Something about strip malls is strangely pleasurable to me. I can’t say I’m a friend of urban sprawl – I’ll gladly take any opportunity to put in a bad word for Southern California’s paved-earth landscape – but I can’t deny that I’m one of its hungriest disciples. Most of my best meals have been served behind the soulless face of a strip mall storefront, conveniently parked next to a beauty salon, a 7-11 and whatever else one story of local business can muster. Despite my love for New York, walking out of a crowded urban restaurant and into the city lights will never be more comforting than walking out of a strip mall joint and into the lazy, expansive arms of a suburban parking lot.
It helps if that parking lot is crowned by an enormous Vietnamese flag, as is the case at Eden Center in Northern Virginia. Just outside the reach of the District of Columbia, Eden Center is an expansive shopping complex built entirely of Vietnamese restaurants, bakeries, cafes, bars, grocers, jewelers, DVD shops, and at least one beauty salon. While it does attract visitors from miles around (most in search of a great bowl of pho), the shopping center is mainly a bastion of immigrant life for the sizable yet proportionally small Vietnamese population of Falls Church.
For one standstill afternoon, it was also a delicious haven from the bustle of city life for two friends from suburban California. The Examiner and I started off our visit to the Eden Center with lunch at Huong Viet Restaurant, which had been recommended as a good source of just about anything. While I was tempted to order butter fried frog legs or a bowl of pho, I eventually settled on a dish that had been plastered to the menu on a small, white sticker: bún riêu.
Described only as “tomato and crab soup with vermicelli,” Huong Viet’s bún riêu was immensely more than the sticker had suggested. Fried tofu. Slices of chicken. Mysteriously gelatinous cubes of congealed pigs’ blood. Freshly halved and stewed tomatoes, weeping sweet, ripe flavor. Finely minced, delicately spiced crab meat sprinkled atop, along with a sparing palmful of leeks and cilantro. All concealed a heap of silky, weightless, thinly strung noodles and bathed in an intoxicatingly pure tomato broth with the clean-yet-hearty consistency of a good chicken soup.
My first dance with bún riêu knocked me off my feet. The next step, then, was coffee – by which I mean Vietnamese coffee, poured thickly out of a steel tea kettle, mixed with a dose of condensed milk so liberal that it was practically Communist, iced and served in styrofoam. We took our coffees to the smoking section of Nha Trang, a hole in the wall space that managed to defy the relevance of everything outside its door.
There, the cafe’s proprietor lounged alone, drag in hand, paying equally idle attention to his video poker game and to the pop singers belting out love ballads on the local pan-Asian variety TV showcase. About an hour after he had prepared himself a disposable plate of Flaming Hot Cheetos and salted peanuts, two of his friends showed up to challenge the man’s Xiangqi skills. We gamed at our respective tables, drinking coffee, snacking on Vietnamese pastries and filling ash trays until the afternoon had successfully whiled itself away. We moseyed out of the Saigon East shopping corridor, slightly hazy with cigarette smoke, and resumed eating.
Short on stomach space, we opted for bánh mi to conclude our stay at Eden Center. Bánh Mi So 1 and Bánh Mi Catina Bakery both got the job done, but the latter was more resplendent in its offerings, housing all manners of breads, pastries, confections and drinks in addition to a full variety of classic Vietnamese sandwiches. The bakery’s steamed pork buns were particularly tasty, filled with peppery shredded pork rather than the crimson char siu of their Chinese counterparts. Sesame fried dough was available for two bits. Coffee was still three dollars and still outrageously strong.
The bánh mi we had that day didn’t reach the forbidden highs of Huong Viet, but they were plenty satisfying. Even though I can get better sandwiches here in the city, I won’t be able to enjoy them quite as much as I did in the hallways of Eden Center, where, thanks to the right combination of immigrant food and native outgrowth, walking the land of a strip mall will always be true.
|Huong Viet Restaurant
6785 Wilson Blvd
Falls Church, VA 22044
|Banh Mi So 1
6799 Wilson Blvd, #4
Falls Church, VA 22042
|Banh Mi Catina Bakery
6755 Wilson Blvd, # 10-11
Falls Church, VA 22044