Last Saturday I dragged Mark along for my first—and hopefully not only—workplace field trip. Minus the yellow school bus, grubby hands, patrols, and brown bag lunches, it was almost kind of like those much-anticipated 6th grade trips of old. Sub in infinitely more interesting food and better company, and you have our perfect weekend afternoon.
The sun was shining, and it was the warmest day in weeks in Washington. There were runners and dog-walkers and strollers everywhere, and the snow blinded as it melted, but no one cared. We met a crew of co-workers and guests out in Falls Church, Virginia, home to Eden Center, a strip-mall/supercenter that is a one-stop shop for the Vietnamese community who calls the area home.
Mark and I had been once before, on a whim, but had stayed only long enough to sample a gelatinous pork bun wrapped in leaves. We vowed to come back when we had more time.
For lunch at Hai Duong we devoured Bánh xèo, a savory pancake made out of rice flour, water and turmeric and stuffed with pork, shrimp, and fresh bean sprouts. We were instructed to wrap the crepe in one of various leaves that accompanied it, together with fresh mint leaves and basil, and then dip in a prepared sauce (called nuoc cham) of fish sauce thinned with water and lemon.
I had a Vietnamese iced coffee, or Cà phê sữa đá to wash down the delicious crepe: As a shameless coffee snob/roaster/partner of brew master and coffee geek extraordinaire, I’ll admit my expectations were low. In Vancouver, Malani and I had lived above a Vietnamese cafe, and when I took the first sip on Saturday, I kicked myself repeatedly for never partaking during my time there.
Over at Song Que, Eden Center’s answer to a deli, we split a Bánh mì of pork meat and crispy pork skin. It was nice and crispy, but didn’t quite meet my Anthony Bourdain-inspired expectations. Damn those television cameras!
Everyone bought little treats to sample: Bánh bao (a steamed bun dumpling stuffed with pork and a quail egg), Sinh tố (more sweetened condensed milk, crushed ice, fruits and sweet beans), fried bananas wrapped in sticky rice, and preserved grapefruit. Some bought the ingredients and equipment necessary to make the crack-coffee at home while the rest of us sat in awe at the Willy Wonka spectrum of color the little deli boasted:
Thank goodness each packet came with a description, though “deep fried banana,” “flour and Vietnamese ham,” or “rice powder and sugar” weren’t much to convince me to stock up on these whimsical goodies. And speaking of packets … I loved the experience, but my tendency toward minimally packaged and processed foods would be next to impossible here.
That’s why the day was so much fun, however: It was full of taste experiences I don’t get everyday. And that’s the beauty of living here—as inferior to New York cuisine as people like to say it is, in terms of gastronomic exploration, D.C. is leagues ahead of anywhere else I’ve lived.
I came home with seaweed-wrapped rice snacks, tea, lemongrass, and a disc of pure palm sugar to try Alton Brown’s Pad Thai.
As we say back in Manitoba with regard to a much less desirable location, Eden Center is truly “worth the trip!”