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Saigon On The Potomac

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Saigon On The Potomac
Written by Norie Quintos | Photos by Scott Suchman

A lemongrass and basil haven hides in plain sight in Washington DC’s Virginia Suburbs

Huong Binh Bakery owner Chung Thit

When I have a hankering for Vietnamese food (which is at least once a month), the area where I live in Washington, DC, and its suburbs 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.

Shopping for incense at Eden Supermarket

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. They opened stores and businesses catering to their community—jewelry shops, travel agencies, mini-groceries, barbershops, and of course, restaurants.

Inner corridor

In the 1980s, a flagging mall with empty slots gradually filled with Vietnamese stores. By 1995, the mall’s owners decided to capitalize on that reality. They gave the old shopping center a new name, installed an ornate lion’s gate and a clock tower (its design cribbed from a famous shopping center in Saigon), host annual lunar new year festivals in the parking lot, and fly the twin flags of the US 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: adventurous diners, those looking for cheap eats, weekend chefs, and travelers seeking 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 an upscale incursion 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. 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, and Philadelphia.

Tilapia for sale at Good Fortune Supermarket

Eden Center thankfully retains its unsophisticated, bygone air and remains the cultural center of Vietnamese-American life on the East Coast.
Inside the Good Fortune Supermarket

Many of the region’s non-Vietnamese residents have heard of Eden Center and 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 fifteen-acre single-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 my 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. These are 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 family-owned shops that may specialize in only one or two items, but those dishes are incredible.”

What began as a place for Vietnamese immigrants to shop for trinkets, drink their coffee, and socialize has become a food destination for others: adventurous diners, those looking for cheap eats, weekend chefs, and travelers seeking an ethnic bite.

EDEN CENTER 

where to go, what to order

Busy weekend lunch crowd at the popular Huong Viet
Pork skewers at Phung Hoang
Religious specialty store, Bat Nha
Fried porgy at Phuong Hoang
One of the many beauty salons in the mall
Tiny vegetarian restaurant, Thanh Van
Freshly baked baguettes at Banh Mi So 1
Fishmongers at Good Fortune Supermarket
Huong Viet

➤THANH SON TOFU: This carryout place is one of Eden Center’s most popular. The specialty is the house-made deep-fried tofu in a variety of flavors. “I love the mushroom tofu, and it comes with free fresh soy milk if you spend twenty dollars,” 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 sixteen years ago. He also likes the egg rolls. “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 des-sert spot after a meal or for a mid-afternoon break. Its menu ranges from Vietnamese coffees to boba (tapioca balls) teas to colorful ches (gelatinous des-sert soup). The iced Vietnamese coffee with tapioca balls is a 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 VANA: Buddhist couple owns this no-frills, five-table vegetarian micro-restaurant tucked deep in one of Eden Center’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, 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 among the most popular, using housemade bread, crispy on the outside and light and airy on the inside. Try the combination ham and pâté 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 for 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 Cen-ter, open since 1992, Huong Binh offers more than fresh baguettes and savory pastries such as pêté 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 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 filled with tasty pork sausage. What makes these spring rolls special is the thin and crispy egg roll skin in the middle, which gives it its signature crunch.

Saigon East 6757 Wilson Blvd., Store 7/8

Eden Center Pro Tips

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? 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 early. 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.