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Sep 20, 2008 01:16 PM

Present, new Vietnamese in Falls Church

My daughter and I had a truly enjoyable meal at this new place on Rte 50 where Secert Garden used to be and in the same shopping strip as Baskin Robbins and the JV bar.
But it took some persistence on our part.

The place looks great with some of the fine woodwork of the previous tenant, plus they installed beautiful tables and a gorgeous fountain with live Vietnamese water plants and little fishies. Neither for eating.

After we selected our dishes from the limited menu, the waiter frowned and gave us one of the biggest "you no like" that I've ever encountered. After we stuck to our guns, then it was the manager's turn to persuade us to change our order. True, we each ordered a soup, which might not make a great family-style meal, but they were sure we wouldn't like what we ordered. We adored both dishes.

My daughter (9) found a palpable hit with the watercress and minced pork soup. The broth for this was killer. I ordered off-menu and chose the Bun Bo Hue, aka Hue Spicy Beef Noodle Soup. The soup also had beef bone, shrimp pate, and blood pudding. On the side they brought a variety of herbs, sprouts, and lime. Not as spicy as most versions but the beef, bone, and blood all added deliciousness to the soup

They said that don't have a full menu yet, hence the limited selection. Also off menu was a Duck Noodle dish that sounded promising.

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  1. I saw a coupon for $15 off of $100 order. The coupon has a picture of a nice looking lobster dish. I'm guessing they are trying to serve upscale Vietnamese, not just a fancy pho house?

    1 Reply
    1. re: Ericandblueboy

      The decor is upscale. The menu items are given fancy titles, like "Being There and Now", but the descriptions (and prices) are no different than what you'll find elewhere

      I thought I read somewhere there is a relation between this place and the Four Sisters family.....?

    2. tried this for the first time yesterday with my parents before they leave to go back to vietnam for a few weeks. terrible food.

      i had just about as basic a dish as any vietnamese dish is: com bi suon cha trung. the rice was stale, the pork was absolutely awful. it was chewy, had a strange texture that made me think it was frozen and thawed a couple times. how do you screw this up? my mother had bun thit nuong cha gio and the pork was undercooked and inedible.

      15 Replies
      1. re: hueman

        Another opinion or two or three with photos: An excerpt that I wrote: "This is the best Vietnamese restaurant in the suburbs and, overall, one of the best ethnic restaurants in the D. C. area. I'd even suggest that it is as good as the best that I've found on the West Coast. I would strongly suggest going with a larger group and sharing a round table with a lazy susan in the middle. I'm sure that several others including Don will report on our lunch but we worked our way through, I think, 7 dishes including "duck in tamarind basket," "cow on the open field, "shrimp in the fresh ocean" (outstanding!), "treasure from the sea(excellent!) an extraordinary 4 lb (?) crispy, fried rockfish equal to any fried rockfish/flounder I have had anywhere, excellent spring rolls, sauteed asparagus and one or two more dishes that I can't remember. A remarkable meal that totalled $142 + tip for seven people which included the $40 crispy rockfish-which was worth EVERY penny."

        1. re: Joe H

          good link, Joe... but the fact that they seem to think Four Sisters is the Measuring Stick of Vietnamese restaurants is a little dodgy. the other restaurant they mention, Minh's, is not bad, though.

          1. re: hueman

            I have never been to Minh, but Four Sister left me with one of the worst Mi Vit Tiem (Duck Noodle Soup) I've ever had, and I have never came back there again. I do agree with hueman that to take Four Sister as the "Measuring Stick" is not a fair comparison. Giving Four Sister's reputation as one of the oldest Vietnamese restaurant on the East Coast, I'd say they've created their own "Vietnamese Cuisine Standard" to the locals, most of whom have never been to Vietnam --- which means they have no idea what Vietnamese food really taste like. On the other hand, cooking Vietnamese food to satisfy Vietnamese is a tremendously challenging task, since its cuisine varies from region to region, some of which is only several miles away. The variety of each dish in each location become its own standard of authenticity. With the Majority of Vietnamese in NoVa area being Southern Vietnamese, Southern Vietnamese cuisine's flavor profile became prominent over time. If you've been to Hanoi or Hue/ Danang and actually eat foods in the markets/ from street vendors... you'll see the difference.

            I had several dishes at Present, some were authentic and excellent, some were ok since there was a strong influence of Chinese and Southern Vietnamese cuisine in the Chef's creations. I had a pleasure of speaking with the owner and found out where Chef Luong Tran came from. one of his previous restaurant was an upscale establishment in District 1, Saigon, "Mandarin", a place where I personally know --- I grew up in Vietnam and came to US in 2004. My fanily's restaurant is 1 block away, where we serve mainly Northern Vietnamese cuisine.

            What I'd recommend:

            Com Suon Bi Cha (similar to broken rice with grill pork chop in Eden)
            --- The piece of pork chop - the center of this dish - is thick and well marinated with hints of lemongrass - which is missing from both Thanh Truc and Com Tam Saigon in Eden, juicy and tender, call for some "pure" fish sauce if you find the accompanying sauce being a little too light. This is an authentic Southern Vietnamese dish.

            Mi Vit Tiem - Egg noddle soup with duck --- Chinese influence noddle soup
            --- Better than the recent Hai Ky My Gia (a noddle house) in Eden, and to let you know that Hai Ky Mi Gia gained their popularity through Mi Vit Tiem.

            Banh Xeo (Saigon Pancake/ Crepe....)
            --- This is not an egg batter, fyi, the color comes from turmeric, a popular Vietnamese marinade and food coloring agent, and it's a beer batter, so the crepe smells and taste much better than those mixed from water. The lettuce and herbs are fresh plenty - this is what separates good Vietnamese restaurants from bad ones. This dish rivals the best pancake houses in Saigon, Vietnam (Yes, there are places in Saigon only serve this one dish)

            Whole Rockfish
            --- Either steamed or fried, they're best eaten with steamed rice. ask for the side of rice wrapping and veggies to kick it up a notch (addtional $5). Instead of steamed rice, you'll make your own "taco" from rice paper, lettuce, herbs, noodles, fish. This is TRUE Southern Vietnamese style of eating Whole Fish. There's a grill version - which is popular in Southern Vietnamese Countryside, but I haven't seen any restaurant having it.

            Hen Xuc Banh Da (smokey petal on their menu)

            --- One of the best I've had, fresh and spicy, a great way to start out your meal.

            Mien Xao Cua (Mosaic Pathway)

            ---This is a Northern Vietnamese dish - something I'm very familiar with and among my all time favorites. Present's take on this dish is very very Southern, yet very flavorful and it became my number one favorite of their entire menu -- although it is NOT authentic. They use good quality - real jumbo lump - crab meat, and the Chef makes it quite spicy - which I like, so you might want to ask them to tone down the heat a little if you're not a fan of pepper.

            What seems to be missing from Present's Menu is Hot Pot - which you could find in Viet Bistro, Eden Center. Hot Pot meals are very popular in Vietnamese cuisine, especially for dining out. I hope they'll have some in the future.

            I'll come back to Present some more and see if I could find anything else worth mention. Perhaps I could visit the new Four Sister sometimes and do a comparison.

              1. re: nhim_map

                Thanks so much for the extremely thorough reconnaissance. I was planning on a return trip soon, so now I'll know what tastes to expect! Anything else you can find out would be very helpful.

                There was a place (for a VERY short time) in Eden Center that did the grilled rockfish. They served it with rice crepes. Each rice crepe was served in its own steamer basket which left the crepes so supple and warm. When I ordered the same dish at Four Sisters, the rice crepes were served cold, all in a stack. It was impossible to even separate them.

                1. re: nhim_map

                  Swung by for lunch today and tried the Smokey Petal and Mi Vit Tiem.

                  When I ordered the Smokey Petal, I was thinking a plate of sauteed clams in black bean sauce. What I got looks more like a clam taco salad. The sesame rice cracker formed the shell. The clams were about 5 cm a piece. The flavor of the dish does not come from the clams though - there's something mysterious in there that's not described on the menu (and it's not just spices and herbs). A very unusual flavor to me.

                  The egg noodle soup with duck was definitely different from Hai Ky My Gia's version. The version here has more soy sauce, a hint of sugar, and shitake mushrooms. The duck leg is just as good. Overall, I prefer the version here.

                  1. re: Ericandblueboy

                    I meant the clams were about 5 mm (0.5 cm) a piece.

                    1. re: Ericandblueboy

                      I'm glad you like the duck soup, now that you mentioned it, I want some!!!

                      Did I mention the clam dish have beef? What I usually taste from it is (oif course) clam, fish sauce, pepper, Thai basil, cilantro, beef, onion... anything familiar to what you tasted?

                      1. re: nhim_map

                        I thought there was some extra protein in the dish (not mentioned on the menu either) - tasted dry and shredded into very small pieces. I'm going to try the crepe and cellophane noodles next.

                      2. re: Ericandblueboy

                        The "something extra" in the baby clam dish may have been bits of crispy pork fat. I thought they were a lot more subtle at Present than they are in the rendition of this dish at most places.

                      3. re: nhim_map

                        what exactly is the flavor proflie of mien xao cua? I'd like to try it on my first visit to present but I'm worried that it might be too risky of a dish to get.

                        also, ive had banh xeo many times but i often find it really, really greasy and heavy. is their version heavy?

                        1. re: CoconutMilk

                          Basic flavors of mien xao cua is garlic, chives, oyster sauce, soy sauce, green onions. Depends on what type of crabs you use, the dish will come out different.

                        2. re: nhim_map

                          Well after 2 months I finally came to the famous Four Sisters' new location. The interior is very nice, a big step up from other Vietnamese restaurants.
                          The menu was a little disappointing, given all the hype about this place being one of the best Vietnamese restaurants of NoVa. Not bad food, just boring food. An equivalent of a Ruby Tuesday's menu ( sorry Ruby Tuesday fans, but I doubt that there are any in here)...

                          For the purpose of a comparison to Present just more than a mile away, I ordered:

                          1. Goi Ngo Sen: lotus roots salads -- Their papaya salad is served with pork and shrimp ---> which means no yummy beef jerky or spicy dressing.. I'll pass

                          2. Hen Xuc Banh Da: baby clams (Smokey Petal at Present)
                          3. Bo Luc Lac: "Shaky Beef" or stir fried beef cubes
                          4. Mi Xao Don: Crispy egg noodles with stir fried seafood.

                          1. Goi Ngo Sen: Solid salad with plenty of lotus roots, pork, peanuts, mint, and cilantro. Some more shrimp would be nice, but it is a good salad, anyway.

                          2. Hen xuc banh da: if you happen to dine at Four Sisters, STAY AWAY from this dish. Well it isn't bad, it's just a bad impostor of the stir fried baby clams I've had so nay times in Saigon. Shredded boiled pork belly stir fried with baby clam and cilantro??? Oh come on, even the seasoning is wrong, where's lemongrass and Vietnamese coriander (rau ram)??? I was very dissapointed.

                          3. Bo luc lac: Very very very good, I tell you, very good. I have not had "shaky beef" this good in a while. Please order it here anytime you have a chance.

                          4. Mi Xao Don: Fish cakes do not belong to Vietnamese food, please leave them out!!! They'll just make you food look cheaper, and frankly, taste worse. I don't know what's wrong with the chef at Four Sisters when he/ she made this dish. The sauce, though well seasoned, lacks depth. NO!!!

                          Service was mediocre at best. The server saw us 4 times: taking appetizer and drink orders, then came back with a "are you ready!!!" for entree, then picked up our plates and lastly, to drop off the check. Not even a water refill.

                          Well, I'll probably come back to this place again sometimes to try their other dishes, but for now, Present and Saigon Cafe are still on top.

                          1. re: nhim_map

                            Just to be clear (because this thread is about Present): you are reviewing a meal you had at Four Sisters, and not a meal you had a Present, right?

                          2. re: nhim_map

                            Tried two interesting dishes yesterday. 1. Fragrant River Vermicelli (Bun rieu), described as gumbo with crab paste and shrimp. I love this noodle soup (even though it's the first time I've had it) but it's not thick and it has some rather mysterious seafood paste (could be crab, could be fish, could be shrimp), fried tofu, blood cubes, and lots of tomatos. Not spicy but very flavorful. Could someone enlighten as to what's supposed to be in the soup as well as place of origin? 2. Mushroom in the Field, described as stir fried mushrooms, okra and chicken intestines but the version I got was more like Roosting in Cauliflower Basket because my plate of stir-fry had heart, liver and gizzard but it's served with green peppers, mushrooms, some kind of squash and some kind of eggplant. The gizzards were crunchy - thus perfectly cooked. I like innards so this was another tasty dish to me.

                    2. the only thing I can say is that there is a rumor that Viet cuisine is sometimes altered for American tastes.

                      I find that to be incorrect. It is usually the presentation which is made for a mass audience.
                      Otherwise, it still comes down to indv. preferences.

                      That said, I almost went to Present this past Sunday night but chose to go accross the street to Miu Kee for crispy pork - which they ran out of when we got to order. :(

                      My loss - should have gone w/ my first instinct to try Present.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: r0cc00

                        While I can't speak for Present, I can say that the rumour you heard is not just a rumour. There are definitely restaurants that alter Vietnamese cuisine to suit an American palate. It's not so obvious like Chinese take-out, but it's a more subtle adjustment like Americanized Thai food. The spicing isn't quite as heightened, but enough of the profile is there that no one is going to mistake the cuisine's heritage. (Example: how the fish sauce is prepared is usually a dead giveaway.)

                        Now, I'm not saying that some Vietnamese folks don't prefer their foods like there, but if you talk to the Vietnamese community in any city, I can bet that you'll find restaurants that the majority agrees has been Americanized (and it's a safe bet that it might also be the one they'll take you to if they don't have faith that you're looking for "real" VN food).

                      2. After the Sietsema review, Present was completely filled last night. People were waiting for a table all night long. I'm not sure why they didn't want to sit outside on the new deck, because there were a few empty tables. On the most glorious night of the year, go figure. Good for us, we were seated immediately. I ignored the cutesy names on the menu:

                        Green papaya salad with liver jerky. Fancy presentation, nice dark sauce.
                        Duck with orange sauce. They do a great job roasting the duck.. Delicious skin and meat. Nothing special about the sauce, but this duck doesn't need a special sauce.
                        Shaky beef - average.
                        Banh Xeo - easily the best I've had. I gave up ordering this long ago because it is oily elsewhere. Still, not a taste sensation, and I don't think I'll get it again. But if you desire this dish, this is THE place to go.

                        Next time, I'll go for the whole fish. I see the bun bo hue is now on the menu.

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: Steve

                          Is banh xeo ever a taste sensation? I've never had it where the fillings are actually tasty and flavorful. Is that the way it's supposed to be?

                          1. re: Steve

                            I went there for lunch today (NOT because of the Sietsema review, just bad timing...I'd been wanting to go forever) and the food was quite good considering how obviously overwhelmed all the waiters were. They were OUT of the imperial autumn rollls, the papaya salad and the lotus root salad, as well as the banana fritter dessert.

                            The banh xeo was the worse thing we lacked flavor. It needed more pickled carrot, more seasoning in the filling, cilantro and thai basil as herb options, and a spicier fish sauce dip. Also, I could tase the beer in their batter and I didn't like it as compared to those made with water. I make better banh xeo at home and I'm not even Vietnamese.

                            The smokey petal (clams and ground beef in a sesame rice cracker shell) was very different but pretty good...make sure you spritz plenty of lime over it. It would have been better if it was served with herbs and lettuce (which i think it was supposed to be but wasn't).

                            The grilled pork vermicelli was pretty average...lots of fresh herbs and stuff but the pork itself was a little chewy and nowhere near as good as Minhs. I probably wouldnt order it again

                            The mosaic pathway (cellophane noodle stir fry with crab and veggies) was chinesey-tasting and a little salty but I enjoyed it. A very different dish and supposedly a signature one.

                            The star of the meal was Cow on the Open Field (the shaking beef)....I'm shocked that you called it "average." I thought the beef was tender and the spectrum of flavors of the dish (vinegary, beefy, rich, tangy, crisp, bright) was excellent. It was the best balanced dish of the meal by a long shot.

                            I can tell this place has the potential to put out some amazing food, but it's clear the dishes are hit and miss and the staff is going to have some trouble getting out great food over the next few months when lines will be out the door. I only regret I didnt go earlier.

                            1. re: CoconutMilk

                              Oh well, don't be shocked, I liked it, but I like this dish in quite a few places. At Nam Viet it is served with a very delicious lemon-pepper sauce plus the vegetables tend to be a bit charred which I love and the beef is in larger chunks some of which are medium rare. Though any one item out of the kitchen can be different from time to time.

                              You make a very good point about the fish sauce. It lacks character. That is not a matter of lines out the door, that is a matter of a restaurant trying to appeal to a broad spectrum.

                              1. re: CoconutMilk

                                Since this is one of my favorite Vietnamese restaurants here in NoVa, I'd like to help defend the folks at Present.

                                The baby clam dish is prepare exactly how it should be in Saigon, Vietnam. It's unfortunate you did not like it very much, but Vietnamese food is a lot more than just herbs and lettuce.

                                As for Banh Xeo... The crepe and the fillings are not supposed to be seasoned. If you think the fish sauce is watered down too much, ask for pure fish sauce. Nine Vietnamese will have ten different opinions about that same fish sauce, it is a delicate task to prepare a fish sauce that could accommodate as much diners as you would like. However, part of the Vietnamese cuisine experience is that you add your own touch to the food, so, again, ask for more condiments to complete your food the way you like it.

                                1. re: nhim_map

                                  i respect what you have to say about vietnamese food and i agree that it is a cuisine in which the diner has alot of say in how a dish will ultimately taste.

                                  perhaps i need to be more forthright in asking for more seasonings if i want them. but i find it hard to believe that a dish is supposed to be inherently bland. the banh xeo was flat and no amount of fish sauce would have saved it. if that is an authentic preparation of the dish than i guess i just dont like it.

                                  i dont know why you feel the need to defend Present... i did not knock the restaurant, i just gave a blow by blow of what we had, some of which was good, some very good, and some not so great.

                                  ill go back eventually, but for now huong viet is still my favorite vietnamese place in the area.

                            2. My family and I just ate there for the first time on Sunday night. I am a NY hound but was visiting the fam in VA, and at my insistence on getting some authentic pho, my cousin and his family took us to Present on recommendation by his Viet neighbor.

                              We walked in and it definitely wasn't what I was expecting - I wanted down and "dirty" authentic pho house. This was a nicely-done restaurant complete with outdoor seating and a non-Vietnamese clientele. Uh oh.

                              No pho on the menu, unfortunately, so I ordered the spicy Than Kinh (?) imperial beef noodle soup. In the bowl, it looked great - thick white round noodles with bits of Viet ham, blood cake and assorted beef bits in a dark brown soup with what looked like chile oil on top. The dish came with bean sprouts and what looked like some brown shredded bean curd strands (I think it was shredded root vegetable of some kind, like a radish), so I dumped those all in and added squirts of lime and basil. It definitely looked like a flavor explosion waiting to happen, but..... very mild. So mild, I started looking around the dining room for some sriracha to amp things up. I was surprised and disappointed at how tame the overall flavor was.

                              My cousin got the whole fried rockfish since we saw those at pretty much every table. He said it was good, but not expertly fried (kinda getting soggy). My cousin's wife got the salt fried shrimp, which she said needed salt desperately. Also, she had told the waiter no cilantro (she can't handle it), and it came back with what looked like flecks of cilantro. She took a taste just in case, and shuddered. The waiter told her that it wasn't cilantro, it was culantro. Umm. Ok, but she couldn't stand that either.

                              My bf was fine with his bun dish. It did look great in the bowl, didn't get a taste of it. But we had fish sauce with our Autumn Roll that I thought was too tame as well, so I can't imagine it was that flavorful. The Autumn Rolls came highly recommended by the waiter and all of the reviews posted outside, but it tasted like a plain, unremarkable fried meat roll to me. I took two small bites and gave it away. Not even wrapping it in the lettuce and pickled veggies provided much relief from the dull, heavy fried meat taste.

                              My brother ordered bo luc lac (here, it was a mystical name like "Cow grazing on the banks of the magical river" or something, but this is something that's pretty much on all Vietnamese menus. He didn't complain, but hey, steak cubes to a 22 year old guy is good no matter what. He said it was just ok though.

                              We had the salad in pineapple as an app, and it was fine, but they hadn't hollowed out the pineapple too much, so there wasn't much to go around. Pineapple in dishes and presentations is very common here. They had run out of both the green papaya salad and the lotus root salad :(

                              So final verdict was that this was a place not really worth returning to. My cousin's family said they preferred Four Sisters. I've been there too, and I think I'd still rather go to a plain, no-frills pho house over either of them (I know, not really a fair comparison unless you're just going to eat pho). But I came in with the feeling that this place would Americanize the food, and unfortunately, the meal confirmed it.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: janethepain

                                If you want real "down and dirty" Vietnamese with no apologies for flavor explosions, then you have to go to Bay Lo in Eden Center, which is my standard Chowhound recommendation for Vietnamese. No English spoken, really, so you are left with pointing at the menu. Next time you are visiting your family, just ask in advance.

                                1. re: Steve

                                  Awesome, thanks. I had done my Chowhound research and wanted to go to Eden Center but my cousin assured me that he's been to Eden Center and for pho, likes Pho Bistro the best. He HAS grown up around the area and has eaten Viet food before it ever became popular, but next time, I'll push for what the Hounds recommend.

                                  1. re: Steve

                                    Check out Huong Viet as well...