Biting through the bready crust, my tastebuds hit the sweet-spot; perfectly cooked tofu nestled under a bed of fish sauce-soaked cucumber, coriander and chilli neatly topped with pickled carrot and white radish. Who knew that in the bland suburbs of northern Virginia, 15,000km from Hanoi, I would find such banh mi perfection?
It had been three weeks since I left Hanoi and, in the midst of visiting my in-laws in the Washington, DC area, I was starting to experience fish sauce withdrawal. So with husband and mother-in-law in tow, we headed out in search of lunch. Boasting over 80,000 Vietnamese-Americans and a large population of Vietnamese students and professionals, the Washington, DC metro area, including swaths of Maryland and Northern Virginia, hosts the fourth-largest Vietnamese population in the United States. Finding authentic Vietnamese food that matched our Hanoi dining expectations was the easy part, deciding where to eat first proved more difficult.
In Search of Eden
As karaoke blasts from a nearby music store and women in ao dai chat in Vietnamese, we join hundreds of customers for a sunny Sunday afternoon at the Eden Center, a Vietnamese food and retail hub in Falls Church, Virginia. Opening as a small shopping mall 40 years ago — it took its name from the famous Eden Mall built in Saigon in the 1930s — Eden Center is now a 120-store complex that, according to its website, “is a home away from home and the heart and soul of the Vietnamese-American community for the entire East Coast”.
“Steaming bowls of pho, bitter melon and rambutan, the hint of air-borne fish sauce, the smell of burning joss — it’s Falls Church, Virginia?” exclaims Anthony Bourdain, famed American TV personality, during a 2009 airing of his food and travel show, No Reservations. With a large parking lot twice the size of the retail space, a central shopping mall and an American flag flying at the gate, Eden Center has all the trimmings of a great American strip mall. Yet the stores selling an assortment of Vietnamese goodies such as karaoke DVDs, jade bracelets, herbal medicines and of course banh mi, are quintessential Vietnam.
Anchoring the centre is a central clock tower designed as an exact replica of the timepiece on the front entrance of Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City. Although silk lanterns hang in the dim light of the small hallways and tables selling CDs, dragon masks and lucky charms line the walls, this indoor market place is much smaller and quieter that its Vietnamese counterpart. As we wander the hallways, my mother-in-law eagerly enters the large Asian grocery store and joins the Vietnamese women perusing the isles for dried shrimp, fish sauce and an assortment of crackers. Tropical fruits piled high on tables and the daily prices of nhan and mang cut are painted colourfully on the shop windows.
“Eden is now, of course, the centre of the Vietnamese universe in the area. It has been that way for years, and yet the place still packs surprises,” says Tim Carmen, a renowned ethnic food writer in the DC area.
Not knowing where to start, we decide to try Song Que, a small café and deli that was famous for its banh mi and sweets long before Bourdain gave it the thumbs up. Although the majority of diners are Vietnamese, Song Que, like many of the other Eden Center establishments, attracts customers of all backgrounds. Recently named ’DC’s Best Shopping Centre’ by the Washington City Paper, Eden Center is the go-to place to experience the region’s thriving Vietnamese community.
“The smells, sounds and sights in here are alien to most non-Asian Americans, but this place offers a chance to experience another part of the world and be back home by nightfall,” writes one Yelp reviewer who explains that he would have given it five stars (instead of four) except that the parking lot was nerve-wracking and a little too authentic Vietnam.
While sitting on a sunny bench enjoying my banh mi, I strike up a conversation with a college-aged girl whose parents had emigrated from Vietnam.
“Whenever we need food, we come here” says Lisa as she waits for her family outside a takeout restaurant. “It’s the best. We have family friends who drive for hours just to visit Eden.”
Although Lisa was born and raised in the DC area, she says she is proud of her Vietnamese roots and loved growing up with Vietnamese heritage. “Mum only cooks Vietnamese food at home,” she says, “and we celebrate all the holidays within the Vietnamese community.”
As we bond over our love for banh xeo and a good bowl of pho, I am reminded again of the uniting power of food and the opportunity it provides to understand foreign cultures.
Meet me at Minh’s
A few days earlier, my husband and I met our former Vietnamese teacher, Van Anh, for lunch at Minh’s Restaurant in Arlington, Virginia. She had suggested the restaurant, explaining that it was her favourite and a popular meeting spot among her friends. While the majority of Vietnamese restaurants in the region specialise in southern and central Vietnamese cuisine, Minh’s is famous for being the only northern Vietnamese restaurant in the area. Originally from Hanoi, Mr. Minh’s extensive menu serves a combination of his northern specialities, along with favourites of his wife, who is originally from the south. “It doesn’t matter where we’re from,” says Mr. Minh, taking a break from cooking, “as long as we can make and eat good food together.”
Over plates of lemongrass tofu, green papaya salad and snails, Van Anh discusses Washington’s Vietnamese community and reminisces about life in Hanoi.
“I have many Vietnamese friends who live near me and we see each other every week for parties,” she says. “We always bring Vietnamese food to eat.”
There are also yearly celebrations of all the major Vietnamese holidays. Both the Eden Center and Vietnam House, the cultural centre attached to the Vietnamese Embassy, hold major Tet parties, and all festivals are celebrated throughout the community.
Although Van Anh loves her life in Washington, she says she hopes one day to move home to where family and friends are plentiful and there is less concern about money. “Despite all the difficulties, I enjoy living here for now, but I feel mentally safer back in Hanoi,” she explains, referring to the lower cost of living and her strong support network back in Vietnam. “There is a very tight Vietnamese community here, but everyone is so busy, we have to make appointments just to see each other.”
Back at the Eden Center, we sit in the sun watching the throngs of visitors shop for their favourite foods, visit the many beauty salons, and catch up with old friends. Besides me, my mother-in-law is eagerly finishing her banh mi, her previous trepidation at ordering the strange sounding food long forgotten.
Not Just a Sandwich
“It’s just a warm sandwich,” I had reassured her as the server passed over the tightly-wrapped, fragrant package. But the delight in her eyes as she finishes the final mouthful of lemongrass beef tells me that she did not consider this “just a sandwich”.
“How have I never had this before?” she exclaims, grinning. “If this is Vietnam, then I can’t wait to get there.”
Navigating our way among the cars in the parking lot, Vietnamese melodies ring in our ears, and the sweet taste of fish sauce lingers on our tongues.