The Lai Family’s Vietnamese Food is a Northern Virginia Tradition
It’s tough time to be a restauranteur, but well-established favorites like Four Sisters are successfully weathering this pandemic. Of course, it’s not been easy. But thanks to support from devoted diners, and a system that protects both staff and clientele, Four Sisters has maintained their longstanding tradition of serving high-quality Vietnamese food while providing the same heartfelt service they’re famous for.
The story of Four Sisters Restaurant begins back in 1982, when Thanh and Kim Lai, along with their six children, immigrated to the United States from Bien Hoa, Vietnam. When the family first arrived, Thanh and Kim worked shifts for a hot dog vendor in D.C. until they saved up enough to buy a food truck of their own. They sold Vietnamese street food with recipes created by Thanh, and the food was a hit. In 1993, the Lai’s were able to purchase a tiny, 30-seat restaurant called Houng Que (meaning a “taste of home”) at the Eden Center in Falls Church’s Little Vietnam. Thanh cooked, Kim ran the business, and the kids took turns serving customers. “All the dishes were created by my mom Thanh Lai. She is self-taught,” explains Le Lai, one of the family’s four daughters. “My family has always had a passion for food, but we didn’t go out much, because Mom’s cooking was better than any restaurant we went to.”
Even though there were more than 100 other Vietnamese and Chinese-Vietnamese businesses in Eden Center, Houng Que developed an expansive following, allowing the Lai’s to buy a second 170-seat restaurant in Eden Center to accommodate their growing clientele. The first location continued selling Banh Mi, Vietnamese desserts and bubble teas, while the new restaurant offered full service dining featuring Thanh’s signature dishes. “It was a big jump, but customers loved my mom’s homestyle cooking, and they loved our personalized service,” says Le Lai. “We got busier, and eventually, it was becoming too hard to find parking at Eden Center. We knew it was time to find a better location.”
Huong Que’s trajectory skyrocketed after being featured on celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations in 2008. Around the time that the show aired, the family had already decided to move the full-service restaurant to the Mosaic District. “Many people questioned our decision. They said to us, ‘are you sure you want to do that? You have a golden egg,’” Le Lai says. This was before Mosaic became the bustling urban village it is today.
When they moved to Strawberry Lane, Huong Que morphed into Four Sisters, named for the founders’ four daughters. Two of the sisters—Le Lai and her sister Lieu Lai-Williams—took on key roles at the restaurant. Here, they had ample parking, and the restaurant was closer to where the family lived. Unfortunately, the move coincided with the crash of the economy. “Even though we were nervous, we still felt strongly that we should move. Thank God we did. We are blessed because our customers followed us.”
The eight member Lai Family has since branched out with husbands and wives, but remains a harmonious team managing every aspect of their restaurant’s operation. Four Sisters’ aromatic grilled meats, marinated for 24 hours and served alongside zesty vegetable salads, make it easy to understand such faithfulness. While the Mosaic District sprouted up around them, many new customers discovered Four Sisters. “We love Mosaic! We have our own little town here,” Le Lai enthuses. “There’s good foot traffic. It’s fun. I’m glad I’m part of it.”
Like so many during this pandemic, the businesses in Mosaic have been challenged. There are definitely fewer people patronizing the shops and restaurants, but the community is seeing a slow return, and Le Lai says she hopes “things will we be better for all of us.”
If you’re a longtime fan of Four Sisters, you’ll be glad the Lai family doesn’t mess with tradition. Think Asian comfort food with fresh ingredients. Thanh and Kim have since retired, so Lieu Lai-Williams, and Le Lai’s husband Kelven Chu have taken over the kitchen. They’ve added some new dishes, but the menu still offers favorites like peppered Beef, Curried Chicken, caramelized whole Sea Bass, and fried tofu with chilis and lemongrass encased in a clay pot.
If it’s your first visit to Four Sisters, try the Cha Gio, crispy pork spring rolls with tart fish sauce. Not your classic spring rolls, these ice paper crackles when you nibble into the cranny of soft noodles, ground pork, carrot shavings and dry mushrooms. Le Lai suggests wrapping your spring roll in lettuce leaves, then dipping into fish sauce heated with chilis – it’s a detonation of crunchy, smooth, sour and heat – a complex and irresistible bite.
The refreshing Bo Luc Lac consists of marinated cubes of beef served over a tangle of peppery watercress, accompanied by briny lime dip. Categorized as a “Lettuce Wrap,” the Banh Hoi Tom Thit Nuong is a feast comprising grilled shrimp, balls of Vermicelli, and grilled pork evocative of blistered bacon. Orange Chicken is a heaping portion of thinly-shaved dark meat chicken, deeply coated in citrus, ginger and garlic. The restaurant’s Pho contains high quality cuts of meat in a broth perfumed with star anise, cinnamon and cloves. Each, a sensual play of textures and flavors.
Le Lai says Vietnamese food is very “feminine,” because the country’s cooks are usually women. She says that unlike the chefs from Europe, Vietnamese chefs finely chop and slice every ingredient, and strive for lightness in their cooking. The Lai family originally hails from South Vietnam, a region with a long growing season, where a variety of fruits, vegetables and livestock flourish. The cooks there have access to fresh seafood and often incorporate the sweetness of coconut milk with sharp-tasting greens. Interestingly, Anthony Bourdain, who visited Four Sisters all those years ago, said dining in Vietnam was a labor of love for him. In one of the last episodes of Parts Unknown, he met up with President Obama for a meal in Hanoi. The chef famously said, “Vietnam. It grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Once you love it, you love it forever.”
So although the Lai sisters have closed their flower-filled dining room during the coronavirus pandemic, Four Sisters still offers outdoor dining surrounded by tropical plants, along with convenient, contactless take-out and delivery. After 27 years in business, you can still taste why this immigrant family found both acclaim and loyalty in their adopted home in Northern Virginia.
Four Sisters Restaurant
Merrifield Town Center
8190 Strawberry Lane, Suite 1
Falls Church, VA 22042