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.
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.
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.
Continue reading ‘Life After Bourdain: Reuniting with the Lunch Lady’
The Astronomer and I began our third day in Saigon across the river in District 4, a densely packed island we called home for the better part of a year. In the three years since we’ve been gone, the old neighborhood has undergone quite a makeover. While the river is still as murky as ever, dirt roads have been transformed into sturdy bridges and run-down shacks have given way to shiny highrises. The lay of the land was so unfamiliar that The Astronomer had trouble navigating the streets at several turns. Rapid development can be mighty disorienting.
Fortunately, the vibrant street food scene hasn’t changed one bit. After stopping to pick up some xoi gac from my my favorite sticky rice vendor on Ton That Thuyet Street (pictured above), we searched the district for more good eats.
The smell of grilled seasoned beef wrapped in betel leaves brought our motorbike to a rapid halt. Even though we had just eaten bo la lot a few meals ago, it was too tempting to pass up.
The Astronomer’s bowl of bun bo la lot was piled high with herbs and sprouts tucked underneath a tangle of cool vermicelli noodles, peanuts, pickled carrots and daikon, and a swipe of crushed fresh chilies. Everything was evenly dressed with fish sauce. The best bites included a pinky-sized bo la lot nugget.
Continue reading ‘District 4, Saigon: Our Home Away From Home’
The Astronomer and I met up with our friends Chris and Ann for a belly-busting food crawl on our second night in Saigon. We kicked things off in familiar fashion with steaming bowls of noodle soup, but soon moved on to novel delicacies including spicy duck tongues and goopy hard-boiled eggs.
As much as I love revisiting my old haunts in this city, it was a welcome change of pace to be introduced to new grubbin’ spots. It’s an endless feast up in here.
After meeting at our hotel, the four of us headed to an alleyway nearby for the first of three courses. Chris is a huge fan of the bo vien (beef meatballs) served at Truong Thanh and insisted that we begin the crawl there.
The food served at Truong Thanh is prepared outdoors on a cart, while patrons are seated in a sparse and well-lit dining room two paces away. Chris and Ann took the lead and placed the orders. The Astronomer and I kicked back and relaxed.
The restaurant’s signature dish is a simple and satisfying combination of mi (Chinese egg noodles) or hu tieu (wide rice noodles) with meatballs, bean sprouts, basil, and saw-tooth herb. The broth is the same for both types of noodles, porky and mild.
The highlights of the bowl were the squeaky meatballs. Eaten on their own I found them to be quite plain, but dipped in the sate oil, chili sauce, and hoisin sauce served alongside, the flavors popped just a little more.
Continue reading ‘Saigon Dinner Crawl: Squeaky Meatballs, Sesame Sludge, Spicy Duck Tongues, and More’
When it comes to desserts, there’s always room for tofu. I’m not one for drawing broad conclusions, but I’ve tested this truism across several continents and countless meals, and it has never failed me.
After cramming in one too many “bread foods” at Qing Dao Bread Food, The Astronomer and I headed up the street to V.P. Tofu for dessert. Following a porky and greasy Chinese feast, the thought of warm silken tofu was downright soothing and endlessly appealing.
V.P. Tofu is a Vietnamese-run establishment offering all sorts of soy products, including fresh tofu, deep-fried tofu, and soy milk (or “soy juice” if you’re in Tony C.’s camp). There’s also a selection of Vietnamese sweets like sticky rice (xoi) and tapioca cakes (banh da lon) strewn across the counter.
We ordered two small containers of sweet tofu ($1.10 each)—one with ginger syrup and the other with pandan essence. Both were served in Styrofoam cups to protect our hands. There’s no seating for patrons inside V.P., so The Astronomer and I took our sweets to the streets—Asia-style.
The texture of the tofu was perfectly smooth and light, while the flavor was clean and mild. The ginger syrup wasn’t as intensely spicy as the ones made by our favorite street side tofu vendor in Saigon, but definitely flavorful enough to sweeten the gentle curds nicely.
The pandan tofu was delightful as well. I was skeptical at the start due to a previous bad experience with a pandan imposter, but was very pleased after my first bite. The pandan tofu was topped with creamy coconut milk.
This place is a keeper.
237 S Garfield Avenue
Monterey Park, CA 91754
The Astronomer is not a casual stargazer. In fact, he takes his science very seriously. After a year of quant-free fun in South East Asia, his brain was more than ready to delve into the rigors of graduate school. The Astronomer flew into San Diego from Birmingham the day before orientation started to pack up our worldly belongings and haul them to our new pad in Pasadena—home of the Rose Parade, Jackie Robinson and Dr. Drew.
Before sending him on his way, we lunched on banh mi, cha gio and che from A Chau, my favorite Vietnamese deli in San Diego. I’ve blogged twice prior (here and here) about A Chau’s wonderful sandwich offerings and continue to sing their praises.
Prices have gone up slightly since my last visit, but only by a quarter or two. The banh mi thit nguoi ($2.25) was solid, and like with all Vietnamese-American offerings, contained a more than generous portion of protein!
The banh mi thit nuong ($2.75) tasted of smoky lemongrass and reminded us of the delicious, stupendous, and fabulous sarnies we downed just a few short months ago.
We also shared three cha gio ($1 for three) because a gas•tron•o•my reader named BAM! once commented that he went out of his way to procure them and that they tasted even better than A Chau’s sandwiches. The Astronomer and I both really dug the cha gio, which was stuffed with pork and carrots, and appreciated that A Chau’s cooks made the extra effort to roll them using rice paper. I never knew the joys of blistered cha gio wrappers until spending time in Vietnam and now I consider them an essential component of the dish.
I also bought a portion of che dau hu la dua ($1.85)—sweet pandan-flavored tofu—because there’s something kinda magical about the subtlety of pandan. The che turned out to be a disappointment because the overall flavor was sweet, rather than pandan. Food coloring can be so tricky! I guess I’ll just stick to the tried and true ginger tofu from now on.
The Astronomer standing proudly on his U-Haul parked in my mom’s driveway.
4644 El Cajon Blvd Ste 111
San Diego, CA 92115-4432