To the first wave of refugees who fled South Vietnam in the 1970s, the Eden Center has never been just a place to share a drink, get a haircut or order a warming bowl of noodle soup. It’s a bricks-and-mortar eulogy to the past, to war heroes, to a country that hasn’t existed for more than 40 years.
“For most visitors to the Eden Center, the complex is simply a booming economic center for ethnic foods and services,” wrote Yen Le Espiritu in her 2014 book, “Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refugees,” “but for many others it is also a somber memorial that honors the Republic of Vietnam and its dead.”
The South Vietnam flag still flies next to Old Glory in the giant parking lot, where the lanes come with their own street signs, bearing such names as Pham Van Phu, Nguyen Van Long, Tran Van Hai and other officers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) who killed themselves as acts of loyalty to their collapsed country. Every year, the Eden Center holds a ceremony commemorating the fall of Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, on April 30, 1975. Anyone who dares to speak well of the communists now in charge of the mother country risks a war of words, or worse.
Today, it seems the Eden Center is dealing with a different kind of takeover, a culinary and cultural one, which threatens to change, or complicate, the historic nature of the shopping plaza in Falls Church. More than two years ago, Eden’s owners welcomed its first Korean eatery, Gom Tang E, a place that specializes in seolleongtang, a silky, milky bone-broth soup that alone is worth a trip to Northern Virginia.
Other outsiders have since arrived: Last summer, Kao Sarn Thai Street Food debuted inside the Saigon West wing, and a few months later, the Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot chain opened an outlet in the former Spicy Bar & Grill space, adding a Mongolia-influenced Chinese flavor to the sprawling center. This year, another chain, the rapidly expanding Vivi Bubble Tea, will bring a taste of Taiwan to Eden.
From a purely gastronomic perspective, these are welcome additions.
Kao Sarn (6795 Wilson Blvd., Unit 12; 703-992-7440) occupies a microscopic piece of real estate, which chef and owner Nucharin “Arin” Lapakulchai has fashioned into an endearing, contemporary space, so different from the functional austerity of many interior Eden Center shops. Lapakulchai’s open kitchen is framed by a blackboard covered with charming, childlike chalk drawings: a street vendor, a steaming bowl of noodle soup, a contemplative Buddha, ingredients indigenous to Thai cooking.
Lapakulchai’s food has as much personality as her space. A native of Bangkok, the chef is basically a one-woman show. She prepares every order herself, whether the components are stir-fried, deep-fried or, in the case of the egg atop her rich and rewarding kapow pork, pan-fried. Watching her cook from a counter seat is a form of meditation: You can almost feel your pulse relax as Lapakulchai performs her silent ballet, moving from cutting board to wok to rice cooker. She is a chef at one with her work, alone but not.
The green papaya salad adheres closely to its Thai description, som tum, the latter word meaning “to pound,” as in pestle against mortar. Lapakulchai crushes the aromatic ingredients to order in a mortar, releasing their oils and fragrance, an intoxicating fusion of earth, acid and pungency. Lapakulchai can customize a dish to your desired heat level, but should you ask for “spicy,” the server will probably ask for clarification: “American spicy or Thai spicy?” The staff has clearly seen too many non-natives fall to the sword of Thai spicy.
Trust me, American spicy can revive the dead, like the countershock of a defibrillator. The house-made boat noodle soup, ordered American spicy, runs fiercely hot, although not as luxuriant as, say, the version at Thai Cuisine, where the broth is enriched with animal blood. (Lapakulchai later told me diners have to special-request the blood.) Her toothsome pad Thai, at once sweet and semi-spicy, benefits from a few tiny spoonfuls of prik nam pla, a condiment of Thai chiles in fish sauce. Same goes for the kao soi noodle soup, whose curry paste is not made from scratch but starts with a commercial product that Lapakulchai supplements with her own herbs, chiles, garlic and other flavoring agents of change.
Across Pham Van Phu Avenue — he was a major general in the ARVN — you’ll serve as your own chef at Little Sheep (6799 Wilson Blvd., Unit 10; 571-405-6947), where your tabletop doubles as your cooktop. The braising liquid that roils on the table’s induction burner is a deep reservoir of flavor, a cloudy broth extracted from 40 pounds of chicken bones over the course of a 10-hour-plus simmer. The broth can be ordered either “milky” or spicy; the latter bobs with about a billion chopped chile-pepper husks. It has a burn to match.
Unlike many hot-pot concepts, Little Sheep doesn’t provide a station where you can concoct your own condiments (although you can request house-made dipping sauces, if you can’t live without one). The place wants you to focus on the flavors of the cooking liquid, which is understandable. The broth is infused with litchi berry, garlic, black and white cardamom, ginger and countless other ingredients buried in this opaque elixir.
The broth improves everything you dunk into it, whether pristine slices of New Zealand spring lamb or glistening pucks of sea scallops. You can choose from more than 50 items to submerge in your milky broth. Just don’t waste calories on the lamb skewers, pork dumplings or any of the other sides and appetizers, some of which only underscore the kitchen’s general apathy toward the rest of the menu.
So, a question still lingers here: Are these non-Vietnamese restaurants a sign of things to come for the Eden Center? Alan Frank, a senior vice president at Capital Commercial Properties, the owner of the center, says no. They want Eden to remain “primarily Vietnamese.” But at the same time, those refugees from the 1970s and 1980s are older now. They’re no longer the target consumer.
“We can’t keep the Eden Center the same as it was in 1985,” Frank says. “There’s a shift going on, and I don’t know where it’s going to go. But it’s good for business.”
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