June 2006 Cheap Eats
Of the more than two dozen restaurants in the Eden Center, the cultural hub of Northern Virginia's Vietnamese community, none has as broad a following as this high-ceilinged space done up with orchids and a gold-framed portrait of the four founding Lai sisters.
Sprawling families, giggling babies, and cuddling dates, about half Vietnamese and half not, stream in and out. Credit some of Huong Que's popularity to its endorsement several years ago by the Inn at Little Washington's Patrick O'Connell, a regular of the restaurant (he always starts with the garden rolls). O'Connell persuaded the owners to adopt the easier name "Four Sisters."
It's the most accessible restaurant in the Eden Center for non-Vietnamese diners: Menus are in English, and forks are on the table. Service is gracious and refined. The tradeoff? It's not as adventurous as some of its neighbors. Plates of generically sweet lemongrass chicken and five-spice beef make you think the kitchen is playing more to perceived Western tastes than to its roots. And sometimes the kitchen gets sloppy: A rice crepe arrived one night heavy with grease, and the rice-paper wrappers on an order of garden rolls were stale and stiff.
Still, Huong Que has its charms. Shredded green-papaya salad, dashed with chilies and lime juice, is full of pink shrimp and slivers of roasted pork. Peppery pork spring rolls are lightly fried and crisp. A sauté of baby clams and finely chopped pork, served with pebbly sesame-rice crackers, makes a marvelous canapé. A big bowl of clams with black-bean sauce is a nice starter for a group. And meals-in-a-bowl such as pho and bun are dependable.