If you have a mind to hitch up the four-wheel drive and explore the new culinary arrivals in Loudoun County's southern suburban frontier, make sure you bring your Asian taste buds.
We consider Broadlands a part of that expanding frontier, although at first glance, it seems to be more of a southern extension of Ashburn. When we dropped by the Broadlands Village Center, we found three restaurants, one Chinese, one Vietnamese and one Japanese.
More restaurants may well be on the way. There are two fairly massive cement block walls under construction in one corner of the shopping center, and a third and fourth wall must surely follow. A work in progress -- future tenants unknown.
After some deliberation, we chose Saigon Star for this visit. It's an unassuming place, with perhaps 15 wooden tables, topped with roses and a bottle that says in two languages that it is hot chili sauce. Scenes of Vietnamese life cover the walls.
Owner Thanh Howard, who is also the chef, opened the place in January. It is, she says, her "dream come true." She looked around a bit before locating in this new shopping center at Broadlands Boulevard and Claiborne Parkway.
There are two dinner menus , one with vegetarian selections, dessert and beverages, and the other covering everything else -- appetizers, seafood, meat and chicken entrees, noodle soups, rice crepes and salads, among other things. There are 88 choices on the second menu.
Howard learned many of the recipes from her mother, who ran a restaurant in Daklak province, in the south of Vietnam, for 30 years. That apparently rubbed off on other members of the family: Howard's sister runs a Chinese restaurant in Arlington County.
Of the 88 selections, 11 come under the heading "Special Pho," the traditional Vietnamese soup. It comes in small or large servings, but be aware that the large one is equivalent to a couple of bowls of soup.
Before we got to all that, however, we discovered that the iced tea was freshly brewed jasmine tea and that the soya bean drink had an earthy and unexpectedly sweet taste.
Our tastes for appetizers ran to vegetarian spring rolls, steamed dumplings and roasted quail. The spring rolls and dumplings arrived without trouble, but the quail must have slipped their minds. Truth be told, it must have slipped our minds as well, as we didn't notice until we were almost finished with the other appetizers. The staff was apologetic, and the small, delicate birds arrived later as the meal was unfolding.
The dumplings were large and full, perhaps a bit doughy and bland. But the dipping sauce was good and provided a piquant touch. If you like crunch, you'll like the spring rolls. They were filled with a pleasant concoction of cucumbers, rice noodles and mint. They were accompanied by peanut sauce, which got varying reviews as too mild or just right.
The quail, when we got to them, were plump and tender. One in our party thought they were a little on the dry side, but that view was mostly overridden by the following pronouncement from others: "Yummy."
The restaurant has specials most nights that are listed on yet another menu.
We were seriously perplexed by one offering: Canada fish. There are several varieties of fish in Canadian waters, many of them the same as in U.S. waters. But we couldn't quite figure out what Canada fish was. This was neatly solved by the waitress, who said they were out of it.
We had hoped to buy some time for menu grazing by ordering the appetizers pretty quickly, but wandering through the cascade of entrees stretched on. We eventually decided to dabble in several different sections of the menu -- Special Pho, Special Noodle Soups, Vietnamese Rice Noodles, Grills and Rice Crepes and the pork, chicken and beef offerings.
We chose Tai Pho, which featured slices of eye of round. The beef, Howard said, is cooked for 12 hours. Also included are lots of noodles, chunks of lime, scallions and basil.
As mentioned, there was a lot of it. Although it was on the bland side, we used it as a kind of periodic touchstone, dipping in here and there to clear the palate or rearrange the taste buds.
We settled on the house special from the noodle soups, which was a seafood hot pot. It was a favorite. The presentation was unusual, served in a cone-shape metal affair with a lipped shelf around the middle. On the shelf were shrimp, squid, scallops, basil and, surprisingly, pineapple.
It was certainly colorful and a satisfying combination of textures and flavors. It also lived up to its hot pot name as odd bits of jalapeno were mixed in.
We also chose the Bun Ga, Heo hay Bo Nuong, which is rice noodles and chicken. Carrots and lettuce were a part of this dish as well, accented with the slight bite of a good peanut sauce. The chicken amid the thin noodles was nicely tender.
We opted for another chicken entree as well, chicken with lemon grass chili. This dish was not quite as spicy as we expected, but the tang was surely present, and there were good, bite-size pieces of chicken.
Nor did we overlook fish. Caramelized fish was among the dozen listings in the seafood section of the menu, and our eye stopped there. It turned out to be fillets rather than a whole fish. They came suitably darkened, sweetened by the coating that almost, but not quite, overwhelmed the fish taste.
And so we sampled: a little bit here, a little bit there, try a little of this, forks and chopsticks poised in midair. Soon most of it was gone, and the hot pot seemed to win the day.
Could it be that it was time for dessert?
After careful deliberation, we chose red bean ice cream, banana cake and fried bananas with honey and peanuts.
The red bean ice cream, cool and sweet, had a gritty feel. The banana cake -- toasted sweet rice, coconut, banana and creamy coconut milk and chopped peanuts -- was sugary and chewy. The fried bananas were quite soft and came with a sweet crust and, again, chopped peanuts.
After a full and frank exchange of views, the fried bananas emerged as the popular choice, despite the one stubborn holdout for the red bean ice cream.
Saigon Star 43150 Broadlands Center Plaza, Suite 120, 703-723-2604. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. Appetizers, $2.95-$7.95; pho, $4.95 for small, $5.95 for large; entrees $6.25-$14.95.
Is there a restaurant we should try? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.