Archive for the 'Bun Mam' Category

Hà Tiên Quán – San Gabriel

Ha Tien Quan - San Gabriel

Dining at a single restaurant on five different occassions in the span of two months has got to be some sort of record for me. While this type of behavior is generally considered quite normal, it’s really very notable in my world because food blogging tends to discourage restaurant monogamy—there’s always something newer, more exciting, or tastier just around the corner.

Ha Tien Quan - San Gabriel

Hà Tiên Quán in San Gabriel has reeled in my promiscuous dining ways with its tremendous Vietnamese cooking. The restaurant’s lineup of regional noodle soups never fails to warm and satisfy, while the vegetarian fare packs a wallop of flavor.

With nearly every Vietnamese restaurant in town serving up the usual pho, vermicelli rice noodles, and and banh mi, it’s been a breath of fresh air diving head first into Hà Tiên’s anything-but-predictable menu. Best of all, I’m constantly tasting new dishes that I didn’t grow up with or encounter while living in Vietnam. This place is my edible playground.

Ha Tien Quan - San Gabriel

The family behind the restaurant is comprised of Larry Ta, his wife Thu Trang, and their daughter Carolyn. Thu heads up the kitchen, while Carolyn and Larry greet, seat, and tend to customers. Both Larry and Thu are from Ha Tien, a city on the western end of the Mekong Delta near the Cambodian border. Hà Tiên Quán opened its doors last October.

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Life After Bourdain: Reuniting with the Lunch Lady

The Lunch Lady - September 2011

I’ve been thinking a lot about Nguyen Thi Thanh ever since departing from Saigon in the summer of 2008. In the three years since I first sat down to interview her, there’s no doubt that her life has changed. In a corner of the city previously unknown to tourists, she now finds herself dishing up noodles to a steady stream of Anthony Bourdain fans. These days, it seems that a trip to Saigon isn’t complete without bargaining in Ben Thanh Market, flagging down a cyclo for a rusty ride, and sitting on a stumpy stool slurping up a Lunch Lady-made noodle soup.

The Lunch Lady - September 2011

I have often wondered how the Lunch Lady’s livelihood and that of her tight-knit community have been impacted by the fame and influx of foreign dollars made possible by modern travel journalism. Have her prices skyrocketed? Is her cooking watered down? Mostly, I wondered if I messed up something really great by blabbing about it to someone who had access to a global audience.

The Lunch Lady - September 2011

I found the 46-year-old proprietress more or less unchanged since we last met. She was clad from head to toe in a colorful do bo (Vietnamese pajamas) with a well-worn non la (conical hat) atop her head. Her smile was as big as ever. Nearly every table was occupied on this sunny afternoon, which meant that she and her team of workers were up to their ears in orders.

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Saigon Classic: Bún Bò Huế Yên Đỗ

Bun Bo Hue Yen Do - Ho Chi Minh City

The Astronomer and I recently traveled to Vietnam for a two-and-a-half week holiday. Three years have passed since we called Saigon home, and it felt incredible to be back. Oh, how I’ve missed the people, noise, and traffic!

After dropping off our luggage at the hotel and renting a scooter to get around, we headed to Bún Bò Huế Yên Đỗ in District 3 for our first meal in the city.

Bun Bo Hue Yen Do - Ho Chi Minh City

The Astronomer and I used to eat here on a daily basis when we first moved to Saigon because it was located within walking distance of our office at the East Meets West Foundation. And of course, the food was worth coming back for again and again.

When we walked into the restaurant, the proprietress instantly recognized us and asked where the heck we’d been. It’s always nice to be remembered at a restaurant, and even nicer when it’s been three years. We grabbed a table near the front and placed our order with her son. Our table was decked out with the usual utensils, box of tissues, and pork sausages wrapped in banana leaves (cha).

Bun Bo Hue Yen Do - Ho Chi Minh City

I ordered a tall glass of passion fruit juice to start. Fresh fruit juices and smoothies are widely available in Saigon to keep residents cool from the tropical heat. The ratio of sugar to juice is always perfect for my taste.

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Her noodles brings all the boys to the yard…

 

I’ve been enamored with the Lunch Lady‘s noodles ever since I started my gig at AsiaLIFE. Unless I have commitments beyond my control, this joint near 23 Hoang Sa in District 1 is my go-to place for afternoon refueling.

After frequenting her stall everyday for the past month, The Astronomer and I have figured out that bun bo is always sold on Fridays. Monday through Thursday are still a bit of a mystery, but more often than not it’s delicious. Regardless of what’s on offer, her standard rate is 12,000 VND per bowl.

I usually avoid slurping up broths in noodle dishes because they tend to be too oily. However, I throw caution to the wind when dining here because her broths are chug-worthy.

Bun Bo: According to The Astronomer, the lunch lady’s best dish is bun bo. I’m still up in the air about which one I love most, but her bun bo definitely ranks high. The broth has a deep lemongrass flavor and just a hint of spiciness, and there’s always a generous amount of tender meat. By the way, the lunch lady’s secret to avoiding gristly meat is pineapple. She adds a whole one to the broth, which tenderizes the meat and imparts a bit of sweetness to the broth.

 

Hu Tieu Nam Vang: Andrea Nguyen at Viet World Kitchen says that hu tieu nam vang is a “Cambodian-Chinese concoction that the Vietnamese ‘borrowed’ and then made their own. Nam Vang is the Viet word for Phnom Penh, and the southern part of Vietnam has deep Khmer roots.”

Hu tieu nam vang is The Astronomer’s least favorite because it contains too many odds and ends (i.e. quail eggs, innards, liver). I, on the other hand, really love the sweet porky broth and find offal awfully tasty. I always request mi (egg noodles) rather than hu tieu (opaque rice noodles) with this dish because I like the taste and texture much better.

 

Bun Thai: The broth tastes just like tom yum goong soup and has a spicy kick that hits the back of my throat. Thick rice noodles, squid, fried fish cakes and a single shrimp round out the dish nicely. This little number is my colleague Fiona’s favorite.

 

Bun Rieu Chay: On the first and fifteenth of the Lunar calendar, the lunch lady prepares vegetarian noodles. Her bun rieu chay is so believable that The Astronomer and I didn’t even know it was vegetarian until we asked. Tofu and bean curd make fine substitutions for snails and crab.

 

Banh Canh: Mmm, banh canh. I never fully appreciated these chewy tapioca noodles until recently. When I was a kid, I just thought they were a bitch to eat because they were so gosh darn slippery. The lunch lady makes at least two types of banh canh—a simple one in a pork broth and this one which contains all sorts of fish cakes, fried shallots and a quail egg. I love how she puts quail eggs in everything!

 

Mi Ga Tiem: This dish is traditionally made with duck, but the lunch lady uses chicken because it’s less fatty. However, from looking at the broth, I’d say the chicken isn’t cutting that many calories. The chicken version is pretty darn good, but I always prefer duck over chicken. The pickled green papaya served on the side is really good, but the best part is the sweet star anise broth.

 

Bun Mam: I’m not quite sure what’s exactly in bun mam, but I really really like it. The broth is deeply flavorful and doesn’t really taste like mam (fermented shrimp paste). The soup comes with pineapple, eggplant, barbecued pork (thit heo quay), shrimp, okra, chives and thick rice noodles.

My lunch lady is incredible!

See also: Lunch Lady, Meet the Lunch Lady, and Life After Bourdain: Reuniting with the Lunch Lady.

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