Speaking Vietnamese is not a requirement at the Huong Binh Bakery and Deli in Eden Center, but it helps, especially if you’re the only person in the restaurant who does not speak the language.
The woman in front of me in line could speak English, though, and she kindly helped me with my food selections.
From the wall listing, I chose M2, “Banh Mi Ga (Jambon)” which the menu describes as a shredded dry chicken sandwich with veggies. I would call it “shirred” chicken surrounded by lots of lettuce and chopped carrots, onions, and cucumbers and some of the best French mayonnaise to be found in the DMV, homemade at the Huong Binh, of course. It was only $4.50 and the calories did not take a toll on my mental health or my wallet.
In Vietnam, the “banh mi” is a staple and similar to a six-inch submarine sandwich of crusty bread, cut the same way. Huong Binh serves nine banh mi variations, ranging from one with five types of meat and vegetables to a fish patty, grilled meatballs or a sardine sandwich with a tomato sauce and pickled radish.
When I later told Quang Le, the general manager, about my ordering experience, he laughed: “We took a page right out of McDonald’s play book and posted the menu high on the wall with numbers so everybody could see it and order more easily.”
Huong Binh’s menus all have English translations, but who needs English when 95 percent of your customers are Vietnamese, which Le told me they are.
But, at his family’s restaurant, they do care a lot about customers, all their customers, whatever nationality.
Le tells about a regular American customer who comes in and says “’I love these sandwiches and they’re under $5. Where else can I get that?’
“We know our customers and want them to come in three or four times a week. Most of them already know what they are going to order,” Le said.
And, indeed, they did. Or, at least the ones I observed in a long line on a recent Saturday afternoon knew what to order.
They moved quickly in the bakery, weaving between ready-to-go foods stacked on tables and refrigerators of cold drinks and desserts.
“We’re a ‘grab and go,’” Le said. Wikipedia describes the Eden Center as “the largest Vietnamese commercial center on the East Coast, and the largest Asian-themed mall on the east coast of North America.” Le said: “It’s a quite competitive business and Eden Center has no ‘non-compete.’”
Which rewards the customer with good prices, food and egg rolls priced at 70 cents. Now who could resist that?
They were scrumptious, crunchy and tasty, a tad greasy one must admit, but at 70 cents, who’s complaining? The restaurant barely breaks even on them.
And then there was the tofu. Sigh.
My last bout with tofu left my mind brimming with cooked leather, I told Le.
But at Huong Binh Bakery, the “hot tofu” dessert is a hot seller ($3 or $5).
Please, he urged me, try some. What was a girl to do when faced with to tofu or not to tofu?
“We believe we make the best,” he said. And after my initial sampling (and continuing thereon), I agreed!
Every morsel was delicious with the magical syrup of ginger, brown sugar, and water from a recipe thousands of years old.
Which brings me to the best:
The durian fruit drink ($5), absolutely the freshest, tastiest of any natural drink I’ve had (which includes freshly squeezed o.j.), made from sugar cane (the “healthy sugar, natural sugar,” not the “fat” processed kind, Le said) and the imported southeastern Asian fruit.
Some other Huong Binh specialties include ready-to-go-platters in 20 varieties, most for $16, which have enough to feed a family of four, Le says. “Where else can you feed a family of four for that? That’s what you’d pay for one person in a sit down restaurant, and you’d easily spend $60 for a family outing.” (Huh? Only $60?)
Huong Binh lists 75 menu choices at the restaurant his parents started in 1986 on Columbia Pike. They moved to Eden Center in the early 90s. Le says Huong Binh is the oldest continually operating Vietnamese specialty bakery and deli in the region.
“My mother is quite the story,” he beamed. “She came from a privileged family in Vietnam and she didn’t know a thing about cooking until she was 45 and needed to develop a talent after the war. She went to cooking school, and I’ll guarantee you that 100 percent of the other Vietnamese restaurants here are run by self-taught cooks. Not my mom. She trained!”
She is 89 now and her husband is 90. He still comes into the bakery seven days a week and works four to five hours, Le said, conducting “research,” doing odd jobs and whatever is needed at the restaurant. Like their son who left his engineering career five years ago to help out.
Le attributes the deli’s success to authentic Vietnamese food, taste, pricing (“we are very price sensitive”) and “being plugged in to the community. My dad supports organizations and non-profits. They see a familiar face, like an old friend. We’re a friendly place.”
If anyone needs proof that “our food is healthier and more delicious” than most found in the U.S., Le’s parents are living proof of their son’s claim.
Soon the bakery’s popular yule log which is a maple sponge cake with Christmas decorations ($25) will be available and although it will add calories to the count, Santa is not making a list.
Huong Binh Bakery & Deli, Eden Center, 6781 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church 22044, ph. (703) 237-9228, www.huongbinh.com, open every day 8 a.m. – 8 p.m.