Taste of Saigon

$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

Eden Center in Falls Church is undoubtedly the epicenter of Vietnamese cuisine in Fairfax County. The shopping center has an amazing variety of food purveyors, from tiny kitchens that specialize in sandwiches or soup to the area's best-known Vietnamese restaurant, Huong Que, also known as Four Sisters.

But Eden Center is not the only place to find good Vietnamese food in the county. For more than 11 years, the Tu family has been serving excellent fare at Taste of Saigon in Tysons Corner.

The restaurant is a sibling of a similarly named establishment in Rockville, which was opened by Phat Hong Tu and his wife, Ba Thi Nguyen -- known as Ma and Pa Tu -- in 1990. The couple, who for years operated a restaurant in Saigon, fled their homeland after the Vietnam War. Fifteen years after they arrived in this country, they realized their dream of opening another.

Over the years, with the deaths of Tu and Nguyen, ownership of the two restaurants has passed to a second generation -- two sons, a daughter and one of the son's wives are now the four principals in the business -- and the third generation also is actively involved in both locations.

It is a sauce, devised by Nguyen and still a closely held family secret, that is the single best reason for seeking out Taste of Saigon in a canyon among Tysons Corner high-rises.

The sauce goes by the slight misnomer of black pepper sauce. Don't be put off by the name. It's not fiery, and black pepper isn't a main ingredient. Even Ken Tu -- a grandson and a manager of the Tysons Corner location -- says he doesn't know what's in the sauce. It seems to be based on the Vietnamese caramel sauce called kho, which is a staple of the cuisine. But it's more and seems to embody all the tastes of the East: sweet and sour and salty, all at once. With just a hint of pepper. A colleague says she could eat cardboard, if it were covered with this condiment.

There are several ways you can try this sauce: with luscious golden shrimp, succulent sea scallops, fresh lobster (see them in tanks at the entry) or over soft-shell crabs.

The restaurant's interior, sleek and angular with a bi-level dining space, marble tables and Vietnamese artifacts in lighted showcases, looks a little tired these days.

Workers from nearby office buildings fill the dining room at lunchtime. Area residents, and visitors in nearby hotels, make up the evening clientele.

Ken Tu, or his cousin and general manager Tong Tu, is likely to greet you. He or the amiable servers gladly describe the dishes and make suggestions for those unfamiliar with the long list of entrees on the menu.

I think pho, the traditional beef soup, is probably best left to restaurants that specialize in it (and there are many in the region). The crabmeat and asparagus soup is a little too glutinous, but the bowl is brimming with crab bits and tender asparagus. The Angel Wings -- chicken wings formed into small drumstick shapes and stuffed with crabmeat -- were bland.

Spring rolls (cha gio) -- crispy and stuffed with ground pork, crab, shrimp, cellophane noodles, carrots and onions -- suggest home cooking rather than a restaurant preparation. Saigon-style dumplings -- the restaurant's version of pan-fried dumplings -- are a consistent winner. As is the grilled lemongrass beef -- tender slices of meat threaded onto a skewer and grilled.

The Saigon crepe (banh xeo) is a favorite of mine, and Taste of Saigon's rendition is flawless -- a plate-size egg crepe encloses small shrimp, slivers of white meat chicken and lots of bean sprouts, and is served with a tangy fish sauce (nuoc nam). It's a meal in itself.

Vietnamese steak -- cubes of beef cooked with butter, garlic and wine served on a bed of salad with rice -- is a favorite of customers, along with the caramel fish (ca kho to), which is cooked and served in a pot. Ken Tu said his family usually eats the latter dish, which is made with catfish, with the Saigon-style hot and sour soup (canh chua tom hoac ca).

Saigon beef stew (bo kho) is something like pot roast, only the meat is simmered with chili and a five-spice sauce that gives it a rich red mahogany color.

The noodle dishes are among the more traditional offerings and among the least expensive. A mixed salad is at the base of these dishes, then a generous layer of vermicelli noodles topped with a variety of meats, seafood, spring rolls and even curried chicken. Other Vietnamese specialties include shrimp paste on sugar cane -- shrimp pounded to a paste, wrapped around short lengths of sugar cane and grilled. To eat the dish, remove some of the shrimp paste from the cane and wrap it in a lettuce leaf with pickled carrot and sprigs of cilantro.

Taste of Saigon may not have the throbbing authenticity of Eden Center, but it's a refined way to acquaint yourself with Vietnamese cooking.

--Nancy Lewis (June 28, 2007)