After 12 years and countless bubble teas and banh mis, the Eden Center's Song Que deli will close Sept. 15, marking the official end of the Lai family's relationship with the shopping-and-dining district that transformed a pair of poor immigrants into two of the most successful Vietnamese restaurateurs in the Washington area.
Rumors of Song Que's demise have been circulating for nearly a year, but Thuan Lai, manager of Song Que, confirmed Monday that the Falls Church deli's days are numbered. The lease expires next month, he said, and his parents, Kim Lai and Thanh Tran, are taking the opportunity to retire, so they can enjoy their golden years free from the stress of overseeing either restaurant or deli.
"It took a toll on them," Thuan Lai said about his parents. His mother, in particular, spent hours preparing or overseeing the production of everything from Vietnamese desserts to Vietnamese tofu plates at Song Que. "Her mind wants to work," Thuan Lai added, "but her body doesn't let her."
Since leaving Vietnam in the early '80s to start life anew in the United States, Kim Lai and Thanh Tran have built not one, but two of the most iconic establishments at the Eden Center. In the early 1990s, the couple opened their first restaurant, a place then known as Huong Que — or "taste of home" in Vietnamese. The restaurant has since morphed into the English-only Four Sisters (named for the couple's daughters who once helped run the place) and moved to the Merrifield Town Center, where it officially enjoys mainstream status. A decade later, the couple launched the casual Song Que, which eventually took over the former Huong Que/Four Sisters space when the restaurant relocated to Merrifield in 2008.
Both places have received plenty of mainstream attention during their time at the Vietnamese shopping center: “It’s not a single dish that makes Huong Que stand out from the crowd,” former Washington Post restaurant critic Phyllis Richman wrote in 1997. "Instead, it’s the bountiful choices.” Anthony Bourdain sent his "No Reservations" crew to Song Que for a segment during a tour of the Washington region in 2008. (Full disclosure: I worked with Bourdain's producers to plan some of that show.) Song Que's success has led to countless imitators at Eden Center, which now has more than 10 establishments that offer sandwiches, snacks, baked goods and bubble teas.
Song Que's future is unknown, Thuan Lai said. It may eventually be relaunched at a different location, but in the meantime, some of the deli's most popular banh mi sandwiches can be found at Four Sisters Grill, a fast-casual shop that opened this spring in Clarendon. Song Que's famous line of bubble teas will soon follow the sandwiches over to Clarendon, Thuan Lai added.
At 65, Thanh Tran has spent the past 20-plus years working in restaurants and delis in Falls Church and Merrifield. She was already feeling nostalgic as her final days clicked off at Song Que. She never got the chance to meet and thank Richman personally for bringing Huong Que to the attention of readers — and changing her family's fortunes in the process. In her broken English, she said she would miss Eden Center when she finally walked away from it next month.
And what does she plan to do with her retirement? She said she'll do what she does every morning: Check on things at Four Sisters in Merrifield.