How to Eat Falls Church, VA: The DC Area's Southeast Asian Food Mecca

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[Photographs: Brian Oh]

It's a well known fact that the best Asian food in the DC area lies outside of DC proper. Rockville is home to great Sichuan and Taiwanese restaurants and Annandale is our Korea Town. Then there's Falls Church, a destination for cooking from all over Southeast Asia, from the Vietnamese haven of Eden Center to Thai groceries with tiny takeout counters. And it's all within a few miles, which means it practically begs for a day trip.

Falls Church isn't exactly Metro-accessible, but it's well worth a short drive, even if you just spend the day exploring the sprawling Eden Center's nooks and crannies. But if you make your way up and down Route 50 you'll also find fantastic dim sum, Thai, and Burmese food to round out your diet. This is the suburbs though, so many of the best shops are unassuming roadside affairs that look like defunct Pizza Huts. Don't let looks deter you.

Looking to do a day trip? Then follow this tour to some of the best food in the area.

Dim Sum: Mark's Duck House

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We'll dig into the Southeast Asian food in a minute, but first: brunch. Mark's is a great place to get started with all the trappings of classic dim sum houses: dim off-color fluorescent lights, communal tables with massive lazy susans, roast ducks hanging in the window, and, most importantly, impatient Chinese women wheeling around stainless steel carts laden with dish after dish of delicious fare. And it executes it exceedingly well.

From barbecue pork buns to crab shumai to fried chicken feet, all the usual suspects are here, and they're far more fresh than the over-steamed dishes at too many other dim sum houses. The star of the show, though, is the namesake duck. Mark's offers excellent crackly-skinned Peking duck to order, but you're just as well off grabbing a plate of roast duck from the dim sum trolley. The birds are roasted to a glistening golden brown, and just underneath lies a creamy layer of fat.

Dishes range from $2.95 to $7.50, so even if you order a ton, you won't spend much. But don't over-order yet—you still have work to do.

Pre-Lunch Snack: Les Baguettes

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The Eden Center parking lot.

Less than a mile down the road from Mark's is the famous Eden Center, a shopping center that grandly announces itself with a giant elaborate archway. The market makes no effort to cater to non-Vietnamese, so picking a place to eat can be overwhelming to the uninitiated.

To give yourself a bit of breathing room between meals, head to Les Baguettes for a snack. A small bakery offering quality bánh mì and other small bites, Les Baguettes is also a great place to grab a pastry, specifically pâté chaud, which is reminiscent of a square croissant stuffed with ground pork. Not the lightest snack in the world, but the golden-crusted, flaky, pull-apart pastry layers and tender pork are hearty, comforting, and easy to love.

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Grab a couple pieces of gan bo chay (beef liver jerky) to round out your snack. The jerky is made from shredded liver coated in sweet spices and sweeter sauces, then dried into a deeply caramelized, sticky, and pungent sheet. It's also an easy snack to save for your drive home later.

Lunch: Huong Viet

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One of Eden Center's oldest restaurants, Huong Viet is a stalwart mainstay for traditional Vietnamese cooking. The menu is expansive and ripe for exploration, but it's just as satisfying to stick to the classics. Order yourself a bowl of bún thịt nướng, marinated grilled pork with rice noodles, and you'll be presented with a quintessential Vietnamese dish: A bed of cold vermicelli topped with caramelized and smoky pork, pickled carrots, roasted peanuts, cucumbers, cilantro, and fish sauce.

The bowl combines the cardinal flavors in Vietnamese cuisine—savory, sweet, sour, and herbaceous—in a simple, no-frills presentation. The combination of fresh and pickled vegetables, crunchy peanuts, tender noodles, and pork with an almost Korean barbecue-like char is a strong candidate for representing what Eden Center is all about. Pho is the more popular dish here, but if you're looking for Vietnamese comfort food, the bún thịt is where it's at.

(Bubble) Tea Time: Phuoc Loc

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To round out the Eden Center experience, pop over a few doors to Phuoc Loc Bakery. You'll find a smattering of pastries, fried tofu, and other snacks here, but Phuoc Loc's bubble tea is remarkable, even surrounded by at least a dozen other shops selling the stuff. Not only are the boba drinks made with bright, fresh fruit, but the typical $3.50 price nets you an even bigger cup than other shops.

For an intermission from an admittedly protein-heavy first half of the day, a refreshing and mellow cup of the lychee (or one of many other options) smoothie and delicate tapioca pearls is an ideal palate cleanser before moving on from Eden Center. Take your smoothie and explore the inner network of shops and offices hidden from the center's facade and you might be lucky enough to catch a group of grown Vietnamese men singing karaoke in the middle of the hallway at two p.m. on a Sunday.

Second Lunch: Grocery Shopping and Thai Takeout at Duangrat's Oriental Food Mart

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Venture out from Eden Center and you'll find more than just Vietnamese cuisine. A couple miles down Route 7 is a tiny little strip mall with some of the best Thai food in the area. Before we get into it though, let's clarify something. This strip mall is home to three shops: Duangrat's Thai Restaurant, Rabieng Thai Restaurant, and Duangrat's Oriental Food Mart. Duangrat's Thai is a standalone restaurant, while Rabieng Thai and Duangrat's Oriental Food Mart share a kitchen. We're aiming for Duangrat's Oriental Food Mart.

The Thai grocery is an oasis of Asian ingredients from fresh lemongrass to makrut lime leaves, with an ample selection that covers Thai, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cuisines. After you finish shopping, head to the back corner where you'll find a takeout window, where you can order some of the best items on Rabieng's menu.

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If you've been on a marathon day of eating, grabbing a quick takeout meal to sample the Thai cooking is probably your best bet. Drunken noodles, with potent aromatics and loads of steaming basil cooked with tender rice noodles, is one excellent bet.

Dinner: Myanmar Restaurant

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Cantonese, Vietnamese, and Thai cuisines aren't difficult to find in most cities, but traditional Burmese cooking is far more rare. In the DC area you'll only find a few places serving it. Myanmar Restaurant, a little down Lee Highway in another totally unremarkable strip mall, is one of them.

There you'll find over 200 dishes, many of which are seasoned with funky fish and shrimp pastes. Depending on how you're feeling from your previous several hours of eating, a great place to start is to order the mohinga. Generally considered the national dish of Burma, mohinga is a fish noodle soup that combines thin rice noodles, yellow curry, and fish powder, with creamy hard-cooked eggs cut by aromatic lemongrass, lime, and cilantro. In Burma it's typically eaten as breakfast, but in Falls Church, it's a light, refreshing, and delicious capstone to a marathon day of eating.