May 2008

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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16 thoughts on “Her noodles brings all the boys to the yard…

  1. Great review! Everything look incredible. Is this a street stall or a restaurant? From your post I guess it is a street stall. Just for my own info since I intend to follow your foot steps and rumbling tummy noises to this Lunch lady’s joint this summer.

  2. I love how she puts quail eggs in everything too. I would save it for last every time, like dessert.
    It’s a shame that Bo Innovation couldn’t get it together like your lunch lady does. She could teach him, but she’d have to charge.

  3. the broth of bu’n ma)’m is made from fermented fish ( ma)’m ca’ ) , not fermented fish paste ( which is called mam to^m). It is a Southern thing, which is in turn borrowed from the Campodian again .
    About Bo , i watched that espisode with Athony Bourdain, and i hate Bo . How can you serve food with a stinky cigar in your hand ?

  4. These noodle soups are just stunning! I’m hoping to make my own noodle soup broths at home one day (I mean it! I’ll get around to pho first) and these have given me plenty of ideas!

  5. yum yum! every dish looks fantastic although I’d side with the astronomer about the one full of odds and ends… you are so lucky to have that everyday at lunch! I would love it. Those tapioca noodles look amazing.

  6. htran – it’s a street stall. If I’m in Saigon when you’re around, I’d love to take you to the lunch lady.

    tangle – I always save the quail egg for last! And the lunch lady could totally school Bo. He couldn’t afford what she charges 😉

    trinh – Kelis and Nas are my favorite hip hop couple. I will try to reference Nas one of these days, but his songs don’t lend themselves as well. Look out for a future post entitled: If I Ruled the World

    Duy – well said.

    Su Lin – Good luck with your soup endeavor! I can’t wait to start making my own noodle soups. First up for me is probably Bo Kho (it’s my fave).

    Foodhoe – No innards for you? Aw… Pass em my way.

    WC – I think she adds a whole pineapple because she makes a HUGE vat. And I’ve had gio heo in bun bo, but not sure about banh canh. I love gnawing on the bones ;-).

  7. Gastronomer, thanks for the offer, I’ll definitely take you up on that. We’ll be in Saigon from the first week of August until 8/26. Hopefully you and the Astronomer will be around then.

  8. Htran – We’ll already be back in America by then! What a shame. DO come and enjoy the lunch lady’s offerings without us 😉

  9. Bum Mam is made of fermented fish, not fermented shrimps. That is why it does not smell like shrimps. In vietnam, they call any kind of fermented fish “mam”. Thus, the name arrived.
    Hu tieu Nam Vang: Pork liver, kidney are traditional ingridients in Hu tieu nam vang.
    Banh canh: there are obviously two types of banh canh noodle: one made from rice flour, one made from tapioca starch: banh canh bot gao and banh canh bot loc. The one made from flour is not as slippery and has different taste. It also does not thicken the broth as much as the other one does. It pairs with pork or fish. The one made from tapioca starch is very slippery and thickens the broth a lot. It usually pairs with crabs
    Bun bo Hue: it is not authentic to have pineapple in the broth. However, the trick is pretty clever. Since her price is so cheap, she might buy cheaper and tougher cuts of meat. Therefore, the pineapple can help tenderize them. The authentic bun bo Hue should not have pork patties either. It only has beef, pork legs and feets. Pork patty is a Saigon thing.

  10. Dear Gastronomy,

    I am quite surprised that the Lunch Lady would share her pineapple info. in bun Bo, since most cooks are secretive when it comes to Je-ne-c’est quoi “the secret” ingredients! Another reason why I am now a big fan.

    Living in Southern California, I am somewhat blessed with all the Vietnamese eateries in Little Saigon, still, I find it rather disappointing at most establishments. I believe that the problem lies on the fact that most restaurants here cover at least 20-30 dishes on the menu and everything is pre-cooked and reheated upon request whereas the street vendors in VN only specialize in one dish/pot, years after years, sometimes one generation after another. Another contribution to these good eats is having the freshest ingredients — neither frozen nor chemically enhanced. As a result, the dishes we order here are mediocre, quasi-edible in compare to the unique flavors one would get from the street vendors in VN.

    Once again, thank you for having this website; it feels as though another wonderful trip down the memory lane.


  11. Did you know that The Lunch Lady was featured by Anthony Boundain in one of his very popular gastronomic documentaries “No Reservation”? That leads me to googling for her & found your very well-deserved compliments about her here.

  12. Wow! All of the dishes look yummy! 😉 It’s too bad I didn’t know about her when I visited VN with my family in the summer of 2007. Is her stall still on the same street? I hope she would still be there the next time I visit VN.

    Iorna: I think I’ve seen this episode on either the food network or the travel channel. Have you tasted her noodles?

  13. ohhh….im gonna visit Vn this November i hope the Lunch Lady is still at the same spot when i come back to VN 🙁 all of these dishes make me feel so homesick
    This is such a great website! Thanks for sharing ur experience 🙂

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