No matter what hallway or sidewalk I roam at the Eden Center, I can’t find the entrance to Thai Spoon, even though the restaurant’s signage glows brightly on the side of the Falls Church shopping center, which is dedicated largely to Vietnamese food and culture. One side door, identified with the Thai Spoon logo, leads only to a cramped kitchen with a large mirrored wall, where I run straight into . . . myself.
Frustrated, I charge into a door marked Nhà Hàng Chay Vegetarian restaurant. With a little too much attitude, I ask the poor dude near the counter: Where in the name of Hussein’s spider hole is Thai Spoon? The guy says he heard the restaurant had moved.
“Moved to somewhere else inside Eden? Or to some other location?” I ask, with the hard-headedness of a woodpecker. The guy has no clue. He clearly wants nothing further to do with this awkward interrogation.
What the guy should have said is that Thai Spoon has morphed, not moved. The owner recently changed his concept to . . . Nhà Hàng Chay Vegetarian restaurant, the very place where I had sought answers. “I guess it just wasn’t working as a Thai restaurant,” says Alan Frank, senior vice president and general counsel for the center. The restaurant owner apparently is in no rush to alter the sign, which is the tenant’s responsibility, Frank adds.
It’s tempting to turn the Thai Spoon story into a parable about the Eden Center, a place that seems to court both chaos and culinary thrill seekers. When the place isn’t impressing us with its Vietnamese cooking, it’s scaring us with its apparent gang activity or depressing us with the charges leveled against the center’s operators. The Eden Center is homey. It’s homely. It’s inviting. It’s off-putting.
My ongoing search for the best cheap-eats destinations would be incomplete without an accounting of the Eden Center, where, as the old saw goes, change is the only constant. The recent developments here have been fascinating to observe. Longtime favorites, such as Song Que deli and Sea Side Crab House, have either moved or quietly disappeared. But some newbies, such as Eden Kitchen and Banh Ta Deli, have not been content to replicate the old Eden formula: That is, focus on the food and not the atmosphere in which you eat it. These new-school operators have style.
At the same time, Eden operators have relaxed their iron grip on the food, displaying a willingness to expand beyond Vietnamese and (occasionally) Chinese fare, which is why I was more interested in Thai Spoon than its vegetarian replacement. Fortunately, the Thai spot wasn’t the only example: Last fall, Tom and Jane Kang opened a satellite of Gom Tang E, their Centreville-based Korean restaurant, inside the Saigon West building; it was the first time shoppers could dine on authentic Korean plates at the Eden Center. If that’s not enough, Little Sheep, a Mongolian hot pot chain owned by the monolithic Yum! Brands (think Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut), will open a shop next spring at the mall.
Is that a camel’s nose poking under this Vietnamese tent?
Many of these developments, based on my random samplings of late, bode well for the Eden Center. Seolleongtang, the signature bone-broth soup at Gom Tang E, proves every bit the equal of the more familiar Vietnamese pho. Its milky broth, derived from boiling ox bones for at least 18 hours, doesn’t have the aromatic complexity of pho; instead, the soup is a slow-drip beef IV, its nutrient-dense liquid both silken and robust. You can order the soup with your choice of beef, including oxtail and chewy tendon, and season it tableside with coarsely ground black pepper and large flakes of sea salt. This is bone broth as cultural hand-me-down, passed from one generation to another on the Korean Peninsula, not as some American health gimmick.
Over at Eden Kitchen, a stylish space with framed photography from the nearest big-box retailer, management plays up its pho ga di bo, a noodle soup prepared with free-range chickens (or “walking chickens” as the Vietnamese call them). Unlike pho bo, or beef noodle soup, this bowl doesn’t come with the meat already submerged. The bone-in bird pieces, poached with skin intact, are served on a separate plate, ready to enter the soup at your discretion. The poultry broth has the body and richness of its bovine counterpart, and each skin-on morsel tastes like chicken squared, which is pleasure enough. But you also can dip the meat in a ginger-laced fish sauce, a condiment that could reanimate the dead.
Other newcomers impressed me as well. The French-Vietnamese sandwiches at Banh Ta display an engineer’s understanding of balance: coolness against heat, the crunch of vegetables against the lushness of pâté. And the pickling solution for the veggies? Whatever it is, this umami-packed steroid adds more muscle to a sandwich that already wallops you with flavor. Bambu, a spare and arty shop located in a corner of the center, strips the traditional Vietnamese deli down to desserts, smoothies, teas and coffee drinks. Its specialities are che, these milky and icy treats that can hide a clown car of flavoring agents: chewy jellies, sweet fruits, starchy beans and more. They’ll make you re-examine your definition of dessert.
For the most part, I devoted my time to Gom Tang E, where Jane Kang explained that her place doesn’t compromise its cooking to win over non-natives (as opposed to, say, Kobe House, a Vietnamese restaurant inside Eden where you can order a distinctly non-Kobe steak and fries). Gom Tang E’s jokbal, a dish of sliced pig’s feet paired with raw garlic and a shrimp-paste condiment, practically dares you to like it (which I did), while the seafood pancake doesn’t skimp on the green onions, the squid or the briny urgency.
Even the banchan, the complimentary snacks that launch a Korean meal, may conceal a surprise if the Kangs decide you’re worthy of it. The lacquered black morsels in a shallow bowl are not, as they appear, dried fruit; they’re sweet black soy beans, called kongjaban, which are cooked down with sugar, soy and other ingredients into a heady, molasses-like treat. Kongjaban may be Korean in origin, but their appeal should know no border. The snack should not be contained to Annandale or Centreville or even the Eden Center. It should be nationwide.
The $20 Diner’s complete neighborhood guide will appear in early 2016.
6751 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church. edencenter.com.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. for
the center; hours vary by restaurant.
Nearest Metro: East Falls Church, with a 1.2-mile trip to the center.
Prices: Vary by restaurant.