Editor’s Note from Food Editor Alejandra Owens: Last weekend my good friend, Sylvie, took a small group of food obsessed folks on a guided tour of Eden Center. Not really tucked away but certainly not nearby the city, Eden Center is the Seven Corners area of Falls Church, Virgina. Seeing as how some of us probably never leave the city, if we do want to go do something like, say, eat a crazy amount of Vietnamese food, we probably want a guide or at least a list of recommendations to make us feel safer in our food adventures. I asked Sylvie to be our guide, and hope you enjoy Borderstanis! Also, a special thanks to Michelle Nguyen of Hey Love Designs for her great photos at Viet Bistro.
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From Sylvie Nguyen. She works at a nonprofit in DC and spends the rest of her time cooking food, talking about food, reading about food, writing about food and enjoying the pleasure of eating food. She writes the blog Thrifty DC Cook and is a regular volunteer at N Street Village.
For the past six years of living in the DC area, I have whined and complained that Washington, DC didn’t have restaurants with good ethnic food. I wanted the kind of food that I found in Southern California; a good taco stand, an inexpensive banh mi shop or an Indian carryout store where I can get Chana Masala and a samosa for $2. Over a media lunch last week, I expressed my complaint amongst a group of bloggers and the hosting chef. The chef disagreed with me. I suddenly felt like a child who was spoiled and being reprimanded.
He is right to some extent. This city has a plethora of choices for diners. We have restaurants that serve Afghan, Ethiopian, Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican, El Salvadoran, German and many other cuisines. Most are within walking distance to us and some offer delivery to our doorsteps. And there are some places right outside of the city that serves authentic and delicious food.
One of those places is the Eden Center, a Vietnamese shopping center in Falls Church, Virginia (6751 Wilson Boulevard, to be exact). For me, growing up in southern California where the largest Vietnamese community in the United States can be found, I go to Eden Center for the comfort of Vietnamese “home cooking.” You can find a delicious bowl of pho, Ca Kho Thom, fried tofu, fresh soybean milk, che, banh xeo and much more.
The other great thing about Eden Center is that you can easily find a meal for under $10 at any of the restaurants. A banh mi sandwich is typically $2.75 each. Recently, I got the chance to give a tour to a few other food lovers and made a list of vendors I like to visit. Here are a few of my favorite places, in no particular order:
1. Bahn Mi So #1 – This is the place I frequent the most since it is located close by the main entrance and I can easily park in front, run in and run out. Their sandwiches are pretty good and the bread, baked fresh daily, is only 55 cents per 9 inch loaf. The sandwiches are around $3 per sandwich. Another great thing about this shop is that you can get fresh squeezed sugar cane juice. They mix it with a bit of fresh squeezed tangerine juice and pour it over ice. It is the most refreshing drink during a muggy, hot summer. Their Vietnamese iced coffee is also great. When you order sandwiches to take home, always ask for the vegetables on the side so that the sandwiches don’t get soggy from the pickled vegetables.
2. Cho Saigon Supermarket – This is the only real market in Eden Center. You can find better prices and more variety at places like Grand Mart or H-Mart but if you are working on a Vietnamese meal, this is the best place to get Vietnamese ingredients. It is where you can find a specific type of mint, a jar of shrimp paste and good pho noodles. My favorite thing to do is to look at kitchen tools here. The butcher’s knife that so many Asian butchers use is only $10 and a good kitchen knife can be as little as $4.
3. Nhu Lan Sandwich Shop – I think this is the best banh mi in Eden Center but mainly because they put a lot of pate on the sandwiches.
4. Viet Royale Restaurant – This is a good place to start if you aren’t too familiar with Vietnamese food. The restaurant does a good job providing good service and the wait staff can help guide you through the menu. The food is good and you can get a mix of homestyle Vietnamese dishes and also get some better known dishes such as pho or banh xeo.
5. Song Que Deli – This is a very popular deli because the food they serve is convenient to pick up for take out. They have a small dining area where you can eat, but it is very casual. This is pretty much a fast food joint. They make good sandwiches and also carry a wide variety of other convenient food such as spring rolls, rice patties with mung beans and shrimp, or rice with grilled chicken. They are also popular because they serve bubble tea and icy fruit drinks as well as a bunch of good desserts.
6. Thanh Son Tofu – This is my favorite shop in Eden Center. They have a special counter just for fried tofu where they serve regular fried tofu, fried lemongrass tofu and fried mushroom tofu. I love going there and getting $5 of fried tofu that I will eat with jasmine rice and the food will last me for days. They also sell fresh soybean milk and they have a counter of che (Vietnamese desserts.)
7. Huong Viet – This place is a “hole in the wall” treasure. They only take cash, customer service sucks, but their Bun Thit Nuong rocks. It is one of those restaurants that you only take people who you trust won’t be a poor sport and will just a enjoy the establishment for its delicious food.
8. Viet Bistro – Similar to Viet Royale. It’s a nicer place to eat, the service is good and the food is decent. It is located closer to Wilson Boulevard and away from the high traffic of Eden Center’s popular shops. I’ve never had to wait for a table at this restaurant and yet it always has enough customers to make me feel assured that I’m not eating at a dud of a restaurant. The baby clams with herbs and fried rice cracker is a delicious and fun dish to eat if you are eating in a group. The cha gio is fried to a golden brown and they don’t skimp on the meaty filling.
9. Saigon Cafe – This restaurant is across Wilson Boulevard from Eden Center. They focus on “Hue Style” food and I love going here for their appetizers. They serve banh beo, rice patties topped with dried shrimp and bits of fried pork fat and drizzled with fish sauce. They are served in tiny, shallow bowls which makes eating it fun. Their Bun Bo Hue is filling and a good alternative if you want something hot but want something other than a bowl of pho. This broth is rich with lemongrass, pork and beef flavors.