Yesterday morning, I had the privilege of being a guest on a the Kojo Nnamdi radio show, which airs on NPR affiliate station WAMU 88.5FM in Washington, D.C. Kojo has been doing a great series called “The Local Restaurant World Tour” to explore the international food scene. For the segment on Vietnamese cuisine, he invited me, executive chef Hoa Lai of Four Sisters Restaurant and restaurant reviewer Todd Kliman of Washingtonian magazine. We spent the hour discuss Vietnamese food culture, the Vietnamese community in Washington, D.C. and northern Virginia, as well as ingredients and where to eat Viet food there. I contributed my knowledge of Vietnamese food ways and history and in turn, I learned lots from the show hosts and other guests. Highlights included:
East Coast Vietnamese Central
With 17 Vietnamese bakeries and 30 restaurants, Eden Center (Falls Church, Virginia) is the culinary hub of the Vietnamese community in the D.C., northern Virginia area. Many Viet refugees ended up there after 1975, a reflection of the many personal and professional connections that people had with the U.S. government. The D.C. and surrounding area is home to about 45,000 Vietnamese-Americans, the largest concentration in the eastern part of the United States.
The Eden Center got its Vietnamese push beginning in 1984. This photo, taken from the center's site, includes the iconic Saigon clock tower at Ben Thanh Market, which they've replicated in Falls Church. "The Eden Center is now like is like the catacombs," Kliman says. “There are so many Vietnamese businesses. You can buy phone cards, go to nail shops, and see people drinking and playing cards. I’ve spent whole days wandering through the Eden Center and eating 4 or 5 small meals there.” My kind of day.
Breakaway Viet Restaurants
Lai and his family began selling hot dogs and pretzels to tourists in the D.C. area and eventually decided to open up a small Vietnamese restaurant. Four Sisters is the Lai family’s flagship restaurant and business. They also operate a deli and other food-related businesses. What’s interesting is that Four Sisters recently moved from the Eden Center space to Merrifield Town Center, also in Falls Church. “Customers complained about how difficult it was to park at Eden Center so we moved to Merrifield,” Lai said. “Now we can bring Vietnamese food to another area, and people feel more comfortable going to our restaurant.”
Vietnamese restaurants locating themselves away from the Eden Center hub reflects the growing popularity and mainstreaming of Vietnamese food. (Hey, pho is in the dictionary now so I don’t have to use all the accent marks!) Four Sisters, Present, and Minh’s are the three ‘breakaway’ restaurants noted by Kliman and Lai. Author and D.C. resident Monica Bhide informed me a while back that Present was quite good. On the show, Kliman said that the chef does wonderful banquet-style food. Present’s menu is full of fanciful English descriptors but I’d be willing to try it out; it helps that they have Vietnamese on the menu too.
Authenticity in Vietnamese Cooking
The Lai family is Chinese-Vietnamese and Hoa came to the U.S. when he was 5 years old. When he went back to Vietnam, he realized that the food there was different than the food he grew up with the United States. “I like simple food and my philosophy is that I make what I know is authentic and in a homemade style,” Hoa said. Authenticity, Kliman noted, is a tough thing to pinpoint in food, music, and writing. We’ve had our fair share of discussion on Viet World Kitchen about authentic Vietnamese food, and you know where I stand.
What’s crucial for good food, Kliman noted, is a clustering effect where there’s a bunch of similar types of restaurants in one locale. With such density, businesses compete to produce better food. Diners and the community benefit.
D.C., Virginia Restaurant Recommendations
Along with Four Sisters, Minh’s and Present, there were other restaurants mentioned, such as Pho 75 with its multiple locations in Arlington, Rosslyn and Rockville. Listeners also called in and contributed their favorites. The Kojo Nnamdi show has an interactive map of Viet restaurants in the local for your perusal. I also found a good listing of Falls Church restaurants on Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Dining Guide.
Final Word: The Vietnamese Flag Issue
Yes, on the Kojo Nnamdi restaurant map, the current communist Vietnamese flag is used to demarcate Vietnamese restaurants. Some of you may prefer the former South Vietnam flag but to be consistent with other flags used on the map, I imagine that the show went with what is diplomatically correct. You may not see it as being diplomatic. That’s a future Viet World Kitchen discussion, no?