HOW TO GET THERE To get to Clarendon, drive out Wilson Boulevard until you hit the intersection of Wilson, Washington Boulevard, 10th Street and Irving Street. That's it. Or, wait until December 1 and take the Orange Line to the Clarendon stop. Pacific is directly across the street.
Tucked in among the dry cleaners and doughnut shops of Clarendon is a three-block oasis of exotic sights, sounds and smells that rivals anything downtown. They call it "Little Vietnam" -- a colorful lineup of Oriental gift shops, jewelry stores and groceries that's chaning the face of Arlington's original shopping center.
Back in the '40's and '50's Clarendon was the hottest marketplace in Northern Virginia. It's golden jubilee in 1951 was a three-day celebration ending with a grand parade down Wilson Boulevard with units from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, visiting dignitaries, marching bands and 12 carloads of "princesses." Then came the Beltway, and climate-controlled shopping malls, and one by one the old established shops went out of business.
Enter the Indochinese immigrants, attracted by the low rents and vacant storefronts. Now 10 of the 21 shops between the old Clarendon Circle and Highland Street are Oriental.
Clarendon still has a long way to go before it reaches the charming stage. But that's a large part of its appeal. The unpretentious shops are a respite from slick shopping-mall boutiques, and are great sources for unusual gifts and housewares -- most at very un-mall-like prices.
Start your tour with a cup of coffee or a sandwich at Burkley's Bakery ("Fifty Years in Arlington"), 3209 North Washington Boulevard. "They don't make 'em like this anymore," says longtime customer Rita Andler, waiting for her french fries. She's right. At Burkley's, instead of blond wood and hanging plants the ambiance is worn linoleum. But service is swift and ingredients are fresh, says Andler, who stops by every day from her job at St. Charles' Church down the street.
If you're the type who leaves umbrellas on buses, stop in next door at Ta-Lun Umbrellas and Trading Company (3225 Washington Boulevard) and stock up. At $6 to $8 for automatics and $3.50 for regular styles, you can afford to. Ta-Lun also sells rain hats, jewelry and what you'll soon find to be a Clarendon staple: padded brocade and embroidered jackets from Mainland China, Formosa and Hong Kong.
Clarendon Natural Foods (3200 Wilson Boulevard) is worth a detour across the street -- if you can figure out how to cross it without getting killed. The cars come at you from six directions. Once across, you'll find an open-air market, with fresh fruits and vegetables, mountains of pumpkins and pots of fresh herbs. Munch on some junk health food -- "natural" potato chips? -- while you figure out how to get back across the street.
There are distractions on the way to the Oriental shops. One is Brass Beds at 1114 North Irving, where hand-made, solid brass beds sell for a fraction of what brass-plated versions go for elsewhere. Single beds start at $190 and queen-sized ones at $215.
Antique lovers will want to take a side trip down Irving Street. Gallahan's Antiques, the Whipporwill Shop and Arlington Antiques are packrats' delights. Another good antique shop is up the street at the corner of Hudson and Wilson: The Cupboard, a large, well-stocked store specializing in English imports and packed to the rafters with rockers, clocks, tables, bureaus and washstands. It's open until 5:30 on weekends.
The strip of Vietnamese shops starts with two jewelry stores, Kim Ngoc Jewelry (3171 Wilson Boulevard) and Saigon Souvenirs (3169 Wilson). Kim Ngoc specializes in gold, diamonds, jade, silver and pearls.
Next door, they're making custom suits at Vietnam Custom Tailor (3151 Wilson). Then it's more food at the Saigon Market (3147 Wilson Boulevard), where you can sample some Vietnamese junk food (banana-flavored or shrimp-flavored chips), pick up a 25-pound sack of rice ($9.75) or other, more exotic groceries, ranging from quail eggs to whole roasted ducks.
There's more jewelry at Kim Long Jewelry and Gifts (3143 Wilson), and another good selection of emnbroidered shirts, priced at about $22. The embroidered, beaded lambswool cardigans are beautifully made, and good buys at $40.
The next few stores perfectly capture the essence of Clarendon. Next to the Public Shoe Store, an old establishment catering to the sensible shoe trade, is the Vietnam Center, selling such varied Indochinese staples as fish sauce, French butter biscuits and bolts of silk. That's next to Virginia Amusements (3131 Wilson), a head shop/pinball store/pool parlor, which is next to Dat-Hung Jewelry (3127 Wilson), stocked with the ubiquitous assortment of jade and gold. Topping it all off: a Little Tavern (3125 Wilson).
If you're looking for a can of white jelly fungus in heavy syrup, or an extra packet of bee secretions, Mekong Center (3107 Wilson) is the place to go. This well-stocked Vietnam grocery-gift shop carries lots of kinds of tea and chopsticks (10 pairs for $1.50), as well as a big selection of foreign newspapers and books -- including what look like the Vietnamese version of Harlequin Romances.
Mekong Center also has a great selection of French butter biscuits. LuLu Petit Beurres come in a wonderful rectangular tin decorated with an old Firmin Bouisset illustration. A 1-pound, 14-ounce tin sells for $7.25 and would make a great Christmas present.
Pacific, at the corner of Highland and Wilson, is the largest and most diverse of the shops. Its stock -- bolts of silks and brocades, fancy giftware, clothing and housewares -- comes from China, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Japan. So do about half of its customers. The other half are Westerners, looking for a bargain.
They've come to the right place. Reversible padded jackets of silk and brocade start at $45. Silk blouses from mainland China with covered buttons and hand embroidery are $40. Hand-crocheted sweaters in string-colored wools start at $32. Kimonos come in short, long, brocade, rayon or silk styles and range in price from $17 to $95. The children's cotton pajamas, in sizes 2 to 12, are especially charming, with frog closings and high collars, and cost about $10. Also for kids, padded jackets in S-M-L for $19.
But that's not all. There's chinaware hand-embroidered tablecloths and placemats, handmade Bach-Tuyet dolls in native Vietnamese costumes, ceramic trays, lacquerware, 40 different kinds of tea sets, brassware, cinnabar and jewelry. And a grocery, with the usual packaged goods plus a fresh produce department, selling things like lemon grass, three different kinds of eggplant peppers, ginger, green papaya, and bean sprouts.
Pacific's restaurant upstairs is temporaily closed for remodeling, but it's scheduled to reopen around Thanksgiving. Shoppers can end their day feasting on Vietnamese foods like banh cuons (crepes stuffed with ground beef and mushrooms) or pho (beef soup).