Archive for the 'Che' Category

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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District 4, Saigon: Our Home Away From Home

Xoi Vendor - District 4 - Ho Chi Minh City

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.

Bo La Lot

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.

Bun Bo La Lot

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.

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Saigon Dinner Crawl: Squeaky Meatballs, Sesame Sludge, Spicy Duck Tongues, and More

Mai Xuan Canh - Ho Chi Minh City

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.

Truong Thanh - Ho Chi Minh City

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.

Truong Thanh - Ho Chi Minh City

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.

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V.P. Tofu – Monterey Park

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.

V.P. Tofu
237 S Garfield Avenue
Monterey Park, CA 91754
Phone: 626-572-9930

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