of establishments that have made the restaurant reviewers’ lists, and quickly depart, never entering the many inner corridors of the 15-acre one-level complex. I understand the reason. It’s intimidating: the exoticism of the merchandise, the barriers of language and custom, the sheer number of choices. It’s clear there are hidden delights and culinary discoveries to be found here. I needed a guide, or several.
Over the course of several weeks, I conducted exhaustive research that thrilled the tongue and tummy. I enlisted Vietnamese friends and experts to create this opinionated and selective directory. “The two most well known places are Rice Paper and Huong Viet, both with prominent locations, large menus, and excellent food. On weekends there are always lines out the door. This is the place first-timers tend to visit,” says Graham Eddy, associate general counsel of Eden Center’s property management company. “But hidden in the inner hallways are the true gems—the hole-in-the-walls and mom-and-pop shops that may specialize in only one or two items, but those dishes are incredible.”
Ten to Try: Where to Go, What to Order
Thanh Son Tofu: This carryout place is one of Eden Center’s most popular. The specialty is the deep-fried tofu in a variety of flavors, made in the back from housemade tofu. “I love the mushroom tofu; and it comes with free fresh soy milk if you spend $20,” says Hung Nguyen, an IT consultant and community activist who left Vietnam as a child, grew up in San Diego, and moved to the DC area 16 years ago. He also likes the egg rolls here. “They use rice paper rolls instead of the traditional wonton wrappers so they’re crispier and also a little stickier on your teeth, but yummier, too.” 6793-A Wilson Blvd.
Pandan: Stop by this drink and dessert place after a meal or for a mid-afternoon break. Its menu ranges from Vietnamese coffees to boba (tapioca balls) teas to colorful ches (gelatinous dessert soup). The iced Vietnamese coffee with tapioca balls is cold shot of energy; the avocado smoothie creamy and divine; the popular #10 che, refreshing and exotic with red bean, grass jelly, coconut milk, and crushed ice. 6771-B Wilson Wilson Blvd.
Thanh Van: A Buddhist couple owns this no-frills, five-table vegetarian micro-restaurant in the bowels of one of the complex’s mini malls. Its non-meat versions of shrimp summer roll and beef pho would fool anyone. Try the bun xeo (Vietnamese pancake) or the bun hue chay, a spicy noodle soup filled with hearty soy products. Even the “fish” sauce is vegetarian. Saigon West Mall, 6795 Wilson Blvd., Store 37
Phung Hoang: Most regulars don’t even look at the menu at this simple restaurant; they just order the bun bo hue as they take a seat. You should do the same. The rich, meaty noodle soup is served extra spicy and with a heaping plate of cilantro, shredded cabbage, and raw onions. Saigon West Mall, 6795 Wilson Blvd., Store 39
Banh Mi So 1: There are at least four places that make the famous Vietnamese baguette sandwiches, and each has its own committed fans who will happily argue the nuances of each. Banh Mi So 1, conveniently located on the exterior of one of the mini malls, is one of the most popular, using house-made bread, crispy on the outside and light and airy on the inside. “I grew up in this area and my family has been going there for years,” says Tuyet Nhi Le, a restaurateur and former Miss Vietnam DC contestant. Try the combination ham and pate sandwich. Saigon Garden, 6799 Wilson Blvd., Store 3/4
Pho VA and TDM: Two shops in one, Pho VA (the “VA” stands for “Vietnamese American,” says the proud and patriotic owner) serves inexpensive pho, while TDM is a hip bar serving Taiwanese teas popular with college students and millennials. “I like the taro milk tea and the combo passionfruit/pineapple tea,” says David Ngoc Vo, who occasionally leads food tours of the mall as a promotions coordinator at Eden Center. Perhaps more interesting is the history of this space. The pho shop that once stood here was the hangout of the Vietnam war-era South Vietnamese newspapermen, politicians, and military officers. “The refugees went from generals to janitors, some of them quite literally,” says Hung Nguyen. “People in high positions when they left Vietnam couldn’t find jobs when they got here and had to start over.” 6765 Wilson Blvd.
Huong Binh Bakery: The oldest continuously operating bakery at Eden Center, open since 1992, Huong Binh offers more than fresh baguettes and savory pastries such as pate chaud. It’s one of a few places to grab prepared meals. “This is my go-to to-go place,” says Hung Nguyen, pointing out covered trays of traditional vermicelli noodles with beef, papaya salad, and spring rolls. “Grab one of these, bring it home, take the covers off, and you’ve got dinner.” 6781 Wilson Blvd.
Cho Cu Saigon: The row of hanging ducks says it all. One of the oldest dining establishments in Eden Center is also one of the least well known. Tucked in the back of one of interior malls next to a barber shop, this is the only place you need to go for a Chinese-Vietnamese style roasted meats, especially savory duck and crispy pork. Eden Mini Mall, 6763 Wilson Blvd., Store 6D
Nha Trang: Those in-the-know go to this low-key interior eatery for one thing and one thing only: the nem nuong, or rice-paper-wrapped spring rolls with a tasty pork sausage inside. What makes these spring rolls special is the thin and crispy egg roll skin in the middle which gives it its signature crunch. Yum. “One order comes with four rolls, so I often make a meal of it,” admits Tuyet Nhi Le. Saigon East 6757 Wilson Blvd. store 7/8.
How To Eat Like a Local
To find the store you want, look for a map directory posted on the wall near building entrances and note its address and store number.
Memorize this: “dac biet”. It means specialty of the house and the dish it refers to is always a good bet when you’re not sure what to order. Another strategy is to look at the photos of dishes on the wall, and point.
Several restaurants have large menus, but most places specialize in just a few dishes. Often the dish name is even in the name of the restaurant.
Have cash on hand. Some restaurants don’t take credit cards.
Dine at 6. Except for the most popular restaurants and the handful of late-night spots, most smaller dining establishments close fairly early.
Keep in mind that most smaller establishments do not serve alcohol.
This piece was first published in the March 2017 issue of The Local Palate. See article here. Photo www.unsplash.com.