The Lunch Lady
The Lunch Lady presides over Ho Chi Minh City’s most famous street food eatery, a little stall under a tree in a back street near the Saigon River.
Tourists and travel journalists from around the world have settled their butts into one of the tiny stools set out by Nguyen Thi Thanh, an unassuming street food vendor who found international fame on a episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations.
I first read about the Lunch Lady in 2008, a year before she appeared television screens around the globe.
She was featured in an article in a local expat magazine. I discovered the author of the article, the magazine’s deputy editor at the time, had a blog. And so I began cyber-stalking… I mean following … Cathy Danh’s blog, called Gastronomy. (It was YEARS before it occurred to me that I could start a blog of my own and rekindle my love of writing!)
The Lunch Lady kept popping up in the local and international media and in conversations I had in Vietnam and about Vietnam. But I’d never felt the urge to sample her fare. I guess I was being a bit of a food and travel snob, believing a place with so much exposure would have lost its charm, authenticity and ability to serve great food.
Thankfully, friends challenged my assumption. And one Friday lunchtime we all toddled off to investigate.
Unlike most street food vendors in Vietnam, the Lunch Lady serves more than one dish. She has a rolling menu with different dishes each day.
The variety of dishes that she cooks leaves her open to criticism from some quarters. How can the Lunch Lady excel in any dish if she isn’t cooking it every day, the critics ask.
As I slurped down some silky bun noodles with my street foodie friends, I remembered this criticism and rolled my eyes. The soup was good.
I vowed to eat each dish on the menu. But unexpectedly getting knocked up last year got in the way of that plan.
Darling Man and I were passing by the Lunch Lady’s general area last week so we popped in. I’ve now tried three of her dishes and rather than delay any longer, I thought it was time to share my thoughts on the Lunch Lady.
The Lunch Lady is part of Ho Chi Minh City’s well-trodden tourist trail. She attracts a mix of Western and Asian tourists as well as locals. And the great thing is that unlike a lot of local street food vendors, she knows how to handle the ignorant tourists who don’t speak Vietnamese and have no idea about Vietnamese dishes.
A team of side-kicks handle these tourists with ease. Unasked, they deliver small plates of fresh spring rolls (aka summer rolls) and fried spring rolls to the table. They take drink orders. They upsell. They give directions to the nearest toilets. Their English is not fluent by any means but they’re not afraid of lumbering English-speakers the way some street food vendors can be.
Visiting the Lunch Lady is an easy and fun way to access authentic Vietnamese street food. Even for snobs like me who don’t like doing anything remotely “touristy”.
It’s also quite thrilling to track down an international celebrity. And then discovering that she’s so very unpretentious.
So if you’re heading to Saigon, do look up the Lunch Lady. Aim to get there at midday so you don’t miss out on what she’s serving that day. Here’s a map that shows the Lunch Lady’s location.
The official address printed on her business card is: Quan An Lunch Lady, 1A 1B C/C Nguyen Dinh Chieu, Lo C1, District 1
The Lunch Lady’s menu:
Monday: Bun Thai
Tuesday: Mien ga, bun moc, mi Quang
Wednesday: Mi ga tiem, ca ri, bun thit nuong
Thursday: Bun mam
Friday: Bun bo
Saturday: Banh canh cua
Sunday (served by the Lunch Lady’s sister): Bun thit nuong
Side note: All the photos in this post were taken with my camera phone. I think it does an amazing job on food, although all the pics do end up a bit same-y. It’s just so much easier to carry just the phone than our big camera. Especially when we go out with the kids and all their paraphernalia.
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5 years ago