Nguyen Thi Thanh, better known as the Lunch Lady, owns and operates a street food stall in Saigon that serves soup noodles. The restaurant was made famous by Anthony Bourdain, who ate there on his No Reservations show on the Travel Channel, and deeply loved both the noodles and the experience of eating there. So during my trip to Saigon, along with eating all sorts of incredibly delicious Vietnamese street food, I made it a point to eat at the legendary Lunch Lady.
One of the cool things about the Lunch Lady in Saigon is that she serves a different noodle soup dish everyday of the week. After reading about all the days and her rotating menu, I decided to go on Monday, because I wanted to try her version of bun Thai, a Vietnamese and Thai fusion noodle dish. As we arrived for lunch, the restaurant was already buzzing with customers, both tourists and many locals as well. I could immediately sense the kindness and the passion of the food I was about to eat. I ordered a large bowl of noodles, which didn’t take long to arrive, and I was impressed with the beautiful decoration of ingredients and the colors of everything together. In order to make the bun Thai, the Lunch Lady first added a handful of bun, or rice noodles to a bowl, topped it with a few rings of squid and some beef, then ladled on a spoon of the slow and continual simmering broth. Then in went a handful of sliced vegetables and herbs, and finally a couple of shrimp on top.
The bowl of bun Thai smelled incredible, slightly sweet and sour, with a lovely acidic, almost citrus aroma to it. Before adding any condiments, I first decided to try the soup. It tasted almost the same as it looked, sour and sweet, and with a lovely balance of flavor. I’m not sure what meat the soup was based from, but I think it was beef. Being a lover of chili, I decided to dress my bowl of noodles with some fresh dry roasted chili oil, along with a squeeze of lime juice. The chili added some much needed heat, while the lime juice gave it a bit more sourness. The noodles were slightly chewy and about the size of spaghetti, and the mixture of ingredients was superb. One of the things I really like about how the Lunch Lady assembled her bowls of noodles was that she cooked the items separately, so nothing got overcooked.
Along with serving bowls of noodles, there’s a stall next to the Lunch Lady that serves goi cuon, or Vietnamese fresh summer rolls. As a lover of the fresh summer rolls, I couldn’t resist, so we ordered a plate, that came with 3 rolls. They were very fresh tasting, and I thought they were some of the best I had during my trip to Saigon. The rolls were filled with lettuce and basil, a couple of shrimp, and I really enjoyed the hoisin sauce topped with peanuts and fresh chilies.
The Lunch Lady was a great Vietnamese street food experience in Saigon. I’ve only eaten there once, and I ate the bun Thai, so I for sure can’t say how the food is everyday, but the day I went it was pretty decent. On top of the good food, just as Anthony Bourdain mentioned, the Lunch Lady is a fantastic atmosphere – it’s in the shade, it’s a nice location off the main road, and there was a beautiful breeze as I slurped down my bowl of noodles. Overall, I was very happy, and even though the Lunch Lady is very famous, it’s worth a visit when you are in Saigon. And on top of that, Nguyen Thi Thanh is also very nice.
Address: 23 Hoang Sa St., District 1 | Phuong Da Kao, District 1 (Quan 1), Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Open hours: It’s best to eat here sometime around lunch.
Prices: 40,000 VND ($1.83) for a nice sized bowl of noodles, pretty decent portion size
How to get to the Lunch Lady: The restaurant is located not far from the Saigon zoo, tucked away into the neighborhood. You can either take a taxi directly there, or take public transportation to the zoo, and walk for just 5 – 10 minutes to get there.
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Mark Wiens and Ying Wiens: http://migrationology.com/blog & http://www.eatingthaifood.com/blog/