4 Sisters Vietnamese restaurant to shut after 30 years

For nearly 15 years, locals have recognized the place solely as 4 Sisters, a Vietnamese mainstay that has existed comfortably close to a buying district that features Goal, Sephora, Warby Parker and Le Ache Quotidien. However for the primary 15 years of its existence, the restaurant was often called Huong Que, and it began life within the Eden Middle, the nexus of Vietnamese meals and tradition in Falls Church the place you may savor a bowl of aromatic pho, store for the newest in pop music from Vietnam or decide up savory sticky rice muffins for Lunar New Yr.

The arc of the restaurant, from Huong Que to 4 Sisters, from a strip heart catering largely to Vietnamese immigrants to a buying district catering largely to Virginia suburbanites, displays the journey of the household behind the enterprise. The Lai household landed in America in 1981 with two black trash baggage, representing all their worldly belongings. Over the course of three many years, they grew to become the primary household of Vietnamese cooking within the D.C. space, their eating places frequented by well-known cooks and on a regular basis diners alike.

On Sunday, 4 Sisters will formally finish its run because the area’s best-known, and presumably most beloved, Vietnamese restaurant. After an virtually 30-year run, it is going to shut on Mom’s Day, which appears applicable for a restaurant constructed on the recipes of Thanh Tran, the matriarch of the Lai household.

Tran and her husband, Kim Lai, the founders of Huong Que in 1993, are “having such a tough time even now listening to the restaurant [is] closing. Their hearts are damaged. However of their minds, they perceive,” stated Lieu Lai-Williams, co-owner with sister, Le Lai, since 2014. “It’s a cross between understanding that life goes on and we’re prepared to maneuver on, however our hearts are nonetheless there. Mine, too. I’m not going to sit down right here and say, ‘Oh, I don’t really feel something.’ I do. How will you not? That’s what the household labored for, you understand?”

After surviving the worst that the pandemic may throw at them, Lieu and Le Lai determined the time was proper to drag the plug on 4 Sisters. There have been a number of components: They had been on the finish of their lease and going through a hire improve. They, like everybody else within the enterprise, had been coping with labor shortages and inflationary pressures. However Lieu additionally simply needed to frolicked together with her two youngsters, ages 12 and 10.

“The deciding level for me personally was my youngsters. Simply eager to be dwelling with them. I simply don’t have the power anymore. I’m type of younger to be saying that, proper?” stated Lieu, 48. “Nevertheless it’s been 30 years. It’s not like I’ve solely been doing this for 5 years.”

“I really feel like now we have succeeded. Now we have made our mark. I’m prepared for the following chapter, no matter that could be,” she added.

The paradox of the Huong Que/4 Sisters story is that it’s all about household — and their skill to work collectively to outlive after which thrive — however typically at the price of household togetherness exterior the all-consuming calls for of the restaurant trade. When Kim and Tran first moved to the States from their dwelling in Bien Hoa, simply exterior Ho Chi Minh Metropolis (previously Saigon), they labored a number of jobs to assist their six youngsters. They ultimately bought into meals carts and vehicles, promoting sizzling canine and such to workplace employees and vacationers alike.

“Actually, I by no means noticed my dad and mom as a child,” oldest son Hoa Lai, 47, instructed me years in the past for a Washington City Paper story. “My sister’s the one who raised us. Not that I’m saying my dad and mom weren’t there on a regular basis.”

However the merchandising enterprise — and all of the household hours invested in making it succeed — helped fund Kim and Tran’s subsequent challenge, Huong Que, which first occupied a small area contained in the lonesome corridors of the Eden Middle. So many earlier companies had failed on the location that some thought-about it a “unhealthy luck place,” as Le instructed me years in the past.

The Lai household would reverse the fortunes of that area. They did so with Tran’s home-style cooking, which reminded many Vietnamese diners of dwelling. “We realized that our mother cooked very well and cooked higher than loads of eating places,” Le stated.

However in addition they did it with attraction and attentive service, typically delivered by Kim and Tran’s daughters, Ly, Le, LoAnn and Lieu, the 4 sisters who can be ceaselessly tied to the restaurant, if typically in title solely as they grew up and moved in different instructions.

Patrick O’Connell, the chef and founding father of the three-Michelin-starred Inn at Little Washington, was an early advocate of Huong Que, often recommending it in interviews. Launched to the restaurant by considered one of his bankers who lived close to the Eden Middle, O’Connell grew to become an everyday. At one level, the chef recollects eating there a couple of times a month, at all times on a Tuesday when the Inn was closed. He’d typically order the identical dishes as a result of he beloved them so: the grilled lemongrass hen with steamed vermicelli patties and lettuce leaves, crispy pork spring rolls and inexperienced papaya salad with shrimp and pork, all staples of 4 Sisters.

“We started having little employees events there,” O’Connell stated. “Every time there was a farewell for a supervisor or a beloved member of the employees, we’d all get collectively and go there. Or typically if I had enterprise within the metropolis, on the way in which dwelling, I’d cease there. So loads of my employees started to develop into common company there additionally.”

O’Connell shared a narrative, which has been repeated in other publications, about convincing the Lai household to complement the title of their restaurant with one thing simpler for Western tongues. He stated he took his cue from a studio portrait of the sisters that used to hold within the restaurant on the Eden Middle (and nonetheless hangs on the Merrifield location). He stated he steered the household preserve the unique deal with however add “4 Sisters” to it “for People who can’t pronounce or spell Huong Que.” This, in any case, was the period earlier than cellphones, when individuals needed to name 411 for an tackle or cellphone quantity, the chef stated.

However Le remembers the story otherwise. She stated she was the one who first thought-about supplementing the title with “4 Sisters,” partly as a result of non-Vietnamese had been consistently mispronouncing Huong Que. Some, Le stated, would known as it “Hong Key,” which sounded a bit of an excessive amount of like “honkie.” As soon as she discovered who O’Connell was, and his expertise with operating a landmark restaurant, Le stated she approached him to get his opinion on the title addition. He absolutely supported it, she stated.

Whoever was the inspiration, 4 Sisters grew to become the official model of the restaurant when it moved to Merrifield in 2008. Huong Que (which Lieu says interprets to “style of dwelling” in English) can be delegated to the household’s previous, a reminder of the place they got here from and the way far they’d come.

“It’s a fantastic American success story,” O’Connell instructed The Submit. The chef has remained near the Lai household to this very day. He knew concerning the closing earlier than virtually anybody else.

4 Sisters will quickly develop into historical past. At the least the flagship restaurant that began all of it. Oldest sister Ly, 53, and her husband Sly Liao, proceed to function the 4 Sisters Grill in Clarendon, a streamlined, fast-casual idea initially based in 2014 by Hoa and his spouse. Youngest son Thuan Lai, 46, opened the 4 Sisters Asian Snack Bar in Ashburn, Va., in 2018 along with his spouse. It’s nonetheless going sturdy, too.

After the loss of life of his personal Ashburn restaurant, a Vietnamese gastropub known as Saigon Outcast, Hoa has sworn off eating places. He’s now a private coach. His older sister, LoAnn Lai, 50, nonetheless runs her salon in Georgetown. The 2 different sisters, Lieu and Le, had been the final ones concerned with 4 Sisters, together with Le’s husband, Ming “Kelven” Chu. Lieu stated she desires to take a “lengthy break” after practically three many years working in eating places. She’s contemplating workplace work, or another job that might contain much less stress than restaurant administration.

However Le, 51, and Kelven are contemplating their choices, which may embrace a resurrection of the 4 Sisters model, although in a smaller iteration than the present 150-seat restaurant. Le has at all times had a ardour for floral preparations, which she does for the restaurant and as an occasional freelance gig, however “deep down, I believe that probably I could open one other 4 Sisters someplace,” Le stated. “That may make my mother and pa actually blissful, for positive.”

As Lieu and Le depend down the times to their final service, all they will take into consideration are the purchasers. They fear the information of the closure will result in a crush of diners wanting one final chunk. They fear they gained’t be capable of sustain with demand. They fear they’ll disappoint individuals.

“If they arrive in and it’s the final day and we run out of meals, it will be a horrible final expertise for them,” stated Lieu, an expert to the very finish.

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