Vietnamese food like Mom's at Four Sisters

There aren’t many restaurants that can claim to be a favorite of one of the Washington area’s most celebrated chefs. In fact, there’s only one, the aptly named Four Sisters restaurant at Seven Corners in Northern Virginia, which was recently accorded that honor by Patrick O’Donnell of the famed Inn at Little Washington.

That’s quite a compliment, coming from the chef and co-owner of a restaurant widely regarded as one of the best in America. But I understand why he feels that way after numerous visits to this unassuming family restaurant in the middle of a bustling Vietnamese commercial enclave just off Arlington Boulevard, about a mile from the East Falls Church Metro.

patrick g. ryan
Right to left, Lieu Lai, Ly Lai, Loan Lai and Le Lai at their namesake restaurant, Four Sisters, in Falls Church, Va.

I’ve eaten here many times over the years, since it’s near my home, and did so again Sunday night with my wife. Even though it was early, the 180-seat restaurant was nearly filled, as it almost always is every time I’ve been there, with many tables occupied by families with small children and babies. I was pleased to see two Fairfax County police officers leaving with takeout orders, as there has been some Vietnamese gang violence at Eden Center in recent months.

Even though this 12-year-old restaurant takes its name from the four Lai sisters — Ly, 36; Le, 33; Loan, 32 and Lieu, 31 — it’s a bit of a misnomer, since it’s a family business involving their parents and two brothers as well as a son-in-law. The father, Kim Lai, a former professional soccer player, and his wife Thanh Tran brought their six children here from Binh Hoa, near Saigon, in 1982 and decided to open a restaurant after the children complained that no Vietnamese restaurant in the Washington area served as good of food as their mother cooked at home.

Dad still manages the restaurant, and Mom still works in the kitchen, as well as in the Song Que Deli next door that the family opened four years ago and is managed by Ly — whose husband is executive chef at the Sequoia restaurant on the Georgetown waterfront. One of the Lai sons, Hoa, 29, is a chef at Four Sisters while another, Thuan, 28, is a waiter along with Le’s husband.

During my latest visit, Le, who goes by Le Lai to differentiate her from her older sister Li (pronounced the same way), offered to help us navigate the menu, which includes 17 chef’s specialties and a daunting 210 other menu choices identified both by their Vietnamese names and English descriptions, as well as six different family dinner specials for two to six people.

Le, who is expecting her second son any day now (“I’m working until I’m due, in two weeks”), recommended we try one of Patrick O’Donnell’s favorites: grilled black-peppered beef served on a bed of crisp greens, sliced tomatoes and surgically sliced scallions ($12.95). I recently ordered another of his favorites, crispy fillet of sea bass, saut饤 with black-bean sauce, at $18.95. It costs $2 more than before — the only item on the menu that has increased in price, maybe because word has gotten around that he likes it. Both were first-rate.

We started with four crispy spring rolls ($3.50) and an order of shrimp toast ($3.95). The former, served with Vietnamese fish sauce and a salt-and-pepper mixture into which you squeeze fresh lime quarters, was superb, but the shrimp had all but abandoned the shrimp toast somewhere along the way.

Since soft-shell crabs are in season, I also ordered the baked salt and spiced soft shells ($15.95), along with asparagus saut饤 with garlic — my wife’s favorite — and the combination fried rice (both $8.95). The crabs were delicious, crispy and delicately spiced; the asparagus, cut diagonally into inch-long segments, was fresh and flavorful; and the fried rice, most of which we took home for my wife’s lunch the next day, was chock full of shrimp, beef and chicken.

Already quite sated, I decided not to try any of the 12 exotic Vietnamese dishes, like the combination of pork blood and intestines or the frog legs saut饤 with lemongrass and a touch of curry chili.

For the record, if you want to eat like O’Donnell, who often comes here with his partner Reinhardt Lynch on Tuesdays, when their restaurant is closed, ask for the shrimp and pork garden rolls with peanut sauce, the shredded vegetables with shrimp and pork, the eye of round beef noodle soup, the grilled lemongrass chicken on steamed thin vermicelli or the grilled lemongrass chicken.

There’s a limited but well-chosen and reasonably priced wine list that includes two excellent offerings, a Bouchard Per et Fils Pouilly Fuisse from France and a Markham merlot from Napa Valley — (nobody will look sideways at you if you order merlot here) — both $39, as well as a good selection of wines by the glass and beers, including a personal favorite, Singha from Thailand.

Take my word for it, and if that’s not enough, take O’Donnell’s word: You won’t find a better Vietnamese restaurant in the Washington area.