Located just a few Metro stops from downtown D.C., Eden Center contains the highest concentration of Vietnamese-owned businesses under one roof in America. During its heyday in the 1990s, when a new food-filled wing called Saigon West was tacked on, visitors were greeted by row upon row of vendors selling pho, bun bo Hue, and other Vietnamese specialties. Food lovers came from far and wide in tour buses.
But after a scary bout of recession- and crime-related closures, the center’s operators needed to usher in a new era of diversity to stay afloat. And today the picture is different. Veteran Vietnamese tenants intermingle with Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, and Thai food stalls.
Is Eden Center losing sight of its original purpose? Or is it now better than ever? Eater dives behind the scenes to find some answers.
With its interior tattered blue paint job and beat-up flooring, the appearance of Eden Center’s aging bones belies its importance to the Vietnamese-American community.
Many tenants came to Eden Center to rebuild their lives after the Vietnam War. South Vietnamese and American flags fly next to one another outside. Meanwhile, throngs of parents and children pack veteran restaurant Huong Viet, plowing through scores of canh chua (sour fish and vegetable soup) and ca kho (caramelized fish in a clay pot) for daily lunch.
Huong Viet is like more than half of the 120 tenants under the same roof. Around two thirds of the businesses at Eden Center have been operational for more than a decade, and there’s good reason for that.
The recession took some Eden Center restaurants down with it in 2012. Now, with 10 new leases inked in the past year and a waiting list to become a tenant, the days of many vacancies are a distant memory.
“A recession lifts a curtain and reveals the weak tenants,” says Alan Frank, senior vice president at Capital Commercial Properties Inc., which owns the sprawling commercial complex. “Now we’re more tuned in to people’s needs and standards.”
This means stronger and more diverse vendors are filling the center, and they’re attracting a more diverse clientele to go along with them. Take Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot.
This Chinese chain with a devoted following was one of the center’s most highly anticipated openings of 2016. Little Sheep is the first large corporate restaurant at Eden Center, and it landed here after searching for a space south of New York with the help of a broker in 2015.
“They came one weekend, saw how crowded it was, and said this is where we have to be,” says Graham Eddy, associate general counsel and vice president of Capital Commercial Properties Inc.
Meanwhile, one of the biggest leases just came this spring: a 10,000-square-foot sports bar with a multicultural menu that hopes to host events and parties in its huge space. This business is still being built out, but they do plan to have Vietnamese entertainment at night.
Other non-Vietnamese staples include Cho Cu Saigon, a Chinese restaurant hailed for its barbecue pig since entering the complex in 1995, and Gom Tang E, the center’s first Korean restaurant. Its time-intensive soup is a favorite of Los Angeles Lakers player Kobe Bryant. At Eden Center, passers-by can spot the desired broth simmering away in a giant vat.
Currently Eden Center’s vendors are roughly 10 percent non-Vietnamese. Is there a cost for this kind of change?
Frank says adding non-Vietnamese fare into the mix was a no-brainer. He says that Eden Center’s younger Vietnamese-American demographic has demonstrated an increased appetite for other types of cuisine.
“Our young clientele likes to eat at McDonald’s. They want Thai and Mexican food and everything else. They don’t always want strictly Vietnamese food,” he says.
Nucharin Lapakulchai, owner of the center’s only active Thai restaurant, Kao Sarn Thai Street Food, echoes this sentiment. “They love that there’s something different here,” she says of curious customers and the surrounding Vietnamese businesses.
Lapakulchai moved to the U.S. from Thailand six years ago and approached Eden Center about opening a tiny sit-down restaurant. Named after a bustling street in Bangkok, her current top seller is the kha na mu krob, crispy pork belly with Chinese broccoli.
But not every existing tenant loves to watch newcomers settle in. Banh Cuon Thang Long owner Suong Nguyen says she’s stayed put in the same 40-seat spot for 20 years. She’s growing increasingly concerned about the future.
“The problem is there’s too many restaurants in this mall,” Nguyen says. “We deal with competition a lot. When a new restaurant opens, it affects almost every restaurant owner.”
She claims she’s also at a financial disadvantage because new tenants pay an adjusted rental rate that she says is less than the price she negotiated decades ago. Not to mention, when newcomers are added to the tenant pool, Nguyen says customers can be squeezed out because there’s “not enough parking.” Eden Center declined to comment on the current rental rates.
At least one Vietnamese tenant chose to move on from Eden Center to what it says are friendlier business climes. Four Sisters was a wildly popular fixture at the center. Despite its proven viable business model, eight years ago it packed up and moved to a similarly sized 5,000-square-foot space for a comparable rent at Merrifield Town Center, where it now touts the same famed vermicelli lettuce wraps and pho bowls that spawned a cult following at Eden Center.
“We feel happy here,” says a Four Sisters manager who asked not to be named. “We are in a good area by the Mosaic District.”
Although Eden Center’s vendors reflect more ethnic diversity than ever before, some 90 percent of the center remains run by first- to third-generation Vietnamese families. And the surrounding predominantly Vietnamese population provides the largest portion of Eden Center’s clientele. Vietnamese families put down roots in the area in the 1980s, and there’s more recent spillover as rents skyrocket in neighboring areas like Clarendon.
According to Esri, a company that analyzes geographic and spatial data, the Asian community is projected to jump from comprising 14.6 percent of Falls Church’s population to 15.2 percent by 2021.
Meanwhile, the same tour buses that have made pilgrimages to Eden Center since its inception continue to make regular stops here as well. Vietnamese tourists often travel to the D.C. metro area with two items on their respective to-do lists: Tour the National Mall and take in Eden Center. Catering to them, there are odes to Vietnam's history scattered throughout the facility. The central clock tower, for example, is a replica of one found in Saigon’s central market.
“We are actively trying right now at Eden to reach young people of all ethnicities,” Eddy adds. “The health of Eden’s future is dependent on bringing in new customers.” Eddy works closely with the vendors and pushes them to cater to a range of clientele.
For example, many restaurants don’t have English-speaking servers, but Eddy encourages them to have at least one on staff.
“Menus might be imposing. So I tell vendors that when non-Vietnamese customers sit down, they need to know what dishes they might like,” explains Eddy.
Rice Paper during the day is about 80 percent Vietnamese, Eddy estimates. “At night, it’s heavier on the Caucasian customer,” he says.
Current business is not without its struggles. Take Little Viet Garden, which opened at Eden Center six months ago. The restaurant has a strong, longtime Vietnamese following because a former location used to feed droves of people in Clarendon in the 1990s. Now there’s a marked difference at Eden Center’s Little Viet 2.0. “Overall we are doing okay,” says Michael Phan, a co-owner in the family business. “But weekdays are slow.”
On weekends, Phan says business is booming “all the time.” But from Tuesday through Friday, there is a significant drop off after 4 p.m. He is considering tacking on a weekday special or discount to lure more foot traffic for his spicy beef noodle soup.
Phan is also trying to attract more non-Vietnamese-American customers. As such, he’s looking into advertising options. “The Vietnamese population here alone can’t cover us for seven days,” he explains.
Another way the center creates buzz and foot traffic is to infiltrate social media, which seems to be working. In his six years manning Eden Center’s Facebook page, Eddy says the number of likes has climbed from a couple hundred to nearly 14,000 in the past few years.
A few new bubble tea vendors are also attracting a younger crowd. TeaDM opened six months ago as a subtenant of Pho Va. It serves specialty drinks, like the Cosmopolitea, with strawberries and lychee green tea, and it stays open until 11 p.m. or later on weekends, blasting dance music. There’s also Kung Fu Tea, a New York chain focused on Taiwanese bubble tea that debuted last fall.
Vivi Bubble Tea and Snow Show is a dual operation arriving this year. The hybrid business includes shaved ice on one side of the retail floor and tea on the other. Vivi, which just opened, will also sell popcorn chicken, while Snow Show will offer Taiwanese-style pasta.
Meanwhile, the Kung Fu Tea franchise, with existing locales sprinkled throughout Northern Virginia and elsewhere, arrived soon after Little Sheep. These arrivals illustrate how Capital Commercial Properties’ penchant for mom-and-pop shops over corporate entities is evolving.
Easing the way for new interest, Eden’s prior partial reputation as a den of illicit gambling and sometimes violent crimes has softened over the past few years. Despite a relatively recent attempted kidnapping, the center has been largely free of crime stories since 2012. It seems broader communication between civic-minded business owners and local authorities has improved the situation.
It seems technology helped to lower thefts and deter other crimes. A prior effort with private security guards proved to be “a waste of money,” according to Frank. “After consultation with the police, Eden Center committed to installing surveillance cameras throughout the property and we are now up to 50 cameras. We have less crime than ever and the cameras have led to a number of arrests.”
Roughly two-thirds of the businesses associated with the stigma of yesteryear have closed down as well, notes Eddy. An increase in casinos in other areas of D.C. — most recently Horseshoe in Baltimore and MGM Grand in neighboring National Harbor — has diverted some of the gambling-related crime.
These days, headlines about Eden Center are more focused on must-try foods than unsavory dealings — and that positive attention naturally drives additional foot traffic.
Washington Post food writer Tim Carman routinely swings by in search of material for his “$20 Diner” column and cheap eats roundups. The hailed banh xeo, a savory fried pancake made of rice flour, water, and turmeric powder, alone makes the drive worthwhile for some. Many sit-down restaurants serve a version of it.
And as new tenants move into the fray, increased competition has spurred some existing shops to diversify their offerings. At Eden Kitchen, for instance, manager Cindy Nguyen introduced a crawfish dish at her longtime restaurant in March. “It’s boiled, New Orleans-style,” she says. “It’s something new for the center.” Cajun foods were introduced to Vietnam during the French colonial period, so this dish speaks to a wide range of clientele.
Other restaurants are taking action to combat competitive times. Take Vietnamese standby Phu Quy Deli Delight, which resides next to newcomer Little Sheep.
The market just struck a deal with California-based Lee’s Coffee to start selling its popular sandwiches and macarons inside. Owner Kim Nguyen says she has been serving up grab-and-go options like beef jerky and noodle soups for the past seven years, and the new partnership is one way to up her game.
Like Suong Nguyen, she thinks there are already too many restaurants at Eden. But she's not too worried about her new neighbors — partly because she says her offerings are different than those at the sit-down spots.
Even longtime restaurant tenant Huong Viet knows it needs to evolve with the times in order to keep business going strong, so it did an entire build-out of its facade. But some things might never change, like its tried-and-true cash-only model.
All told, while management has clearly opened the door to businesses outside Eden’s original sphere of influence, don’t expect a drastic identity change any time soon.
"Although we have a few non-Vietnamese restaurants and businesses, it is our goal to have Eden Center remain a Vietnamese-centered shopping center for many years to come," Eddy says.
Northern Virginia Magazine dining editor and restaurant critic Stefanie Gans remains confident Eden Center will persevere no matter who moves in.
"It's still a treasure and great place to take people who haven’t experienced it,” she says, adding, “It's 100 percent a gem.”