The parking lot of the Eden Center, the hub of Northern Virginiaâ€™s Vietnamese community, becomes a traffic jam on weekends. To understand why, peek into this cash-only dining room. Youâ€™ll think youâ€™ve wandered into a boisterous family reunion: two-year-olds and grandmas, teens and parents crowd together at long cafeteria tables happily passing steaming bowls and flopping crepes and dishes of nuoc mam.
The menu is long and varied, and the food comes out fast, but the renditions of central and southern Vietnamese cuisine never taste rushed. Sour and sweet, crunchy and tender, warm and cool are all in balance. Salads made from crisp lotus root get a smoky counterpoint from folds of cold pork. A roasted quail, its lacquered skin brightened by a drop of lime and ground pepper, is best eaten right off the bone. Frogâ€™s legs crisped in butter are as light as weâ€™ve tasted and come dressed with fresh cilantro and mint. Greaseless spring rolls stuffed with pork are standard-setters. Itâ€™s tempting to make a meal of starters, but then youâ€™d miss the tangy soups (try the sweet-and-sour-shrimp version), the springy wide noodles, the lemongrass pork, and the caramel hot pots of fish and pork stoked with chilies.
Restaurants come and go at the Eden Center, but this one has endured longest. And itâ€™s still the best reason to jockey for a parking space on a Sunday morning.