Friday, October 9, 2015

HCMC Foodie Trip - The One with The Lunch Lady

One of my favorite travel experiences in Ho Chi Minh City was to try the food prepared by Nguyen Thi Thanh - aka the Lunch Lady - at her stall at a residential neighborhood on the fringe of District 1, near to the Mekong River bank. She got her worldwide fame since Anthony Bourdain covered his visit in a TV show a few years back and couldn't sing enough praises of her, her food and the stall.

After finishing my morning sightseeing to some of the major tourist spots in town, I jumped on a cab to head up to The Lunch Lady stall early to beat the local lunch crowd. It's not hard to find once you are there even it's a little tucked away from the main street - it's right under a big tree and a canvas canopy that said "Lunch Lady". The summer heat in HCMC might be gruesome at times, but it's surprisingly comfortable under the shade of the tree branches, and I picked a spot which allowed me to observe Chef Nguyen prepared her famous noodles at the cooking station in front of the stall.

The Lunch Lady is known for the rotating menu which changes depending on the day of the week, and all you need to decide to order is the serving size. The menu was well-chronicled and reviewed in various blogs and websites and if you are interested, here's one of them. She typically serves the bigger bowl to out-of-towners by default with more noodles and ingredients (hence slightly more expensive) Drinks and other snacks are available at separate stalls nearby - their people would come to you when you sat down and asked if you need anything from them.

I came on a Monday and the noodles du jour was Bun Thai (Thai noodles). The bowl of noodles arrived soon after I sat down, and I was amazed at how good-looking the dish was, given the rather humble surroundings. Thin rice vermicelli noodles sat in a broth with an appealing bright color along with herb garnishes, bringing up the fragrant aroma. On top was two giant pieces of shrimps, squids, a minced pork meatball and a few slices of beef. I wouldn't have found a better looking bowl of noodles anywhere.

I took a sip of the soup first and it has an amazing sweet and tangy flavor, like the Thai tom yum soup. I first thought it's going to be spicy given its bright color but turned out it was quite mild. I don't know what went into the soup - probably a bit of meat and fish and I wouldn't even be surprised if some MSG was involved - but the taste is great especially during the summer. And I was impressed with the quality and quantity of the ingredients. The shrimps was fresh and tasty with a good bouncy bite, and the noodles came with numerous condiments in generous portion. I am drooling even by looking at the picture of the noodles afterwards.

The stall owners next door brought me some Goi Cuon and Cha Gio - the Vietnamese garden rolls and deep-fried spring rolls respectively - and both were great too, especially the Goi Cuon with shrimps and meat and vegetables and herbs rolled in the softened ricepaper wrapper, and served with a dipping sauce of hoisin and fish sauces, crushed roasted peanuts and garlic flakes.

The place started to get crowded just as I was finishing up my food - office workers came on foot or by scooters, or students in their uniform coming for their lunch break, and all of a sudden, this corner in the usually quiet neighborhood just came into life, with people talking, laughing, and well, slurping, with the occasional sound of scooters passing by. For one moment, with the shade and the gentle breeze, I almost thought I was sitting in a curbside cafe in Paris - and I ain't kidding.

I don't always agree with Mr Bourdain's recommendations on local food on his TV shows, but this one is a true gem. I wouldn't miss this for anything.

Where? Lunch Lady, 23 Hoang Sa St., District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

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