|Drool Worthy is a weekly series that tracks remarkable dishes under the radar. Enjoy hover-friendly photos of peculiar bites and quick tips on what to try next .|
That’s right! Udon isn’t just the chubby noodle found under shrimp tempura and Japanese miso. If you thought pho was the best thing Vietnamese cuisine could offer–think again. Banh Canh Tom Cua is a thick shrimp soup with soft udon noodles, fried shrimp cakes and crab meat–pretty much the opposite of its beef noodle cousin–pho, a well-known Vietnamese go-to that incoporates thin beef broth with fine white noodles and all parts of the cow.
The first time I had lunch at Huong Viet, I was too little to see above the thick glass tables. I didn’t mind standing atop the leather-cushioned chairs to eat my lunch, but I had a habit of singing disney tunes as I waited for the food to arrive, swaying left and right, which, normally resulted in me falling over on my face, and my mom begging me to behave.
Needless to say, anytime my parents took my little brother and I out for lunch after that, we were tightly strapped into one of those boxy brown booster seats with the awkward bottom groove and plastic waste buckles. I didn’t like going to Huong Viet as a kid, because the wait always took forever and there wasn’t a waiting room–just the tiny foyer with gumball machines (which I wasn’t allowed to touch) where everyone stood to escape the cold air during winter.
The walls of the interior were tiled with dark red wood, and the servers were always dressed in proper dress shirts and bow ties–the only fancy element to the restaurant. But this was the restaurant my mom loved to visit every week for lunch. I didn’t understand why at the time, since back then–Huong Viet didn’t have all the awards and magazine features that hang from the walls now, and I always thought good food only came from good-looking restaurants (little did I know…). Also, I was a kid–one that would have considered living off buttered popcorn, and would get excited over snagging a boot-shapped McNugget from happy meals.
My mom, a Chinese woman who grew up in Vietnam (where my grandfather doubled his house as the neighborhood pho restaurant), would always order me the same thing. It was a Vietnamese seafood soup that I loved and made every bit of the wait worth it. I didnt realize it was unique to Huong Viet, until we started visiting other Vietnamese restaurants that either didn’t have it on the menu, or didn’t make it very well.
Years later, I decided to take my boyfriend back with me to show him some of the things I ate when I was growing up. Huong Viet is one of the few restaurants from my childhood that survived the years in between. It still stands in its same spot today, just as I remembered–but now, it’s decorated with glowing Christmas lights and positive reviews from many DC notables that rave about their bo luc lac (shaky beef), caramelized fish and ‘saigon’ rice crepes.
Eden Center is the heart of Northern Virginia’s Vietnamese community, but while many of its restaurants come and go–Huong Viet has stood in its place for longer than most, because their food not only earns approval from all parts of its community–but also creates a memory that lingers in your tummy for years to come. True story. 😉
Four things I always order at Huong Viet:
1) Cam Vat (Fresh Orange Juice)
I probably liked this as a kid, because this isn’t just OJ from a juice box. It’s fresh-squeezed orange juice mixed with another few spoons of cane sugar in a glass of melting ice. If you don’t stir your drink with that giant spoon they give you, get ready for a wild sugar high.
2) Cha Gio (Crispy Spring Rolls)
These super crispy spring rolls are stuffed with pork, shrimp and chopped crab–served with a little bowl of Vietnamese fish sauce (Nuoc Mam) which, I’m convinced, runs in the veins of Vietnamese people. They dip, pour and splash this spicy, sweet and sour concoction over almost everything, and once you’ve tasted it for the first time–dining Vietnamese won’t feel complete without it.
3) Banh Canh Tom Cua (Shrimp & Crab Udon)
Huong Viet is one of the few restaurants in the NoVA area where you can find this soup, and it’s the best place to try it for the first time. At their other neighboring restaurants, the broth is never as thick and flavorful as it is here. After taking my boyfriend here for the first time, he looked up from his first spoonful and said, “it’s like drinking she-crab soup!”–but the broth is just one of the best things about the soup. It’s not just processed shrimp soup from a can (sorry Campbell’s…)–the broth is made from scratch, thickened over time, and you also get chunks of fresh crab meat, soft udon noodles, fried shrimp cakes, and bits of fried onion and mushrooms in the mix.
4) Banh Flan (Caramel Flan)
Huong Viet is where I fell in love with flan. The flan here is caramelized with a sweet dark sauce drizzled on top. Family lunches were never complete without either the banh flan or the fried bananas–no matter how stuffed we were… which I guess, trained me to be the insatiable foodie I am today.
6785 Wilson Boulevard , Falls Church, VA; 703- 538-7110; www.huong-viet.com.