One thing I’ve noticed about DC is that it is an epic, EPIC event to go grocery shopping. There are no bodegas, no corner stores, no little delis or random markets tucked into places that wouldn’t necessarily qualify as a storage closet. It’s weird that in a city this wealthy that there aren’t more easily accessibly places to get fresh food. Compare this to New York, with it’s kickass bodegas, 24-hour organic markets and countless fruit stands—fresh food is everywhere, even though most people have kitchens the size of postage stamps. It makes cooking here in the District a pain because you have to plan everything out in advance—no dashing across the street or around the corner to grab the one thing you forgot. Another thing that drives me crazy (and then I’ll stop kvetching) is that there aren’t even any ethnic markets in the District (please, PLEASE correct me if I’m wrong!). I relied wholeheartedly on a little Korean market across the street to get all of my fresh produce when I lived in Brooklyn, sometimes going there multiple times a day. Asian markets have always been my favorite for the bounty of produce, spices, and the ability to pick something up because it looks interesting and hope for the best. In the market situation, NYC=massive win over DC.
But … I’ve found something DC does better than New York. Like, a lot better. Granted, it’s a 15 minute walk, 20 minute metro ride and another 20 minute walk away, but I like to think of all of the transit as prep work for a marathon eating session. And where is this mythical, far-off place? Not that far, actually, if you have a car … Eden Center, in Falls Church, VA. And what does it do better than New York? Vietnamese food. I know, I know, it’s sacrilege, saying that New York is lacking in a certain cuisine (especially Asian cuisine), but really, I’m not the first person who’s said it. Though of course now I can’t find that article, so you’re just going to have to trust me on this one.
Eden Center is a big, occasionally warren-like maze of shops, bakeries, restaurants, more bakeries, and more restaurants. It does boast one traditional-style market, but you go there more for the eating than the buying of things to make later. But enough of me talking … time for FOOD!
Oh, also, it should be noted that my partner in food crime, Jing, was with me for this excursion, and it was her Droid, patience with me and excellent directional skills that prevented us from ending up Delaware.
First up was Ngoc Anh—which actually ended up being the food highlight of the day. There was a huge hot food bar, a menu for eating in the restaurant and a large number of Styrofoam cases with room temperature items ready for takeaway. Jing and I picked out two takeaway items but ended up eating them in the restaurant. First, we had a thick rice crepe, filled with dried shrimp, fresh scallions, crispy shredded green papaya topped off with crispy fried scallions. We dipped them into a clear, liquidy sauce— not sure exactly what was in it, but there were definitely chilies, sugar, and a healthy dose of fish sauce. The crepe was perfectly chewy and the flavors were so fresh and clean, salty, spicy, a little sweet with a ton of umami—exactly what I love about Vietnamese food.
The second item we got was a summer roll. To be clear, I love summer rolls. Love. Them. I make, really, really good ones, but for anyone who has made them before, they’re kind of labor intensive, and they taste just that much better when they’re made for you … even if you know that yours actually would win in a contest. Anyway, having eaten our share of summer rolls, we zeroed in on one that was a little different from the norm: it had the standard basil and mint with the delicate rice wrapper, but inside was an ultra-thin sheet of turmeric-dyed egg along with dried shrimp, Chinese sausage and more green papaya. The peanut sauce served with it was dark and smoky—heavier than what the standard gỏi cuốn would call for but perfect for this version.
You can just see how fresh the ingredients are.
From there, we stopped in a few different places, scoping each out before deciding where to make our purchases. There were a ton of places selling a selection of hot foods, but we didn’t want to overdo it our first hour there. We visited just before the Moon Festival and stacks of mooncake tins crowded every shop and bakery. Everywhere seemed to sell dragonfruit, steamed buns, rambutan, and green mangoes.
Next we stopped at Huong Binh Bakery and Deli, where we got a steamed bun made with pandan, filled with seasoned chicken. Pandan is actually a leaf, and it’s extremely aromatic—the compound that gives jasmine and basmati rices their scent is also found in pandan. The taste is … well, it’s pandan. Slightly perfumey … hints of coconut and pineapple … it’s entirely unique and is complemented by either sweet or savory notes. If you’ve ever seen an alarmingly green cake in an Asian bakery, it’s flavored and scented with pandan.
don't be scared by the green.
Don’t let the color scare you off, because it’s actually really good. Most of the time. While this bun was promising initially, it had lost its appeal once we got it home.
The following bakery, Song Que, was far more satisfying (it’s owned by the Four Sisters). I got a pillowy sponge cake, which was light and fluffy on the outside but still moist and a little gooey on the inside—exactly the way I like it. Look at the delicate structure of the cake—the very center should feel a little bit cool and moist (ick. I hate that word so if I use it, it’s significant) when you touch it so you know it hasn’t been over-baked.
I also got jackfruit, which is one of my all-time favorite fruits. It has notes of pineapple, coconut and an aftertaste of cinnamon. It’s highly aromatic, and is enormous and beastly to look at (like a warty pineapple on steroids). It’s not always easy to find fresh, let alone cut into manageable pieces, so when I saw this waiting for me, I pounced. I hadn’t had jackfruit this good since I was in India. The little fruit parcels you see here are all clustered inside the rind of the jackfruit and you just pop them off. The flesh is firm but smooth—totally different from any other texture food I’ve ever had. Inside is a huge seed that you chuck away—just be careful not to break a tooth on it.
I also got a steamed bun filled with a sweet and salty egg custard. Not exactly a health food, but ohmygod so good … There were tons of other foods I wanted to try there—lots of Bún dishes, more summer rolls, bubble teas, frozen ices, Bánh mì… but I exercised self control. Mainly because I want to have something new to try the next time I go back.
We also found some funny translation errors (or typos?).
monk beans are delicious.
Our last purchase was at Phước Lộc. I was tempted by the barbecued pork buns because they’re kind of like crack to me, but I decided to try something new and got two sticky rice rolls wrapped in banana leaves.
One had a banana filling, the other mung bean.
Jing got grilled sticky rice …
… filled with banana.
We had high hopes … but the banana tasted really, really odd … kind of fermented and boozy and not in a good way. The mung bean one was okay though. At least they’re pretty to look at. We returned home full (stuffed, even) but overall very, very happy with the day’s eating.
If you want to know more about Vietnamese food, I’d suggest checking out Andrea Nguyen’s blog, Viet World Kitchen. Wikipedia is also a great resource. Or, you know, you could just eat some and learn as you go– experiential learning, if you will.