This must be some bad economic times that we are going through. Uncertainty seems to hover over the housing market, the stock market, the job market, a looming sequestration, and undoubtedly the restaurant business. More than a handful of restaurants that I have reviewed have folded up since I started a year ago. To make matters worse, both Vietnamese restaurants on my blog have shut their doors, one after nearly 15 years of business, and the other just a mere 8 months. As you may have read about my elusive search for a good Vietnamese eatery near me and in DC, this series of events was quite a blow.
With such daunting news in mind, I approached my trusty Vietnamese barber and asked her for a reliable recommendation. She pointed me to Eden Center, in the Seven Corners neighborhood of Fairfax, VA, where there is a confluence of Vietnamese business that populate that rather expansive plaza. This was one place that I used to visit quite often to savor some good cooking when the Four Sisters Restaurant ran their business there before moving further out to the boondocks. After their move, there was little cause to visit that area except when the occasional taste for steamed tofu with ginger syrup propelled me to drive the nearly 30 miles to terra incognito, as it seems that way to me. But with a strong reference in mind, I coraled my dinner group on the eve of the Lunar New Year, or Tết in Vietnamese, and paid a visit to Huong Viet , a small eatery that has survived all these years since my visit there nearly 20 years ago.
Walking into the establishment, the decor and the set up are not as plush or creative as most modern restaurants, and the regularly spaced long and short tables do bring to mind a nice clean cafeteria. After a short wait outside in the cold, we were shown to our long table that accommodated my party of five. Any feeling of doubt or hesitancy was immediately erased by a sense of assurance brought about by the busyness of the restaurant and the number of Vietnamese-speaking customers in the place. With that thought in mind, I plunged into the menu and quickly ordered some common appetizers. The Summer Rolls came with soft rice crepe paper wrapped around a filling of perfectly cooked moist rice vermicelli noodles, fresh sweet shrimp, mild roast pork, crisp lettuce, fragrant mint leaves, and finished with a long strand of pungent Asian chive. But what tied all these disparate elements together was the dipping sauce. This restaurant’s version had only a bare hint of hoisin unlike other versions that overwhelms the palate with its flavor. Mixed in it was a peanut sauce that made it rich and nutty, and its unique balance pointed towards it being house-made rather than store-bought. This was a good fresh bite.
We also ordered the counterpart to the above – Fried Spring Roll or CHẢ GIÒ. When it arrived at the table, I noticed a few variations from the norms commonly found in other places. First, the large bubbles on the fried skin indicated that it was made in a traditional fashion with Vietnamese rice crepe paper and not with Chinese spring roll sheets that are commonly used these days. The second was that it was cut into two before it was deep-fried, which intrigued me even further. Sheer hunger or delectable food can produce a certain suspension of analysis of thought as I honestly don’t recall much from this dish. All I remember was that the stuffing tasted very moist and savory encased by a crispy shell, and these bites disappeared quickly among my friends who snatched them up while piping hot. The side sweet and salty fish sauce was adequate but not as memorable as the expensive elixir served in the defunct Green Papaya restaurant. However, this dish was worth a moment of relapse during dinner.
Another common appetizer found in this Southeast Asian cuisine is Young Lotus Root Salad. Strands of cooked lotus roots have been mixed with pieces of pork and whole shrimp, lightly seasoned by the ubiquitous sweet and salty fish sauce. Wow, I could barely get a bite of this because it was ferociously attacked by my companions, and deservedly so. The pieces of lotus were perfectly cooked while maintaining its characteristic light crunch along with its savoriness developed from being marinated. The sweet shrimp and moist pork provided the unctuous notes to the mild root, while the crushed peanuts and fried shallot rings added the nuttiness and dark flavors to the clean mild tasting salad. The rounds of addictive shrimp crackers provided some textural interest as well as serving as the perfect scoopers for this melange. This was definitely a hit for all of us and we should have ordered another serving of it.
For our main courses, we ordered a quartet of dishes. The first was a classic Vietnamese dish found in any reputable restaurant – Bánh Xèo. This stuffed crepe dish literally means “sizzling cake” consisting of a rice flour crepe stuffed with pieces of pork, cooked shrimp and a heaping of cooked bean sprouts. The crepe had a hint of coconut milk and it was quite crispy, however, not rich or crispy enough for my taste, compared to the fabulous version in The Green Papaya. Like most versions, the crepe is underseasoned for it is the sweet and salty fish sauce that imparts the necessary seasoning to this very mild dish. Once my companions figured how to attack the dish, they were enjoying every bite of it. But I could not help but reminiscence the rich delectable version of the aforementioned closed restaurant.
While waiting outside, an acquaintance of one of my dining companions recommended that we order Shakey Beef. The name was odd enough for me and I had never come across a dish with such name. The order arrived with pieces of cubed beef along with some onion and green pepper squares, plain and assuming. The first bite revealed a personality beyond its unassuming looks. The beef was tossed and seared on high heat in the wok, judging by pieces of caramelized bits, while maintaining a tender medium-rare inside. Surprisingly, every bite tasted well seasoned and very savory from what tastes like soy sauce, bits of garlic, and a hint of sugar that brought the flavors to another level. This was a truly successful dish for all of the diners and I enjoyed every beefy bite.
To bring some balance to the meat dishes, we ordered Shrimp with Vegetables. Pieces of celery, broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, and baby corn are paired with pieces of large shrimp in this dish. The sweet tender shrimp made the perfect foil to the pieces of sweet al dente pieces of vegetables, while the mushroom adds some earthiness and the baby corn some young sweetness. What brought all the elements together was the rather rich sauce packed with garlic pieces flavored with oyster sauce and thickened with corn starch. Although it was a rather light dish, the savory sauce made it seem richer, and it was worth ordering this vegetable seafood dish. Another hit among my dining group.
No visit to taste this Southeast Asian cuisine should have a lemongrass dish amiss from the dining table, and we honed on Caramelized Lemongrass Chicken. The plate arrived with chucks of chicken thigh cooked with large pieces of sweet yellow onions, swimming in a shallow pool of brown sauce. What truly made this two-ingredient dish delectable and successful was the sauce that was packed with the citrusy lemongrass paired with the seafood salty fish sauce with a tinge of sweetness from the caramel that rounded off the flavors. The pieces of chicken thigh was not the mild breast version so as to stand up to the punchy sauce while adding the necessary body along with the sweet and pungent onion. Even when the morsels were gone, I was lapping up every drop of sauce with bits of rice as I could not get enough of the sauce that transported me to Indochina. Another must order here for sure!
Despite feeling content with the above dishes, I was curious about the unique Vietnamese sweet servings. There was not much in terms of solid desserts with the exception of Caramel Flan but the menus listed a list of sweet drinks with bits of “stuff” that are commonly eaten by the locals. My glass came with a concoction of whole red beans, sweet corn, crushed peanuts, and bits of green agar-agar jelly. The sweetening agent was a syrup consisting of a mixture of brown sugar and rich coconut milk. Upon mixing the various elements, things did not look very appetizing at first, but with the first mouthful, it was a revelation of flavors and textures. Every element spoke for itself: nuttiness from the peanuts, sweetness from the corn, starchiness from the red beans, molasses sweetness from the brown sugar, and vegetal creaminess from the coconut milk. The green jelly did not add any flavor at all but a jellybean-like texture consistency to the bite, which a couple of my friends found a bit disconcerting – LOL. Before I knew it, most of my dining companions were partaking in this sweet dish, and we finished it con mucho gusto.
Coming back to Huong Viet for me was like the return of the prodigal son. When in doubt, do what the Romans do, or as in this case, what the Vietnamese do. Thanks to my barber’s infallible suggestion, I’m glad to have made the long trek to Eden Center to taste what has always been there all these years – proper delectable Vietnamese dishes that wowed my dining group even days after our visit. Never mind the inattentive service at times and the bare ambience. But what makes up for the shortcomings is the main reason to haul oneself there – the impressive dishes. Note to diner – they only accept cash but we walked out of there with barely with a dent made since it was around $20/person. With such good cooking and low prices, I would easily do the 30-mile drive.