Lai and Tran retired when Song Que closed, but the brand name they created lives on. Four Sisters (originally called Huong Que when the couple opened the restaurant in the early 1990s at the Eden Center) continues to hum along in Merrifield. The Four Sisters Grill, a project established by eldest son Hoa but now run by eldest daughter Ly and her husband, remains a fixture in Clarendon, which was once the nexus of Vietnamese life until the Metro station debuted and forced the community out west, to the Eden Center.
Four years ago, however, another Four Sisters brand took root in Ashburn, Va., only 2o-some miles from the Eden Center but a million miles away spiritually. Youngest son Thuan Lai opened 4 Sisters Asian Snack Bar in 2018 with his wife, Angela. Their shop borrows the name of the family’s flagship restaurant but trades in many of the sandwiches and drinks that, for more than a decade, made Song Que a regular stop at the Eden Center.
Thuan, you might recall, used to be the manager at Song Que. When the deli served its last bubble tea, he wasn’t sure what his future held. He thought of leaving the restaurant business. He briefly toyed with a career in real estate. But at some point, he realized he missed the human connection that restaurants provide, even during a pandemic. He missed talking to people. He missed that moment when food meets mouth, and a diner’s face lights up. For people in the food biz, that moment is a contact high like no other.
“I felt like I was born into it,” says Thuan, who started busing tables at his parent’s restaurant as a teenager. “So it was hard to walk away.”
He convinced his wife to abandon her flower business and start 4 Sisters Asian Snack Bar, hoping they might be able to corner the market in Ashburn, where milk teas and banh mi were relatively rare until the couple debuted their deli in November 2018. Their snack bar (incidentally, Thuan says there’s no significance to the shop using the Roman number “4” in the name rather than spelling it out) is not a replica of Song Que. The space, tucked into the Shoppes at Ryan Park, is too small and too narrow to accommodate the spread of sticky rice cakes, mangosteens, che, Vietnamese jerky, jelly flower cups and other items that used to grace practically every flat surface at Song Que.
Space plays a factor in the options at the snack bar. But so do demographics. Thuan and Angela tested the Ashburn market with sticky rice cakes for the Lunar New Year and Vietnamese jerky, among other offerings, and the market rejected them. So their menu is tightly focused on banh mi, boba teas, vermicelli and jasmine rice plates, and pork spring rolls. They’ve also grafted a couple of foreign objects onto the menu: Spam musubi and french fries, the latter of which you can have dusted with an optional chili powder that will, quite literally, test your heat tolerance. I could choke down only a few fries before I retreated to the comfort of my taro milk tea, its starchy sweetness the perfect antidote.
Thuan, 45, and Angela, 35, have more in common with the elders of the Lai family than a desire to erect a Vietnamese deli. The owners, like Lai and Tran before them, are committed to homestyle Vietnamese cooking, but just as important, they have the 24/7 work ethic to execute their approach. Much of what they sell is prepared in-house, despite a shortage of workers available to assist them in the kitchen. Whenever you walk into 4 Sisters, the odds are good that Thuan and Angela will be there, preparing your order. About half the recipes, Thuan says, are hand-me-downs from his mother. The other half are house creations, like the Spam musubi, available only on the weekends. Adapted from a recipe by Sly Liao, a chef who’s married to Ly Lai, the musubi is packed with a slab of pan-fried Spam, its sweet soy-based marinade prominent even when engulfed in rice.
The owners don’t bake their own Vietnamese baguettes for the banh mi, but they have sourced a superb loaf, one with a light, crackly crust and a soft crumb that yields to whatever is packed inside. Several of the protein options — grilled lemongrass chicken, grilled lemongrass beef, grilled pork and Vietnamese tofu — are utility players at 4 Sisters, available for whatever vehicle you desire: banh mi roll, jasmine rice or vermicelli noodles. Every one of those proteins slips comfortably into the baguette, but I must admit, the banh mi that speaks to me most is the one that stands alone: menu item M5, a crusty roll slathered with pate and layered with thick slices of cha lua, the Vietnamese processed ham with the hint of fish sauce. My only issue is with the garnish, the traditional slivers of pickled daikon and carrot. They lean sweet. I missed that blast of acid to cut through the richness.
But you know what I think is perfect? Thuan and Angela’s nuoc cham, the Vietnamese condiment/sauce that can make or break a vermicelli or rice-based dish. Their nuoc cham hits that sweet spot in which the chili peppers, sugar and fish sauce speak with equal voice. The condiment instantly adds depth and harmony to everything it touches, whether the crispy spring rolls with vermicelli or the jasmine rice with grilled pork.
As good as the grilled pork over rice is at 4 Sisters, it wasn’t even the best version I encountered in Ashburn. Or it wasn’t until mid-October, when Saigon Outcast suddenly closed its doors, another victim of the long, whip-cracking tail of the pandemic. The proprietor of Saigon Outcast was Hoa Lai, the former chef at Four Sisters and the older brother of Thuan. The siblings had independently sought out Ashburn for their next projects. Now only one Lai brother remains standing, a painful reminder that the hospitality industry isn’t always a merit-based business, especially in a pandemic. The worst part, however, is how a business failure can cast a long, ugly shadow. When I contracted Hoa, he said that, at age 46, he’s done with restaurants.
“Never going back!” he texted.
His frustration was palpable. Maybe one day, after the pain fades, Hoa will reconsider the decision. But in the meantime, we still have 4 Sisters Asian Snack Bar.
4 Sisters Asian Snack Bar
43670 Greenway Corporate Dr., No. 106, Ashburn, Va., 571-510-3978; foursisterssnackbar.com.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday, and Wednesday through Saturday; 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Closed Tuesday.
Nearest Metro: Ashburn, with about a 1-mile walk to the shop.
Prices: $4.45 to $12.95 for all items on the menu.