The Lunch Lady hasn’t been on my food circuit in a few weeks so back I went to check out her Friday offerings. This woman made famous by Anthony Bourdain serves a day specific meal to anyone willing to venture to the edge of District 1 just near the Nguyen Thu Minh Khai Street bridge into the Binh Thanh District. A simple black and white cardboard sign hanging by a string with the words “Lunch Lady” was until recently the only indication diners had arrived at her staked out corner of the sidewalk. Long gone now is this basic handwritten sign as she has classed the joint up with an actual Lunch Lady awning.
She serves up fresh homemade foods for about a buck fifty a serving. Where else in the world but Saigon can we eat at a celebrity chef’s restaurant deep down an alley under trees and laundry drying on balconies for 150 meager pennies. By comparison, the last actual celebrity chef’s restaurant I visited was Todd English’s Tuscany at Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Casino where dinner is about 30 times more than a Lunch Lady special.
My first Lunch Lady visit (#6 seafood noodle soup) was amazing, and the second time (#27 chicken soup) proved a tad more interesting with internal bird bits left behind in the bowl. Yes, the old saying does ring true…the third time was the charm (#110 hot and sour seafood soup). The Friday bún bò huế continues the winning streak and makes me want to lick the bowl clean it’s that good. This flavor packed city of Hue style concoction is beef noodle soup. Thick round white noodles, fried fish cake, pork sausage, and fully edible roast beef strips float around in a savory broth colored red by annatto seed oil and flavored with lemongrass. Friday is a good day indeed.
In addition to the usual suspects such as coriander and culantro (no, that’s not cilantro misspelled), a plate of shredded something or anothers unidentifiable to this American accompanies bún bò huế. I’ve eaten this soup before but never made much of an effort to learn about it. Of course in the name of research we do odd things such as stash a sample in a napkin, carry it through the city for three hours, and then bring them to work the next day for identification.
Even if they were probably wondering deep down what in the heck is this fool doing shoving all this shredded mess in our faces, of course my cabin crew were too polite to voice it. They all enthusiastically wrote down the Vietnamese names and some of the ground crew even joined in to laugh at my mispronunciations. Is this the equivalent of a Vietnamese person asking an American to explain the differences between the Mild, Hot, and Fire sauce packs at the bottom of the Taco Bell bag?
I have no idea where anyone will ever have the opportunity to impress their friends with some graduate level vocabulary for soup veggies but here goes…rau bắp chuối (shredded banana flower), rau muống (shredded water spinach), bắp cải (shredded cabbage), and ngò gai (saw tooth herb). Random words for sure but each is an important flavor boost turning a bowl of bún bò huế into personalized perfection.
Luckily a few more days of the week still await at the Lunch Lady.