He opened a second location of Cha Oc Gia Huy in the Eden Center, the Falls Church shopping center that has long been a destination for anyone with a taste of Vietnamese food and culture. About two years ago, Pham personally set up shop inside the Saigon East building (6757 Wilson Blvd., No. 9; 703-988-1993), where he specializes in the street foods of Vietnam, with an emphasis on an escargot-pork sausage called cha oc.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Pham has placed tables outside his shop at Eden, lending his business the air of a street vendor forced to seek shelter in a hallway. The first time I met Pham in the hallway, he steered me to two of his signature dishes: bo la lot ($15 a pack), these pressed lengths of minced beef, shot through with garlic and oyster sauce, then wrapped in betel leaves. Pham cooks the little packages on a portable Cuisinart 5-in-1 Griddler, which stands in for a charcoal grill, and serves them with a container of his “secret sauce,” a nontraditional condiment prepared with fish sauce and mayonnaise.
Bo la lot brings back many memories for Pham, who loved the snack as a boy in Bac Lieu province in southern Vietnam, where piper lolot leaves (similar to betel leaves) grow in abundance. Bo la lot, in fact, was basically the inspiration for his business.
It was also the inspiration for another signature dish: a riff on cha oc, a sausage sometimes referred to as snail ham, or ham with snails, descriptions I offer for background, not for their ability to arouse your appetite. Instead of steaming his cha oc, per tradition, Pham grills the sausages on the Cuisinart 5-in-1 before wrapping them in betel leaves. Pham says the dish ($15 a pack) is his attempt to cater to a new generation of Vietnamese Americans looking for something original, something steeped in the past but smacking of the present.
Despite their concessions to modern sensibilities, Pham’s betel-wrapped finger foods strike me as deeply Vietnamese. I taste fish sauce, lemongrass, sugar, black pepper and more. I also revel in their utter chewiness, a characteristic embraced by countless cultures but widely rejected in America, where we tend to prize tender and silky preparations.
Everything about Pham’s shop makes me feel close to Vietnam, or as close as I can get in Northern Virginia. And as I look around an Eden Center that slowly, perhaps inevitably, grows more international, I’m grateful for that feeling. I find myself stubbornly clinging to the Vietnamese flavors that have defined the shopping center for decades, even as its managers continue to add other tastes, including Korean barbecue, Taiwanese bubble tea and even the meat-heavy plates of Bolivia.
Which is why I’m offering an all-too-brief list of some of my recent favorites from the Eden Center, each one just a small taste of the bounty of Vietnamese food and drink available at this treasure of the D.C. area.
Dac biet at Banh Mi So 1 (6799 Wilson Blvd., Nos. 3 and 4; 703-534-1950): As the great cookbook author Andrea Nguyen once noted, ordering a dac biet banh mi is basically like asking for “the works.” Few shops do dac biet ($4 each) better than Banh Mi So 1, which bakes its loaves in-house before layering them with pate, Vietnamese cold cuts, mayo, fresh herbs and more. Crackly, meaty, rich and buttery, this sandwich has it all.
Vietnamese roast duck at Cho Eden Supermarket (6763 Wilson Blvd., 571-730-4432): More than a decade ago, I bought a heavy, wood-handled cleaver at Cho Eden for, if memory serves, less than 10 bucks. I still have it. I’ve long considered it my best purchase from the supermarket — until I ordered the Vietnamese roast duck ($13 for half, $25 whole) available at the stand by the front windows. The meat is moist and fragrant of five spice. And the skin? It shatters on first bite.
Banh hoi tom thit nuong at Rice Paper (6775 Wilson Blvd., 703-538-3888, ricepaper-tasteofvietnam.com): Rice Paper, a fashionable destination in pre-pandemic times, boasts a menu with nearly 100 dishes, and I swear I would like to try every last one. I’m sure to find many favorites, but for now, I’m hooked on these pork and shrimp skewers ($15), each morsel glazed and charred for that timeless alchemy of sweet and savory. You also get the pleasure of constructing your own rolls: Just moisten the rounds of rice paper, and have at it. Stuff them with any combination of meat, shellfish, herbs, vermicelli and vegetables. There are no wrong answers.
Xoi man at Thanh Son Tofu (6793 Wilson Blvd., 703-534-1202): The line at this Eden Center institution often snakes out the front door on weekends. Many are called to the shop for its tofu, and I’m a sucker for the fried cubes studded with mushroom and onion. But don’t sleep on the xoi man ($3.75). It’s a generous scoop of sticky rice topped with, among other delights, pulled chicken and slices of Chinese sausage, then finished with a sprinkle of scallions cooked in oil. One bite in, and you’ll wonder where this dish has been all your life. At least I did.
Com ga chien gion at Pho VA (6765 Wilson Blvd., 703-944-7373, pho-va.business.site): The beef noodle soup is the main attraction, and it’s a fine bowl, but one day I decided to order the shop’s five-spice chicken ($12), a double-cooked bird that holds its own on the menu. Poached with aromatics, then fried, this turmeric-tinted bird can be eaten straight off the bone, like fried chicken, or pulled apart by hand and dunked into the accompanying fish sauce-based condiment. Either way, you’ll be very happy.
Banh xeo at Hai Duong (6795 Wilson Blvd., Nos. 7 to 9; 703-538-5289, haiduongeden.com): Hai Duong has occupied the same corner in the Eden Center since 1998. That longevity does not happen by accident. Among the shop’s specialties is banh xeo ($12.25), often described as a Vietnamese crepe. The browned, crispy rice shell easily gives way, revealing a wealth of ingredients: shrimp, pork, onions and mung beans, all of which are bundled into lettuce wraps and dunked in fish sauce. The dish is full of contrasts: warm and cool, pungent and sweet, crisp and lush, raw and cooked. It’s a brilliant showcase of Vietnamese cooking.
6751-6799 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church, Va.; 703-204-4600; edencenter.com.
Hours: Varies by restaurant.
Nearest Metro: East Falls Church, with a one-mile trip to the shopping center.
Prices: Varies by restaurant.