City Paper is not for tourists
Fans of Asian food are often fond of the Eden Center, a Falls Church shopping center and local epicenter of Vietnamese cuisine. Yet friends express surprise when I start talking about the restaurants inside. There are so many places to eat visible from the parking lot that they didn’t even realize there was an inside. And the establishments in the center’s hallways are often so tiny, unadorned, and dauntingly foreign that it takes a bit of pluck for a non-Asian to pull up a seat.
Song Hau seeks to change that, offering seating space for 120, an ’00s-style dining room, and ample English. In the Eden Center for about seven years, it moved from one interior hallway to another about three months ago. Chandeliers, a large bamboo plant, the de rigueur flat-screen TVs, and a display of liquor bottles distinguish it from its more austere neighbors. Yet it’s not all that upscale—chopsticks are in a plastic holder, and paper napkins grace the tables. The two young, hip sisters who constitute the wait staff are sometimes chatty, sometimes indifferent. Between kitchen runs, you’ll find them sitting with the rest of the staff at the center table. Just wave at them like familiar neighbors.
That’s how they’ll be treating you—and that’s not always good. Would you lead your neighbors to their seats, or would you let them find their own? On one visit, the servers waved us to a place in front of a TV blasting Viet-pop. When we declined it, they waved us across the room, at no point getting up to help. Still, once you’re established, the treatment works fine; they jump up when you need something and leave you alone when you don’t.
A most welcome menu category, not often found in these parts, is rice crepes, thin rice flour steamed into sheets. Rice crepes are like people; their quality depends on what’s within, though you can dress up the exterior. At Song Hau, they’re beautiful inside and out. Sliced pork sausage and shrimp sit on top of the delicate rolls, filled with minced shrimp and onions. Fried onions, cilantro, and bean sprouts top them off.
A waitress-approved appetizer of sweet-potato-and-shrimp cakes provides a gratifying start. A handful of battered sweet-potato sticks are crunched into a dumpling; a single shrimp, looking lost in the center, makes for a crispy yet ungreasy bite. The menu says two cakes, but twice we were served eight—along with enough fresh mint, cilantro, and basil to make a salad. Excess greenery is common; many dishes we saw sailing by had double handfuls of herbs.
Vermicelli and noodle soups, two archetypes of Vietnamese food, are both done well. Grilled shrimp and thin pork strips topping the vermicelli have a smoky taste that manages not to overwhelm. A sweet-and-sour soup with conch and shrimp is heavy on the sour; better not squeeze that lime wedge in without tasting first. The conch is a bit chewy, but it goes well with the flavorful broth.
Steak pieces marinated in wine and cooked in butter should appeal to most Western palates. Tender and juicy, they come on a bed of watercress and other greens. Curried frog legs, a southern Vietnamese dish, are both tender and gamey, as well as a bit oily. The lustrous yellow sauce is surprisingly sweet; the accompanying clear noodles carry much of the flavor. A dish of baby clams with chopped pork, onions, and basil tastes so strongly of pork that the clams are all but lost—and the sesame crackers on top were inediblely stale one night. Caramel fish in a clay pot is a better option. Give it a minute to let the work-in-progress sauce settle. The salty caramel flavors the understated basa fish rather well, though the white flesh may arrive a bit undercooked.
The lotus-root salad is a nice complement to any hot dish. The lotus is shredded; don’t look for the familiar round cross-cuts here. Toppings of chopped peanuts and fried pork bits create a pleasant mixture of textures. Is that a hint of chili? It works well. Still, we couldn’t find the jellyfish that was supposed to be in there.
The large fondues—served with your choice of beef, shrimp, or squid, along with various vegetables and noodles—can serve four people. The waitress talked us out of a seafood option and into a medium-spicy Thai-style version, with a broth tinged by lemongrass, chilies, and a sweet-sour paste that left a rich, tingling sensation. You couldn’t mess this dish up if you tried.
Wine? With this food? Surely not. Fruit drinks are appropriate; a thick durian shake tastes fresh, its pungent, pleasantly musty flavor conveying well. Only two desserts are offered, both parfait-like concoctions, one featuring red water chestnuts and green gelatin fingers, the other sweet beans. Both come with shaved ice and coconut milk. Ask which one is fresher before you order, not after, as we did. “That’s new; I just make it,” our waitress said, pointing to one glass. “That’s old,” she said, pointing to the other. The new one was great. The old one was still pretty good.
Venturing into an unfamiliar restaurant environment may require some valor, but in the case of Song Hau, taking a few extra steps is worth it.
Song Hau, 6763 Wilson Blvd., Suite 6A, Falls Church. (703) 241-1180.—Tom McClive
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.