January 2007: 100 Very Best Restaurants

This Vietnamese kitchen is an Eden Center standout.

No. 50: Viet Royale

Being next door to the most popular restaurant in the Eden Center, the sprawling plaza that constitutes the area’s Little Saigon, is a bit like being friends with the most popular kid in school. Your accomplishments tend to get overshadowed.

Viet Royale has handled its off-the-radar status gracefully, resisting the temptation to sweeten its dishes or push its staff to do a better job of selling the cuisine. What it lacks in cuddliness it makes up for with cooking that’s frequently as challenging as it is satisfying.

Sizzling prawns in coconut juice makes good on the promise of excitement in its name. The coconut juice, reduced so it resembles a caramel sauce, is so good you’re tempted to scoop it onto your rice to eat alone, but the plump, heads-on prawns are terrific, too. Bite-size spareribs are slow-braised with lemongrass, giving them an intriguing sourness that mitigates the oily richness of the pork. A hash of chopped baby clams, minced pork, fried garlic, incendiary chilies, and peanuts (spoon it up with a crunchy black sesame cake) is that rare thing, a greaseless stir-fry; it’s also a fascinating interplay of textures and flavors.

The kitchen’s range is impressive, and there are no weak areas on the menu. Even dishes that don’t wow are rewarding: A plate of stir-fried squid with black beans is a delicious medley of sweet, sour, and fermented.

If there’s little interaction with the staff, the consolation is a well-paced meal and a sweet freebie to send you home: a cup of thin sweet custard dotted with tapioca and spiked with ground-up bits of corn.

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Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Logan Circle.