FOOD: Another Asian Restaurant? Wait, Huong Viet’s Worth It
Even though I’ve only been with the Falls Church Times for a few months, I’ve already written two stories about Vietnamese restaurants in the area. And no, it’s not because I’m obsessed with Vietnamese food (although I do like it immensely). The simple fact is that many of the most interesting, affordable places to eat around these parts happen to be serving food from that small Southeast Asian nation. We’ve got the Eden Center to create healthy competition and a sizeable Vietnamese community that demands good food at a good price.
So that’s my justification for a third article on a Vietnamese spot. This time, the subject of my praise is Huong Viet, an Eden Center landmark more than two decades old. Like most Eden Center spots, the small café isn’t much to look at, but the spirited cooking is all that matters. With its deep and varied menu of classic dishes, Huong Viet is the first place that comes to mind when I crave simple, straightforward Vietnamese food.
More specifically, though, it’s the first place that comes to mind when I crave cha gio, or spring rolls. When done well, they are one of the great fried foods in the culinary world. Huong Viet stands alone on the cha gio pedestal, boasting delicately fried torpedoes of rice paper-wrapped ground pork with all accompaniments that make them so wonderful; cilantro, lettuce, pickled carrots, and the ubiquitous salty-sweet-sour-spicy fish sauce dip called nuoc cham. Wrap the greaseless rolls in lettuce and herbs, dip them in nuoc cham (spiked with some chilies at the table if you like some heat) and it’s only a matter of time before you flag down your waiter for a second order.
But don’t fill up on the addictive appetizer too much; otherwise you’ll miss out on some eye-opening entrees.
Just about anything that comes off the grill is a good bet. More than half the menu is made up of marinated grilled meats (pork, beef, chicken, or shrimp) served in different styles. The popular bun dishes involve chilled rice noodles, herbs, peanuts, and cucumbers with your choice of meat. The lemongrass-spiked beef is particularly sweet and smoky, and delicious when tossed with nuoc cham and the noodles and veggies.
Bahn hoi platters are a little more exotic than bun bowls but more fun to eat. Order one and the first thing to arrive will be a bowl of hot water and a plate of dried rice paper sheets. Soon after a generous spread of grilled meat, herbs, lettuce, steamed rice vermicelli patties, peanuts, scallions, cucumbers and carrots will appear. The idea is to dip the rice sheets in the hot water for a few seconds to soften them — maybe 10 seconds or less, depending on the heat of the water — and then assemble a taco-ish concoction to be bathed in nuoc cham or peanut sauce. It’s the best kind of eating I can think of. Diners can add the herbs of their choosing (I highly recommend at least a few leaves of fragrant Thai basil), pile as much meat and rice noodles as they like, and dip or not dip at their own discretion.
Stir fries are another strong point of the kitchen, especially those leaning towards the chili-happy cooking of southern Vietnam. Chicken with lemongrass and chilies is a classic dish, but here it’s even better when prepared with plump shrimp. Also tasty is a plate of chicken with chilies and ginger. When the dish appears on the table it’s rather tame looking — nothing more than a pile of dark meat and onions in a pool of watery brown sauce. But one bite and you are hooked. Assertively spicy and salty, it must be eaten with copious amounts of rice to be properly enjoyed. Once you find the right balance of rice to meat to sauce the flavors will be etched in your memory.
With such a huge menu, there are bound to be a few misses. In past visits I’ve had my share of poor dishes. The floppy crepe known as banh xeo was too greasy and heavy to finish, and the salty-sweet caramel pork, while swimming in a tasty sauce, was unappealingly chewy. Most offensive was the sweet and sour shrimp soup, which I’d read good things about but could barely stomach because of its candy-like sweetness.
But those are mere blips on the radar. For the most part this is an astonishingly consistent restaurant. I feel at ease exploring the menu and have barely begun to delve into the intriguing soups I see so many Vietnamese families enjoying when I eat there (though I wouldn’t get pho, I reserve that for pho-only establishments).
So if you’ve lived in Falls Church forever and haven’t mustered up the courage to navigate the crazy parking lot at the Eden Center, I encourage you to head over there and make a stop at Huong Viet. Bring plenty of cash (it doesn’t take credit cards) and make sure to start your order with two words — cha gio.
By Jimmy Scarano
September 4, 2009