Channeling Bourdain: Pilgrimage To The Lunch Lady

In Food, Vietnam by Nick7 Comments

Saigon’s Nguyen Thi Thanh—better known simply as ‘The Lunch Lady’—skyrocketed onto the tourist trail after Anthony Bourdain visited her roadside eatery on No Reservations.

One of the most interesting things about her restaurant is its daily rotating menu. While certainly not unique, serving a different bowl of soup every day is uncommon.

(Thursday through Monday are set  every week, but Tuesday and Wednesday’s soups can vary.)

It’s a strategy that brings in hungry office workers and tourists alike, day in and day out…except Sunday. Saigon is dead on Sunday.

What IS unique is serving such vastly different dishes and NAILING more than one. From experience, I’ve found that restaurants who don’t specialize in one or two kinds of soup tend to be shitty.

But does The Lunch Lady fit the bill?

Some people can’t handle fame. I wanted to see if The Lunch Lady sold out after the Bourdain Bucks started pouring in. Was it still about the music, or the money, man?

What better way to test the water than visit her restaurant every day for a week?

Since I’m a badass rebel, we’re going to start our journey on Tuesday, calendars be damned.

Tuesday: Mì Quảng

Mi quang

You must excuse me for sounding excited, but mi quang is my favorite Vietnamese food.

Today is the first time I’ve ever visited the lunch lady—and she gives me this? Is she trying to bribe me into returning?

The broth is so dark you might mistake it for ca ri. I did at first, but then I saw the peanuts and rice crackers.

Not to sound like a mi quang snob, but this one was a miss for me. There just wasn’t much flavor. I have the sinking suspicion that today’s soup was possibly overdosed with MSG—intensely savory but not flavorful.

Mi quang’s taste is hard to describe anyway. With shrimp, peanuts, scallions and rice crackers, there’s a lot going on.

It was satisfying in the same way that American Chinese restaurants are—briefly filling but slightly disappointing.

Verdict: Pass.

Wednesday: Mì Gà Tiềm

Mi ga tiem

Dark broth again, this time with egg noodles. Chinese sauerkraut, baby bok choy and hunks of chicken dominate today’s soup.

Passed on the goi and cha gio, much to the staff’s disappointment.

Like Tuesday’s mi quang, today’s mi ga tiem suffered from a slight imbalance of MSG.

Still, I kind of enjoyed the Lunch Lady’s latest concoction. She dumped a ton of chicken in the bowl, and the veggies adequately balanced out the meatiness of the broth.

Usually when you find mi tiem around the city, it’s served with duck (vit) instead of chicken. Personally I prefer the chicken variety because duck can be so damn greasy.

Verdict: Try it.

Thursday: Bún Mắm

Bun mam

Today’s soup was easy to recognize—a big, stinky bowl of heaven. Those with a weak stomach, move on to Friday.

Squid, octopus, pork belly, rotisserie pork, shrimp, eggplant, okra, pineapple…swimming in an intoxicating, dark broth made from fermented fish.

Two other westerners pulled up on a motorcycle today, but after they saw the soupe du jour they quickly left. That, or there was nowhere for them to sit.

Bun mam is what a witch’s cauldron looks like before she adds the eye of newt and hair of werewolf.

Dark, pungent, ominous…but not quite deadly.

The Lunch Lady’s bun mam is pretty good, but I can’t shake the feeling that she tones down the “fermented” flavor just a little—probably to appease tourists.

That said, it’s a solid bowl of soup. If this is your first time trying bun mam, give it a shot here—you can always move on to deadlier versions if you survive.

Verdict: Try it.

Friday: Bún Bò Huế

Bun bo hue

Another adequate—if not outstanding—bowl of soup from the Lunch Lady.

Bun bo hue is a citrusy beef soup originating from the old imperial capital of Hue, and it’s extremely popular in Saigon.

The lemongrass-laced broth is supposed to complement the thin slices of beef and pork sausage, but today’s soup just felt flat and uninspired.

It felt like eating a plate of meat that was accidentally dumped into a pot of broth, like two different meals.

It’s certainly edible, but you’re better off eating bun bo hue somewhere else. I guarantee picking a food stall at random will AT LEAST net you a comparable—if not better—bowl.

Verdict: Pass.

Saturday: Bánh Canh Cua

Banh canh cua

OK, this is what we were waiting for.

Yeah, that’s crab sausage pressed into the shape of a crab shell.

Today’s banh canh cua is the highlight of my week-long experiment.

Not just pretty good, passable or meh. This soup is fantastic.

It’s Saturday, and the restaurant is packed to the gills—for good reason.

Banh canh wins the award for ‘most difficult dish to eat with chopsticks.’ From the thick, slippery noodles to the quail eggs and snails, you’ll want to use a spoon for backup.

Hearty, meaty, satisfying. Not too salty, not too sweet. Juicy shrimp, chunks of crab ‘sausage’ and thick cuts of pork.

I have no complaints about Saturday’s soup. If you can only make it to one lunch session at this joint during your stay in Saigon, make it Saturday.

Verdict: Must-try.

Sunday: Bún Riêu Cua

Bun rieu

The Lunch Lady’s day off, and consequently the worst soup of the bunch.

I ordered bun rieu cua—tomato, crab and whatever-else-you-feel-like soup—but I got a bowl of oil.

When I say oily, I’m not being a pansy and complaining about a handful of oil bubbles.

I mean it was impossible to eat the noodles, let alone slurp the broth because every spoonful tasted like cooking oil.

That’s really a damn shame, because bun rieu is one of the hidden gems of Vietnamese cuisine. Just not THIS bun rieu.

To be fair, the bowl had a huge wad of crab meat and a few sizable hunks of pork and pork sausage/bologna/meat loaf. But when half the meal is inedible, you’ve got a problem.

Oh, and I hate tofu with a burning passion. The following two pictures summarize soy-based food in a nut shell.

Feeding Fido tofu

Feeding Fido tofu…

What is this shit?

I’d rather eat my own ass.

Verdict: PASS!!!

Monday: Bún Thái

Bun thai

After Sunday, I was really, REALLY hoping Monday’s soup would knock it out of the park.

I didn’t want to end on a sour note…but I did anyway. Sorry for the terrible joke. It’s big in Vietnam.

Bun thai. Refreshed after her only day off, Ms. Nguyen roared back with a vengeance and this sour/sweet/spicy bowl of Thai-inspired bun.

Almost as good as the banh canh cua. Hallelujah.

Slices of beef, big ol’ shrimp (like always), squid, fish balls, and broth so good you could sip it with a straw.

I arrived just minutes after the restaurant opened today; not a customer in sight. Ms. Nguyen personally brought me my soup—I imagine if she had the time, The Lunch Lady would bring every customer their soup and make sure they loved every bite.

She smiled and started unscrewing the jar of chilies until I wimped out and kindly declined.

Nóng quá—too hot! I was already dabbing my forehead with a handkerchief.

Ms. Nguyen laughed and repeated my nóng quá, a very Vietnamese thing to do when a foreigner almost nails pronunciation. To be chuckled at and parroted is actually a seal of approval.

Feeling pretty full and full of myself, I asked The Lunch Lady for a picture. Today was the only time I’ve seen her not preparing bowls of soup, so I figure it’s now or never.

She smiled again and immediately grabbed her hat, making sure it was tilted just right for the only selfie I’ve taken all year.

Me and Ms. Nguyen, the Lunch Lady herself

Yes, I’m smiling.

Verdict: Must-try.

Getting There

The Lunch Lady is located in a tangle of alleys, crumbling apartment blocks and dozens of other roadside eateries.

I could give you the address, but it won’t really help.

Easy enough to find, though. Look for the blue banner with the words “Lunch Lady” plastered across them, and the dozens of bikes parked on the curb.

Summary

Long story short: Monday and Saturday are great, Sunday is very forgettable, and the rest of the week falls somewhere in between—but closer to ‘good’ than ‘bad.’

Ah, before I forget…Ms. Nguyen’s family runs many of the adjacent food carts, from smoothies to spring rolls and summer rolls. Westerners are automatically handed plates of these rolls. They are NOT complimentary.

Come on, this isn’t Olive Tree.

There are also two sizes of soup. Foreigners are given the big bowl by default, which costs 40k VND. Vietnamese are given the small bowl, which runs at 30k. To ask for this secret kiddie size, simply say “tô nhỏ” or wave your hands around wildly.

If it sounds like I’m knocking the Lunch Lady or saying there are way better street food stalls to try…well, I’m not.

To nail two vastly different kinds of soup and have at least 4 decent-to-good dishes is phenomenal (remember, Tuesday and Wednesday are different every week).

Don’t come here with the expectation that you’re going to get the best of EVERY Vietnamese noodle soup all under one roof. That place doesn’t exist.

Come here looking for a satisfying and accessible intro to Vietnamese cuisine, prepared by a genuinely warm-hearted host who hasn’t jumped on the rip-off-the-tourist bandwagon.

Click here to show/hide ALL of the pictures!

Comments

  1. Beth Quill

    I would love to try the crab sausage! And Hey what’s wrong with tofu? Good to see your smile, you sarcastic ass!

    1. Author
      Nick

      There are a lot of things here called sausage that we wouldn’t really call sausage. They’re technically like meatloaf or bologna…sort of. Shit, I think even spring rolls are called sausage.

      What’s wrong with tofu? It’s an unnatural abomination from hell, that’s what.

  2. Liz DeLuca Almond

    Very entertaining, Nick! How’s your stomach? I love the picture of you and the Lunch Lady. The food pictures are great too and, of course, the poor dog! Looking forward to your next blog, bud.

    1. Author
      Nick

      Stomach’s fine, I think yogurt is the key to avoiding illnesses when traveling. Yeah that dog was very disappointed. It would have been happier with just about anything else. Nope, tofu. Thanks for reading.

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