Restaurant Review: Little Viet Garden
The former Clarendon favorite makes a comeback at Eden Center.
Stopping by Little Viet Garden on a fall afternoon, my plan is to have a light snack, but I can’t decide among the appetizers that catch my eye, so I order all three. The first to hit the table is a heap of sautéed baby clams with hints of lemongrass and garlic. It’s topped with chopped peanuts and rau rum (a piquant Vietnamese variety of coriander leaf), nested in a lettuce cup and surrounded by ear-shaped crackers dotted with black sesame seeds. I scoop some clams onto a cracker, top them with a jalapeno slice, spritz with lime and BAM—a burst of flavor hits all the herbaceous, spicy, fatty, sweet and sour notes that underpin Vietnamese cooking.
The next dish to arrive is a giant, piping-hot rice crepe, bright yellow from turmeric. I lift an edge and peek underneath to find a generous filling of bean sprouts, shrimp, onions, roast pork and shredded coconut. On the side is a profusion of fresh herbs (basil, cilantro, mint, lettuce) and a ramekin of dipping sauce made with fish sauce, lime juice, garlic, chili flakes, sugar and shredded carrot. Heaven.
It was during a trek to Eden Center over the summer (I was craving banh mi) that I first learned of Little Viet Garden’s comeback plans. Anh Hong, owner of the Eden Center sandwich shop Banh Ta Deli, and her husband, chef Michael Phan, said they were taking over the adjacent space and opening a full-service eatery—a reimagining of the first Little Viet Garden, which the couple had owned, along with Hong’s sister, in Clarendon from 1990 to 1998. From 2000 to 2012, the two had been busy with Green Papaya, a popular restaurant in Bethesda that closed due to skyrocketing rent.
The new Little Viet Garden opened its doors in September and it’s charming. Quirky music in the 60-seat dining room runs the gamut, from “Hernando’s Hideaway” to Beethoven’s “Für Elise.” Large ferns and bamboo plants sway under rattan ceiling fans, and the walls are hung with black-and-white paintings and drawings. Some of them Phan’s father created, depicting the pastoral landscapes of his birthplace, Long An province. Others, Phan says, are commissioned works re-created from postcards of street scenes from French colonial Saigon.
At the back of the room, a display case holds desserts and takeout dishes such as banh gio (rice and pork steamed in a banana leaf), longan fruit (such as lychees) in syrup, and sweet fermented brown rice that packs a boozy wallop. A chalkboard still lists Banh Ta Deli’s old banh-mi menu, though the restaurateurs currently don’t have the manpower to offer the sandwiches. Hong says they hope to again in the future.
Phan, who came to the U.S. in 1977 at age 20, handles kitchen duties. He learned the culinary traditions of his native land from his mother, he says, who cooked for weddings and other family occasions as he grew up. When he and Hong married in 1986, they opened a small food market before deciding to go into the restaurant business. The recipes they used then—and now—are mostly from their mothers.
My go-to is an order of the crunchy spring rolls (cha gio) filled with shrimp, pork and bean threads, dipped in fish sauce. In that vein, but even more complex are the bo la nho, little logs of ground beef, perfumed with five-spice powder and garlic, rolled in grape leaves and grilled to a perfect char.
The soup list is extensive, including several varieties of pho made with rich, flavorful stocks. I can vouch for the beef soup emboldened with five-spice powder, fish sauce, star anise and ginger, topped with sliced eye-of-round steak, beef tendon, brisket, meatballs, scallions and sliced onions. Also excellent: the shrimp-and-pork soup with egg noodles; and a beef-shank-and-tendon stew with carrots.
A combo platter worth experiencing—one that’s ubiquitous in Vietnam—is the “broken rice” special, featuring steamed rice (made with broken grains), panko-crusted fried shrimp, Chinese pork sausage, an over-easy egg, a grilled pork chop, julienned pork skin tossed with shredded pork, and a slice of paté-like meatloaf fashioned from ground pork, bean-thread noodles and wood-ear mushrooms.
If the steamed sea bass entrée is available, nab it. The ultra-fresh chunk of fish is cooked briefly with clear noodles, shiitake mushrooms and a light gravy of soy sauce, oyster sauce, garlic, ginger and lemongrass. It makes a perfect dinner for two when paired with an order of crab-fried rice, loaded with large lumps of crabmeat, fried egg, scallions and carrots.
Not every dish here shines. The grilled pork and grilled pork patties come in a sauce that’s too sweet to be enjoyable. Double-fried chicken wings have plenty of crunch, but their chili-flaked sauce is also too sweet. And a platter described as grilled (very seedy) eggplant with sautéed beef and smoky garlic sauce has no hint of smoke or grill flavor. But these are exceptions.
During my most recent visit, newcomer Little Viet Garden still sat half-empty while its neighbor, the wildly popular Rice Paper/Taste of Vietnam, had a line out the door. I predict that won’t be the case for long. Consider me one of Phan’s fans.
What to Drink
Little Viet Garden offers iced tea or coffee sweetened with condensed milk and smoothies (avocado, strawberry, mango and jackfruit, also sweetened with condensed milk), as well as coconut water, soybean drink and fresh lemonade.
The restaurant has a beer and wine license and serves a selection of 10 canned and bottled beers, such as Sapporo, Tsingtao, Heineken and Budweiser.
The bar also stocks four sakes, including Tomio Hanachirin Junmai Dai-Ginjyo ($22) and Takara Sierra ($14).
Among the wines, there are six serviceable reds and whites: SeaGlass Riesling ($7 glass; $21 bottle); Estancia Chardonnay ($8 glass; $24 bottle); Campo Viejo Rioja ($8 glass; $24 bottle); J. Lohr Seven Oaks Cabernet ($9 glass; $27 bottle); Freemark Abbey Chardonnay ($46 bottle only); and Silver Palm Cabernet ($38 bottle only).
Little Viet Garden
6783 Wilson Blvd. (Eden Center)
Sunday-Thursday: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Appetizers: $4 to $10.95
Pho: $8.95 to $9.95
Entrées: $11.95 to $18.95
Desserts: $2.95 to $5.95
Ample parking in the Eden Center lot. (Pro tip: On extra-busy days, look for spots behind the shopping center.)