By Jan Mercker
As the GenX son of Northern Virginia Vietnamese cuisine legends, Hoa Lai wanted to do things a little differently. Lai combines his family’s iconic recipes with his own contemporary sensibility in his new venture, Saigon Outcast, which opened in Ashburn last fall.
The result is a hip Vietnamese beer hall that Lai describes as a “mashup of our Vietnamese heritage and our American upbringing,” with fresh fusion cuisine and 35 self-serve beers on tap.
“We wanted to separate ourselves a little bit,” Lai said. “Something more modern, something more fun.”
The restaurant opened last September in the University Commerce Center near George Washington University’s Ashburn campus, after Lai and his business partners pushed back a planned March 2020 opening. After a challenging winter with a holiday COVID surge and tight state restrictions on restaurants, the restaurant is building a following for great food and beer and a fun vibe. And as restrictions loosen, vaccination levels rise and spring weather sets in, Saigon Outcast is coming into its own.
“In Loudoun County, the food’s always going to sell itself if it’s great. But I think in this area, people want something a little different where they don’t have to commute to DC and Arlington,” Lai said. “They want somewhere where they can hang out and feel like themselves. I know in a pandemic, it’s hard to feel like that. It’s a sense of—just for a few seconds—feeling normal.”
Lai and business partner Anthony Catselides did much of the interior work on the space themselves, creating an airy, modern vibe with fun decorations including a vintage motorcycle, stoplight and gas pump and a rickshaw on the patio.
And while Lai’s aesthetic and food sensibilities are decidedly his own, he owes his culinary training to his family, who are known as DMV restaurant royalty. Lai’s parents Thanh and Kim Lai opened Four Sisters in Falls Church’s iconic Eden Center in 1993 and moved to the trendy Mosaic District near Tysons a decade ago.
Lai’s mother Thanh Lai is the creative genius behind Four Sisters’ legendary dishes and was Lai’s main teacher when it came to all things culinary.
“I kind of fell into it. All we’ve known growing up was restaurants in a sense,” Lai said. “As I got older, I realized that there are certain ways I’d like to do my own style.”
Lai branched out with the fast casual Four Sisters Grill in Arlington and wanted to build on that concept with a bigger space, bumped up beverage program and trendy ambiance in Loudoun.
Lai relied on Catselides and another partner, Jason Fisher, to build the beverage program, which features a wall of beer taps, along with several wines and sake on tap.
At Saigon Outcast, Lai combines beloved family recipes like super crispy spring rolls, green papaya salad and banh mi sandwiches with his own takes on fusion cuisine, with dishes like the popular Tornado Potato—a fun take on fries served with Sriracha sauce– fried brussels sprouts and crispy wings with Korean style sauce.
“I try to stay true to what the core is,” Lai said. “But I’m not scared to broaden the horizon with different types of ethnic food. I kind of blend the two”
Lai and his partners are hoping to share what many foodies have long understood: Vietnamese cuisine is a perfect match for wine and beer pairings.
“It’s not too heavy. It’s not too light. It has that sweet/salty/savory taste,” Lai said.
Lai and his partners are also taking advantage of the restaurant’s spacious interior and walls of windows to establish a new live music venue in Ashburn, hosting local favorites including Chris Timbers, Melissa Quinn Fox and Moxie.
“It’s going great and we’re starting to make a name for ourselves,” Lai said. “People know that every Friday and Saturday we have musicians.”
Lai recently launched trivia nights at the restaurant and is planning to add comedy nights to create a fun vibe as COVID restrictions loosen and Loudouners look to get out.
“I do feel optimistic. I think our concept is so unique in this area. When people come in, they’re blown away,” Lai said. “We try to think outside the box”
Saigon Outcast is located at 44921 George Washington Blvd. in Ashburn. For more information, go to saigonoutcastva.com.