A reward found deep in Eden
By Tim Carman
Friday, March 8, 2013
Chef Nguyen Lee is standing next to our table, sporting an ivory-colored sweater vest splotched with food stains of an unknown vintage. They could have been produced this morning; they could be spills from 20 years ago. A 78-year-old Vietnamese native, Lee barely speaks a lick of English but is conversing in her native tongue with Vanessa Vuong, one of my tablemates at Nha Trang, a seemingly standard-issue eatery buried deep inside the Eden Center in Falls Church.
Before I know what’s happened, a plate of fresh rolls has appeared at our table as if the two women -- old friends, it turns out -- could read my thoughts like they were tattooed on my forehead. I had been pining for this appetizer since the first time I tried it at Nha Trang some two weeks earlier. These Vietnamese rolls (called nem nuong cuon Ninh Hoa, which roughly means “grilled pork rolls from Ninh Noa”) are unlike any I’ve sampled before, precise marvels of engineering that Lee and the kitchen must construct fresh with each order.
The rolls are not tied gastronomically to any season -- spring, summer or autumn. Yet they’re rooted in something just as immutable: a Vietnamese cook’s drive to layer flavors, textures and temperatures in each bite. The soft, translucent rice paper quickly gives way to a strip of grilled pork, cool aromatic greens, a slender spear of cucumber, pickled slivers of carrot and an egg roll wrapper that has been rolled around a stalk of green onion and deep fried. On first bite, the crunch is a total shock, a rattling of the molars amid the more forgiving and fragrant morsels packed inside this Vietnamese missile.
The rolls, like Lee herself, hail from central Vietnam. So does much of the food at Nha Trang, a restaurant whose name is borrowed from a city on the south-central coast of the country. The name, as it turns out, is purely coincidental. Owner Minh Dao, Lee’s 57-year-old daughter, simply kept the handle of the previous restaurant when she opened her version of Nha Trang in 2005.
Nha Trang is a classic Eden Center box : a functional room of white tile and pale walls, adorned haphazardly with Vietnamese lanterns, artificial plants and massive mirrors to provide the illusion of space. The focal point is a giant deep-sea mural that practically covers one wall, but the painting’s inherent dignity is drowned out by a circle of flatscreen televisions that loom overhead, broadcasting talk shows, reality programs and, on one visit, a family wedding video. (My take-away: Def Leppard packs the dance floor even at a Vietnamese reception.)
The Washington area may boast a sizable Vietnamese community, but as I sit with Vuong and her friend Sylvie Nguyen-Fawley, I’m reminded that it’s a small world, too. Chef Lee and Vuong met decades ago, when Vuong worked at the Pacific Oriental Department Store in Clarendon, long before that area become a hot spot for the late-model Beamer set. Pacific, carved out of the old Lerner Department Store, was the Eden Center before the Eden Center. You could dine, shop and buy furniture there.
Eden is now, of course, the center of the Vietnamese universe in the area. It has been that way for years, and yet the place still packs surprises: like Nha Trang, a vibrant jewel tucked inside the dull, decrepit Saigon East building.
I visited Nha Trang twice before I invited food enthusiast Nguyen-Fawley and her longtime friend Vuong, an experienced home cook who speaks Vietnamese, to join me (since my own tableside investigations had resulted in either blank stares or informational dead ends). Even before the pair’s insights and guidance on Vietnamese cooking, however, I was struck by so many plates here. Prime among them was com tay cam chay, a vegetarian hot pot brimming with fried tofu, broccoli, snow peas, mushrooms and scallions, all on a bed of rice that had been scorched on the bottom. When plucked from the base of the pot, the clumps of rice were sweet, savory and sticky, like Vietnamese brittle. Dinner and dessert all in one.
You could easily satisfy your appetite on Nha Trang’s appetizers alone -- and not just those rolls served with a gelatinous, mango-colored dipping sauce, at once sweet and fishy and suffused with umami goodness. The addictive, cross-cultural bo tai chanh is a mash-up of beef tartare and seviche, a hearty portion of lightly grilled, almost raw beef doused in citrus and served with slices of red onions, fresh herbs, chopped peanuts and crispy rice chips. The goi muc salad is plated much the same way: Sweet and chewy ringlets of pearly white squid are surrounded with rice chips and buried under herbs and chopped nuts, a playground of textures for your mouth.
A fair number of Nha Trang’s dishes arrive in oversize bowls filled with liquids of such complexity that it’s almost impossible to suss out every flavor. The noodles can vary from bowl to bowl as well. The house-made strands sunk into my pork-intensive mi quang soup are tinted yellow not from eggs, but from turmeric, while the rice noodles in my pho Nha Trang dac biet are the garden variety found in any Vietnamese beef soup -- except these have absorbed the sweet, anise-scented flavors of a broth enriched with oxtail bones and meat. This is steroids-era pho.
Nha Trang also makes the noodles ferried in my bowl of banh canh cha ca, a seafood soup swimming with fish cakes and small pieces of catfish fillets; the fat strands, alas, have been cooked past their prime chewiness or perhaps don’t include enough (or any) tapioca flour to provide the proper texture. Whatever the case, the noodles still serve as effective sponges, absorbing the light, golden broth impeccably built from chicken, pork and dried seafood. The nuoc mam sauce at my elbow mellows and intensifies each piece of fish I dunk in it.
As we happily slurp our soups, I tell my tablemates that if Nha Trang were in one of the prime storefronts that face a parking lot here, this restaurant would be a star, the next Four Sisters of the Eden Center. Vuong smiles knowingly and then informs me that chef Lee just told her the same thing.