A tiny little metal pushcart of the dime a dozen variety in these parts beckons breakfast connoisseurs at the top of the alleyway just below my highrise expat bubble. An elderly woman sets up shop at 6am each morning atop mud puddles, the more than occasional pieces of litter and a steady stream of motorbike traffic honking on busy Nguyen Huu Canh Street. We can say she is a bridge between our western world of the modern apartment complex with its western food outlets and the fascinating sounds, smells and sights of the east that sprawl behind the towers here.
My coworkers talk enthusiastically about the Egg Lady, and for fifty cents what did I have to lose in trying one her sandwiches, or bánh mì ốp la? So one morning at 6am sharp I excitedly rode the elevator 14 floors down to check out her street food craft. I have to admit I was feeling smug that “bánh mì ốp la” rolled off my tongue fluently enough to get some eggs cracking and frying. Now keep in mind the alley here isn’t a sparkling Singapore food court filled with hawker stalls earning A’s from the health department. Indeed, both the coffee and egg stands here are after all sitting atop water puddles and mud so any expectations of proper sanitation should be checked back at the expat compound towering just steps away.
While my breakfast sizzled in a battered frying pan atop a gas flame, my short order cook reached her egg covered hands into a plastic bag hanging off the cart and pulled out a fresh baguette. Proper breads and pastries are one interesting legacy left behind by the French, but are now about as Vietnamese as fish sauce. How does one cut this baguette open at a food cart you ask? Why with scissors of course and not just any scissors. Street food etiquette dictates the use of magic scissors sitting in the dish where the broken egg shells are discarded. Yes, these are special scissors whose metal blades have been properly seasoned with raw egg yolk fermented by the heat, and the fluffy insides of that crunchy baguette just eagerly mop up whatever the scissor blades have to offer.
Even though her scissor storage is a little suspect, I do appreciate that the Egg Lady knows to wipe her counter surfaces clean before laying the baguette down. But I do wish someone could explain to her that the dirty rag wiping raw egg and other stuff just swirls the dirt around. Were I the health inspector, I would give her a passing score of course for the attempt though. She laid my open face baguette down on this now presumably salmonella streaked surface and reached for a cucumber. Sometimes it’s better to arrive at the stand after the cucumbers and tomatoes are sliced so we don’t witness the process of a dirty knife wiped with the same counter rag slicing through these vegetables rinsed in water from unknown sources. Old Bay seasons things back home. Russian Roulette seasons things down here in the alley. Subway has factory sliced vegetables in plastic refrigerated containers. Egg Lady has hand sliced veggies resting on top of repurposed newspaper.
With the final assembly of my sandwich now well underway, I will admit second thoughts raced through my head. This was a classic battle of stomach versus brain with stomach being several laps ahead in this race. Egg Lady had just handed another customer some change and then with the same bare hands began touching my food again. She was moving like a pro though and my stomach was rumbling even more so to hell with food safety, right? 90 million Vietnamese people can’t be wrong! Maybe they laugh at us with our plastic glove covered hands, food stored at proper temperatures, and disinfectants. My Vietnamese doppelgänger at a McDonald’s in Des Moines is probably nervously eating a Big Mac because the surroundings are too sanitary, plastic and foreign.
Properly cooked eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, hot peppers, a splash of soy sauce and some cilantro come together in this version of alleyway fusion cuisine to make a delicious bánh mì ốp la. Imagine the crunch of the best baguette you’ve ever tasted, slight salt undertones, the firm texture of the egg whites and the flavor of yolks, definite heat from the peppers and the tang of the herbs all mixing together. And this is only the first bite of this food journey. More please!
A $4 breakfast sandwich with egg product and processed meats carelessly placed inside flimsy white bread or English muffin by an attitude filled employee of the month back in the US can’t even hold a candle to this fifty cent goodness on a bun. I’ve already been back a few times to the friendly and smiling Egg Lady for more and wish health regulations in the US would allow for an exact replica of this master chef and her pushcart to set up on the sidewalk back home.