On a recent Saturday morning, the Eden Center in Falls Church, Virginia, was a bustling hive of activity, with the aroma of roast duck, the sweet smell of sugarcane, and the tangy bite of lemongrass commingled in a feast for the senses. A popular shopping center with more than 125 businesses, the Eden Center is widely known as the largest Vietnamese commercial and cultural center on the East Coast and is less than a half-hour drive from downtown Washington, D.C.
Opened in 1984, the Eden Center was an offshoot of the long-disappeared “Little Saigon” in nearby Arlington, a close-in D.C. suburb. Vietnamese refugees had settled in Arlington after the end of the Vietnam War, taking advantage of storefronts that had been vacated during the long and drawn-out construction of the D.C. Metro subway system. Once the subway line was completed, however, rents rose sharply in Arlington, effectively driving out the Vietnamese shopkeepers.
So, an enterprising group opened the Eden Center in an empty plaza a few miles away in Falls Church. These business owners named the center after the Eden Arcade, an upscale retail area on one of the former Saigon’s most prominent streets (which has now been demolished), and modeled the design after Saigon’s famous Ben Thanh Market with its iconic clocktower.
“Eden Center is special because it came at the right time,” recalled Nguyen Ngoc Bich, a former refugee who was active in the D.C.-area Vietnamese community. “It was a time when the then-young Vietnamese-American community had enough money to be able to think in longer terms, to think of settling down and to congregate, making it simpler for people to go shopping there for almost everything you need in terms of food and cultural artifacts.”
Like Little Saigons across the country, the flag of the former South Vietnam flies over the Eden Center as a potent, nostalgic symbol, alongside the American flag. The center frequently hosts special events such as Tet and Mid-Autumn Festivals, traditional singing and karaoke, places to learn and speak Vietnamese, and more. In 2022, a historical marker will be installed commemorating the Eden Center’s importance to Vietnamese and American culture.
But the food is the main attraction. Grocery stores, delis, bakeries, restaurants, and bubble tea purveyors all draw hundreds of shoppers to Eden Center every day. Although the center is evolving, with more Korean, Taiwanese, and pan-Asian establishments, a core of Vietnamese food culture remains prominent.
“I often described Eden Center as an ecosystem where the larger shops need the smaller shops so that together, they provide a larger offering that the customer is looking for,” says Quang Le, general manager of the Huong Binh Bakery & Deli. “Everyone’s businesses have a role to play to help make Eden a one-stop destination for people living nearby or out of towners.”
The following Vietnamese establishments offer a wide range of authentic and flavorful dishes, from grab-and-go options such as spring rolls or sesame balls to a full sit-down meal of lemongrass beef, pho, or banh xeo. Some places will take you on a culinary tour of Vietnamese history and tradition, while others offer a more modern, hybrid take on Vietnamese tastes. Visit www.edencenter.com for a directory and additional information.
Huong Binh Bakery & Deli
This grab-and-go destination offers a wide range of authentic Vietnamese foods at reasonable prices, with something for every palate. They make and sell their own deli meats and are best known for their banh mi sandwiches, party platters, desserts, and seasonal foods for traditional Vietnamese holidays. Huong Binh’s fried cha gio and lemongrass chicken offers a crunchy snack or savory lunch, while its sweet treats include warm sesame balls and delicious fresh-squeezed sugarcane (nuoc mia), a traditional drink that stands out among the many bubble tea places at Eden.
Cha Lua Ngoc Hung
Another quick stop at Eden Center for tasty, authentic treats, Cha Lua Ngoc Hung is well known for its cha lua (Vietnamese pork sausage), served up in a variety of ways including fried (cha chien) or in a cinnamon pate (cha que). This store’s dumplings and savory cakes will make you think you’re on a busy street in Vietnam, including banh bao and banh chung that combine taste, texture, and fresh ingredients. Be prepared to stand in line.
Saigon Bakery & Deli
Though Saigon Bakery & Deli is not the flashiest place at the Eden Center, it’s survived for years because of the quality of their food. Summer rolls (goi cuon) are a standout, as are the hearty pate chaud, filled with chicken or beef and baked to a perfect flakiness and golden hue. When you stop by, don’t forget to check out their cakes — they have traditional flavors such as pandan leaf.
Cho Eden Supermarket
Although the Eden Center now features a Good Fortune supermarket offering pan-Asian foods, for authenticity nothing beats the Cho Eden Supermarket, located near the center’s famous clock. Roast ducks hang in the front window and usually draw a long line. The store carries fresh produce, a wide variety of sauces and spices, and many other items for Vietnamese cooking, eating, worshipping (including fake money to burn as offerings for departed loved ones).
This longtime Eden Center restaurant is the place to go for classic Vietnamese cuisine. Their menu is extensive, with a full complement of appetizers, entrees, soups, hot pot options, and more. Standout choices include the caramel fish in a hot pot (ca kho to), vermicelli with crab tomato soup (bun rieu), and Saigon pancake, filled with pork, shrimp, and sprouts (banh xeo).
This restaurant is wildly popular for mixing tried-and-true dishes with modern interpretations. Best known for its tabletop service with dry rice paper disks and warm water, which allows patrons to moisten the wrappers themselves to make rolls out of a mile-high pile of meat, veggies, and garnishes. The restaurant offers a full complement of Vietnamese dishes, served in a stylish space that draws a lively crowd.
Banh Cuon Thanh Long
In this unassuming little shop, soup is the name of the game. Banh Cuon Thanh Long boasts a snail soup (bun oc) with rice noodles, tomatoes, and other vegetables that is generously portioned and flavorful. The light and savory rice crepes (banh cuon) are a must-have too; other good choices include the pho and broken rice (com tam), served with barbecued pork, fried egg, and dipping sauce.
Tucked away inside one of Eden Center’s interior mini-malls is Nha Trang, a hidden gem famous for their barbecue pork summer rolls (nem nuong cuon nimh hoa). Other starter dishes worth trying include banh beo, steamed rice cakes topped with chopped dried shrimp and scallions, and goi oc, conch tossed with young lotus root, cucumber, carrot, and onions. Of course, there’s cha gio too, the classic fried spring rolls that appear on nearly every Eden Center menu and are can’t-miss here.