?Pho or Faux? Hoa Lai?s kitchen takes delicious liberties with tradition
?Pho or Faux? Hoa Lai?s kitchen takes delicious liberties with tradition Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Once they secure a spot in the Eden Center, restaurants usually never leave. They either thrive or die, the beneficiary of a piece of commercial property in Falls Church that attracts Vietnamese from all corners or the victim of a piece of commercial property in Falls Church that charges Pentagon City-like rents. Huong Que/Four Sisters is the exception: After more than two years of planning and building, the most recognizable restaurant in the Eden Center has recently reopened in a slick new development in Merrifield.

Le Lai, sister No. 2 among the famous four siblings, has been working in some capacity or another at Huong Que since it opened in 1991, and she can’t recall any restaurant ever voluntarily pulling up stakes at the Eden Center. Neither can Hung Cheng, the owner of Viet Royale, a 19-year veteran of the center. Nor can the way-too-busy dude who picked up the phone at Huong Viet when I called. It’s apparently just not done. Sure, there are plenty of Vietnamese restaurants and pho parlors around the D.C. area, but few, if any, have dared to break from the mother ship to start anew.

You can’t blame them, really. The restaurants that survive the high rents, the crowded parking lot or, perhaps, a cruddy location deep within the bowels of the slightly creepy, whitewashed Eden Center rarely have to market themselves. Their customers just show up, literally Vietnamese immigrants and their children looking for a taste of home. It can be great for business, and it can be crippling for businesses, since restaurateurs don’t have to invest much time or money to hire PR agents, collect e-mails, or take out ads to drum up diners. To many, a move outside of the Eden Center is certain death, even if life inside the Eden Center is no guarantee of survival. It’s a nasty paradox.

Four Sisters has been smarter—and perhaps more fortunate—than many of its peers at the center. It got a few semi-celebrity endorsements, including that of Patrick O’Connell, owner and chef of Inn at Little Washington, an early (non-Vietnamese) adopter. The Washington Post’s Phyllis Richman and other critics also banged the drum for the place. But the members of the Lai family never relied on outsiders or the Eden Center for their success; over the years, they’ve leaned on the considerable charms of the sisters (now down to two full-time siblings since Ly, sister No.1, recently opened Sea Pearl with her husband, chef Sly Laio, just around the corner in Merrifield). The family has also compiled one helluva mailing list, which numbers more than 2,000 names.

Both have, no doubt, enticed loyal customers to seek out to the family’s new operation near the intersection of Gallows Road and Lee Highway (8190 Strawberry Lane; 703-539-8566). You could call the new Four Sisters (the original moniker, Huong Que, is gone forever) a refutation of the Eden Center’s power, but I’m more inclined to call it what it is: a giant step for Vietnamese cuisine into the local mainstream. Four Sisters sits directly across the street from a Chipotle.

I stopped at Four Sisters about a week after its opening on Oct. 1 and discovered a dining room far removed from the aesthetics of the old location, a fuchsia-and-cream space that had a dated Miami Vice elegance to it. The new space, decked out in dark wood and a warm yellow hue, is designed to recall the French colonial period in Vietnam, says Le Lai. Traditional Vietnamese culture is expressed in the commissioned paintings on the walls; the main dining room features colorful, impressionistic views of homes along the Mekong Delta, while a series of female figures in the party room spells out the subtle cultural differences between north, south, and central Vietnam. It takes Vietnamese restaurant design to a whole new level.

The food, at times, reflects the Lai family’s desire for a wider audience. I was hoping for a bowl of pho with bible tripe, which adds that strangely satisfying element of chewiness to the traditional noodle soup, but chef Hoa Lai’s kitchen doesn’t offer one. I had to content myself with a fragrant, star-anise-scented soup studded with cow round and well-done flank, which was not at all difficult. I also noticed that the lemongrass beef, these thin succulent strips with the killer grill flavor, favored sugar over citrus; it was a play to my sweet tooth, which I blocked with a generous application of nuoc mam fish sauce. The chef’s green papaya salad, I’m happy to report, remains a work of art, acidic, meaty, minty, and nutty all at once.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Hoa Lai would be the first to tell you why his salad rocks: American ingredients, from pork to produce, are often better than those in Vietnam. This fact raises an interesting question for those authenticity-seekers who think they can sniff out the pretenders from the contenders: Would they even like some of the honest-to-God stuff back in Vietnam? Tastes, like everything else, evolve over time and distance, and American-Vietnamese food is not Vietnamese-Vietnamese food. Being a slave to Vietnamese “authenticity” in America could be as risky as being a tenant tucked into the bowels of the Eden Center: Both could kill off your business. So here’s all I know for sure: The new Four Sisters is the wave of the future, and I like it.

High and Low

Shellfish Steam

Ever since the wholesale departure of kitchen talent from the Tackle Box (Young & Hungry, “Oceans Apart,” 6/20), I’ve been apprehensive about returning to the Georgetown fry shack. I really didn’t feel like kicking a place while it’s down. Leave it to my wife, Carrie, to drag me back into this dead zone; she decided her mom needed a lobster pot for her birthday.

Now, I think I could make a decent argument that serving good lobster is mostly, say 99.5 percent, about buying a good Maine lobster—and dipping the boiled beauty in a vat of drawn butter. But the precise, step-by-step directions that come with TB’s lobster pot proved to me there is some art to this process. The $40-per-pot kit comes with a live Maine lobster, grilled red onions, quahog clams, mussels, a chorizo link, corn on the cob, a lemon, and some fixins. The recipe calls for adding a cup and a half of liquid—we choose beer—to the pot, which you then let steam away.

I’ve always been a boiler man myself, so I was skeptical whether a 15-minute steaming would thoroughly cook our hulking, 1¼ pound lobster. But the flesh that came out of that fluorescent-red shell was perfect—softer and sweeter than any boiled lobster I could remember. There wasn’t even the slightest hint of rubberiness. My only complaint is that the recipe called for pulling all shellfish out of the pot, including the mussels. This procedure, very quickly, led to some nasty nubbins of mussel meat, as chewy as a deflated balloon. My advice? Serve the lobster on a plate and leave those mussels floating in the hot, aromatic broth, just like at your favorite moules house.

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