No, Saigon’s Lunch Lady is not even remotely related to the hair net wearing women we all remember from elementary school. And luckily for all of us this modern day street food lunch lady serves up much more appetizing items than the the cafeteria’s meat patties and soggy pizza squares. One of my friends from work had mentioned that the Lunch Lady was well worth a visit and even Anthony Bourdain has done a feature on her. Yes, I’m game. Call a cab and count me in.
Lunch Lady sets up her open air shop down a residential alley near the Saigon Zoo and several small tables and stools crowd the cracked concrete outside an apartment house. Where else but Vietnam can one dine under the drying laundry of the neighbors in an authentic gritty neighborhood. Most of the clientele is local which to me is a great sign she has stayed true to her cooking roots and not become a caricature of herself from tv fame and exposure. Best of all she hasn’t jacked up her prices and a decent lunch is only 30,000 Dong or about $1.50.
Since Lunch Lady cooks a different selection and only that selection each day, no ordering is required. Sit down, wait a few minutes and a serving of food arrives fresh from her metal pushcart and boiling cauldrons. Seafood soup was our selection d’jour for Monday, and I must say this bowl of soup is probably one of the best I have had.
A slightly sweet, slightly sour broth with just a hint of reddish coloring is one sensory overload of a canvas for the other ingredients that paint a masterpiece of street food cooking. I could detect something like ginger and lemongrass in the background, and is that tamarind I taste along with some onion? Lunch Lady’s squid is not too rubbery and her yellowish fried fishballs with the texture of grandma’s meatballs taste of mild tuna. Three large, bright orange and white firm textured shrimp along with some strips of beef provide a nice contrast to the springy al dente like white noodles. Trust me, heaven in a bowl.
Have you ever tasted something so good that everything around you momentarily disappears while you lose yourself in the moment? Lunch Lady’s seafood soup does just that for me. I travel around the world in search of the next great meal, and I got to thinking how perfect this is I live in a city where I can have these experiences on a daily basis. Instead of a 16 hour jet lag inducing plane odyssey, a 5 minute cab ride delivers me right to the sidewalks people dream of from afar while surfing the internet or the glossy pages of their travel magazines.
Once the food is gone Lunch Lady, or Nguyen Thi Thanh as she is properly known, breaks down her sidewalk shop, and our soup bowls emptied out at about the same time. All good things must come to an end, but I will be back since she is just a short journey down the road from my apartment.