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.