Restaurant Review: Rice Paper
Rice Paper serves up the intense flavors and traditions of South Vietnam.
Funny how something as pedestrian as a single vegetable chunk can open a window to culinary enlightenment.
It’s a Tuesday night and I’m dining solo at the two-year-old, 50-seat Rice Paper restaurant—arguably the hottest spot at Eden Center, a Vietnamese shopping and dining complex in the Seven Corners section of Falls Church. Unlike the dozens of other Viet eateries nearby, this one is packed.
Along one wall of the cozy space are a half-dozen closely positioned tables for two, where I sit nearly shoulder-to-shoulder alongside two young Asian couples. When my first course (a fragrant beef noodle soup) arrives, the conversation begins.
“That red onion floating in your pho. You would never see that in Hanoi, where I’m from,” says the friendly woman on my right. At that point, the woman on my left stops thumbing her smartphone and joins in. “No, this food, with all the tropical ingredients, the fresh banana blossom, lotus stem and green mango, the owners must come from way south.” Heads nod all around. Both couples add that they are fans of this kitchen’s strong emphasis on fresh seafood.
As it turns out, the wager that Rice Paper’s chefs come from “way south” is spot on. This I learn a few days later during a phone conversation with co-owner Mai Lam. Her family hails from Rach Gia, a city on the Gulf of Thailand, deep in the Mekong River Delta. Her mother, Xuan Tran, and cousin Phuong Ho run the kitchen, bringing to the table family recipes and their own take on contemporary Vietnamese cuisine in a page-turning menu, which stretches to 120 dishes.
Visit after visit, I find myself drawn to the same terrific appetizers, salads and entrées—most of which come with generous portions of fresh mint, basil, lettuce and assorted Southeast Asian greens, piled high on modern, oversize square plates. These healthful leaves are not to be mistaken for garnishes. Rather, they are meant to be used as wraps, or to be torn apart and added to dishes for flavor.
One such plate arrives with the restaurant’s signature dish, Rice Paper Combo Platter, a DIY assembly of ingredients from which you can make your own summer rolls. Servers first deliver a partitioned plastic vessel with warm water on one side and dry rice paper disks in the other. Next, out comes a sizable selection of tender grilled squid, scallops, pork, ground beef wrapped in grape leaves, and vermicelli patties.
Give one sheet of rice paper a brief spin in the water and it’s ready for wrapping. From there, you can select the fillings of your choice (meats, seafood, noodles and/or greens), experimenting with any number of combinations. Novices will find an experienced and pleasant staff at the ready with rice paper folding tips. One order of this dish easily serves two.
Elsewhere on the menu, do request the lotus stem salad, which tosses the delicate and slightly pungent rhizome with sliced grilled shrimp, roast pork and assorted crunchy vegetables, accompanied by airy rice crackers. Or, go tropical with the fresh pineapple salad—a sweet and refreshing mix of the tangy fruit with chopped shrimp, squid, scallops, lemongrass, celery leaf and roasted peanuts. Both of these dishes are typical of the aromatic fare served from clusters of small wooden boats in the early-morning floating markets of the Mekong.
I’m partial to the appetizer of glazed quail, which is perfectly cooked and presented with the traditional dipping option of ground pepper and lime wedges.
“This is crazy good,” a friend calls out one evening as we also empty a plate of chewy snails in a rich ginger and coconut cream broth.
Like the popular, hands-on rice paper roll-ups, the elaborate hot pot soup entrées also engage diners in an interactive experience. Priced at $35 each, the hot pots offer plenty of fixings for two, or even four.
A server brings a portable burner and a metal tray with a reservoir in the middle that holds an herb-scented broth. My favorite, the Thai Hot Pot, is the most requested, Lam says.
Along the edge of the tray are neat piles of large raw shrimp, scallops, mussels, cubes of tofu, thin-sliced raw beef, broccoli, mushrooms, Chinese watercress, rice noodles and more. You choose which ingredients to plunk into the hot broth (a pork bouillon flavored with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf and cilantro) and how long to cook them.
The desserts, when available, are forgettable, but who has room for dessert after this feast of flavors?
With tables full and all the wrapping and cooking activity to chat about, the decibel level in this intimate little spot can border on raucous. But I’m thinking the din—along with the delicious food—is yet another reason young couples (and families) flock to Rice Paper. It’s fun.
6775 Wilson Blvd. (Eden Center), Falls Church, 703-538-3888, ricepaper-tasteofvietnam.com
Daily, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Lunch and dinner: appetizers $4 to $15; entrées $8 to $22. Hot pot, $35 (serves two to four)
BAR AND CELLAR
A small selection of domestic and imported Asian beers and California wines by the bottle and glass
Large, on-site parking lot