Archive for the 'Mi Vit Tiem' 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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Đông Nguyên Restaurant – Alhambra

As much as I love introducing friends and family to new foods and great restaurants, being shown the ropes by a resident eater is oftentimes even better. Every once in a while, it can be a real treat to just sit back, relax, and let someone else assume the role of Gastronomer.

It’s a red letter meal whenever I dine with gas•tron•o•my reader Sharon. She currently resides in Durham, North Carolina, but grew up in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley. Her extensive knowledge of Chinese and Vietnamese gems up and down Valley Boulevard is impressive and inspiring.

The initial plan for our Wednesday night dinner was to meet up at Sharon’s favorite banh cuon restaurant in Alhambra. Unfortunately, it was closed this evening, so we headed next door to Đông Nguyên, a restaurant Sharon’s family has been frequenting since she was a small fry.

Located in a strip mall with an uncanny resemblance to Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A., Đông Nguyên specializes in Chinese-Vietnamese cuisine. The restaurant’s proprietors hail from Vietnam, Chợ Lớn in District 5 to be exact, but are ethnically Chinese. The majority of the dishes served here are traditionally considered to be Chinese. However, some of the offerings contain distinctly Vietnamese touches, like nuoc mam-based marinades and sauces. This is fusion cuisine at its finest.

All of the wonderful ladies who work at Đông Nguyên can speak Cantonese, Vietnamese, and of course, English. While Sharon spouted her order in Cantonese, The Astronomer and I gave ours in Vietnamese. Sharon and I were both impressed by the lack of language barriers.

Before our entrees arrived, we were each served bowls of Chinese medicinal soup. The mildly warm chicken broth-based soup contained barley, lotus seeds, goji berries, and a number of unknown, but surely virtuous, ingredients.

The Astronomer ordered the house special—com ga Hai Nam, also known as Hainanese chicken rice ($6.50). This dish is prepared by boiling a whole chicken in an aromatic broth, and using the resulting liquid in place of water to make the rice. At Đông Nguyên, both the chicken and the rice are prepared splendidly. The rice is delicate and incredibly fragrant, while the meat is tender and infused with notes of garlic, ginger, and onions.

The absolute best part of chicken rice is the ginger and chili dipping sauce served on the side. Poured liberally over the chicken and rice, it makes the entire dish really come together.

Sharon ordered her go-to rice plate, com suon nuong ($6.50), which came with a little dish of nuoc cham on the side. I had never before seen such a mountainous portion of grilled pork chop slabs. The Astronomer commented that this was most definitely an America-sized portion. The Vietnamese are very skimpy with their meats.

I settled on a bowl of mi vit tiem ($6.75)—Chinese duck noodle soup. The large bowl arrived hot and was brimming with tangled egg noodles and big hunks of duck meat, all in an herbal star anise broth. The mi vit tiem was served with pickled green papaya on the side to balance the duck’s fatty nature. Although the noodles were definitely solid, it didn’t match the awesomness of my Lunch Lady’s rendition in Saigon. What can I say? I’ve been spoiled.

Đông Nguyên Restaurant
1433 East Valley Boulevard
Alhambra, CA 91801
Phone: 626-300-8618

Dong Nguyen on Urbanspoon

Dong Nguyen Restaurant in Los Angeles

New Threads and Breakin' Bread in Chinatown

District 5, also known as Cho Lon, is home to Saigon’s Chinese population. Unlike Chinatowns in America, the shift from neighboring districts into Cho Lon isn’t nearly as dramatic—there isn’t an ornate archway like in Philly. On the surface, District 5 more or less resembles every other district in this sprawling metropolis but with the addition of Chinese characters on storefronts, and maybe a few more steamed bun carts.

The Astronomer and I ventured into Cho Lon to Christmas shop last December, but haven’t found any reason to return since. That was until Hanh, The Astronomer’s Vietnamese teacher, mentioned that she knew a kick-ass tailor in that part of town. Like my good pal Miss Adventure said, getting custom made clothes can be a real treat.

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On one very ordinary weekday evening, The Astronomer, Hanh and I ventured to Cho Lon to get some new threads made. Prior to our visit to the tailor, The Astronomer and I went fabric shopping at Cho Tan Dinh on Hai Ba Trung Street in District 1. I commissioned two dresses to be made—a replica of a dress I purchased in Bangkok and a dress designed by Theory (above) that I took pictures of when I was back in California. The Astronomer commissioned a pair of corduroy pants and a T-shirt. After the tailor took our measurements and collected a deposit, we headed to a nearby che (Vietnamese sweet soups) shop (Che Thanh Tam – 98 Bui Huu Nghia Street, District 5) for a bite to eat.

I grossed out both of my dining companions by ordering the che me den—sweet black sesame seed soup. The che was served warm and resembled tar, but trust me, it really tasted great. The flavors were sweet, full and nutty. It was even better than the cold black sesame seed Jell-O that I enjoyed so much in Hong Kong at the roast goose eatery.

Hanh started off with a faux tofu che that was less fun than a box of rocks. The cubes of “tofu” were made of agar, and even though they were supposed to be flavored with pandan and ginger, they didn’t bring much to the table.

She also ordered a che with bitter beans/nuts because she wanted to introduce The Astronomer and me to something new. Hanh really dug it, but it just wasn’t our cup of tea. Please holla (or just leave a comment) if you know the name of this not so sweet treat.

To supplement her two che, Hanh ordered a bowl of pig brain soup (sup oc heo) from the eatery next door. While I’m down with brains, I don’t really like the consistency of Vietnamese-style sup. The broth is just too gelatinous.

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Not much of a che enthusiast, The Astronomer ordered a bowl of mi vit tiem from Quyen Ky Mi Gia which was located on the other side of the che shop. The noodles and greens arrived in one bowl, while the broth and duck leg came in a clay pot. The ratio of meat to noodles was insanely skewed—The Astronomer had to order an extra helping of noodles to balance it out. After enjoying the lunch lady’s version, this bowl of mi vit tiem paled in comparison, especially since it cost four times as much.

A couple weeks later, The Astronomer and I returned to the tailor to pick up our new apparel. He didn’t get everything right the first time around, but after a few refittings, we left his shop extremely happy clients. Here are my new dresses! And here’s where you should go if you’d like to get some custom made clothes in Saigon (bring a Vietnamese speaker along): Le Phuc – Tailor Extraordinaire (430/1 Phan Van Tri Street, District 5, Ho Chi Minh City. Phone: 0908006538.

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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