Lai and Tran retired when Tune Que closed, however the model title they created lives on. 4 Sisters (initially known as Huong Que when the couple opened the restaurant within the early Nineteen Nineties on the Eden Middle) continues to hum alongside in Merrifield. The Four Sisters Grill, a venture established by eldest son Hoa however now run by eldest daughter Ly and her husband, stays a fixture in Clarendon, which was as soon as the nexus of Vietnamese life till the Metro station debuted and compelled the neighborhood out west, to the Eden Middle.
4 years in the past, nonetheless, one other 4 Sisters model took root in Ashburn, Va., solely 2o-some miles from the Eden Middle however one million miles away spiritually. Youngest son Thuan Lai opened 4 Sisters Asian Snack Bar in 2018 together with his spouse, Angela. Their store borrows the title of the household’s flagship restaurant however trades in lots of the sandwiches and drinks that, for greater than a decade, made Tune Que a daily cease on the Eden Middle.
Thuan, you may recall, was once the supervisor at Tune Que. When the deli served its final bubble tea, he wasn’t certain what his future held. He considered leaving the restaurant enterprise. He briefly toyed with a profession in actual property. However sooner or later, he realized he missed the human connection that eating places present, even throughout a pandemic. He missed speaking to folks. He missed that second when meals meets mouth, and a diner’s face lights up. For folks within the meals biz, that second is a contact excessive like no different.
“I felt like I used to be born into it,” says Thuan, who began busing tables at his father or mother’s restaurant as a youngster. “So it was arduous to stroll away.”
He satisfied his spouse to desert her flower enterprise and begin 4 Sisters Asian Snack Bar, hoping they could have the ability to nook the market in Ashburn, the place milk teas and banh mi had been comparatively uncommon till the couple debuted their deli in November 2018. Their snack bar (by the way, Thuan says there’s no significance to the store utilizing the Roman quantity “4” within the title slightly than spelling it out) shouldn’t be a duplicate of Tune Que. The area, tucked into the Shoppes at Ryan Park, is simply too small and too slender to accommodate the unfold of sticky rice desserts, mangosteens, che, Vietnamese jerky, jelly flower cups and different objects that used to grace virtually each flat floor at Tune Que.
Area performs an element within the choices on the snack bar. However so do demographics. Thuan and Angela examined the Ashburn market with sticky rice cakes for the Lunar New Year and Vietnamese jerky, amongst different choices, and the market rejected them. So their menu is tightly centered on banh mi, boba teas, vermicelli and jasmine rice plates, and pork spring rolls. They’ve additionally grafted a few international objects onto the menu: Spam musubi and french fries, the latter of which you’ll have dusted with an non-compulsory chili powder that can, fairly actually, take a look at your warmth tolerance. I may choke down only some fries earlier than I retreated to the consolation of my taro milk tea, its starchy sweetness the right antidote.
Thuan, 45, and Angela, 35, have extra in frequent with the elders of the Lai household than a want to erect a Vietnamese deli. The homeowners, like Lai and Tran earlier than them, are dedicated to homestyle Vietnamese cooking, however simply as essential, they’ve the 24/7 work ethic to execute their strategy. A lot of what they promote is ready in-house, regardless of a scarcity of employees out there to help them within the kitchen. Everytime you stroll into 4 Sisters, the chances are good that Thuan and Angela will probably be there, making ready your order. About half the recipes, Thuan says, are hand-me-downs from his mom. The opposite half are home creations, just like the Spam musubi, out there solely on the weekends. Tailored from a recipe by Sly Liao, a chef who’s married to Ly Lai, the musubi is filled with a slab of pan-fried Spam, its candy soy-based marinade outstanding even when engulfed in rice.
The homeowners don’t bake their very own Vietnamese baguettes for the banh mi, however they’ve sourced an excellent loaf, one with a lightweight, crackly crust and a gentle crumb that yields to no matter is packed inside. A number of of the protein choices — grilled lemongrass rooster, grilled lemongrass beef, grilled pork and Vietnamese tofu — are utility gamers at 4 Sisters, out there for no matter car you want: banh mi roll, jasmine rice or vermicelli noodles. Each a type of proteins slips comfortably into the baguette, however I have to admit, the banh mi that speaks to me most is the one which stands alone: menu merchandise M5, a crusty roll slathered with pate and layered with thick slices of cha lua, the Vietnamese processed ham with the trace of fish sauce. My solely difficulty is with the garnish, the normal slivers of pickled daikon and carrot. They lean candy. I missed that blast of acid to chop via the richness.
However you recognize what I feel is ideal? Thuan and Angela’s nuoc cham, the Vietnamese condiment/sauce that may make or break a vermicelli or rice-based dish. Their nuoc cham hits that candy spot during which the chili peppers, sugar and fish sauce converse with equal voice. The condiment immediately provides depth and concord to every little thing it touches, whether or not the crispy spring rolls with vermicelli or the jasmine rice with grilled pork.
Nearly as good because the grilled pork over rice is at 4 Sisters, it wasn’t even the most effective model I encountered in Ashburn. Or it wasn’t till mid-October, when Saigon Outcast abruptly closed its doorways, one other sufferer of the lengthy, whip-cracking tail of the pandemic. The proprietor of Saigon Outcast was Hoa Lai, the previous chef at 4 Sisters and the older brother of Thuan. The siblings had independently sought out Ashburn for his or her subsequent initiatives. Now just one Lai brother stays standing, a painful reminder that the hospitality trade isn’t at all times a merit-based enterprise, particularly in a pandemic. The worst half, nonetheless, is how a enterprise failure can forged an extended, ugly shadow. Once I contacted Hoa, he stated that, at age 46, he’s accomplished with eating places.
“By no means going again!” he texted.
His frustration was palpable. Possibly in the future, after the ache fades, Hoa will rethink the choice. However within the meantime, we nonetheless have 4 Sisters Asian Snack Bar.
4 Sisters Asian Snack Bar
43670 Greenway Company Dr., No. 106, Ashburn, Va., 571-510-3978; foursisterssnackbar.com.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday, and Wednesday via Saturday; 11:30 a.m. to six p.m. Sunday. Closed Tuesday.
Nearest Metro: Ashburn, with a few 1-mile stroll to the store.
Costs: $4.45 to $12.95 for all objects on the menu.