First published July 2015 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
Everyone knows who Saigon’s Lunch Lady is, right? Well, probably not this one. Ms Nga is 43 years old. Her cramped, ramshackle soup stall is located on a quiet corner in Binh Thanh District, away from downtown Saigon. Originally from Thai Binh (a northern province famous for producing excellent cooks), she moved to Saigon in the mid-90s. Since then, she has been serving a different soup each day of the week, on the same spot. Like all good soup houses, it’s run by three generations of the same family. It may not be as ‘scenic’ as Saigon’s more famous Lunch Lady, but the price is cheaper, the quality is excellent, and you won’t be jostling for space with other foodies, journalists, and tourists: this place is local. I spent a week eating at Ms Nga’s soup stall, in order to produce this illustrated menu and guide to Saigon’s ‘other’ Lunch Lady.
SAIGON’S OTHER LUNCH LADY:
Address: 152/6A Dien Bien Phu Street, Binh Thanh District, Saigon [MAP]
Opening Hours: lunch is served from 10.30am to 12.30pm (closed Sundays)
- MONDAY: bún măng vịt (bamboo & duck noodles)
- TUESDAY: bún bò Huế (Hue-style beef noodles)
- WEDNESDAY: hủ tiếu Nam Vang (Cambodian-style noodles)
- THURSDAY: hủ tiếu mì chay (vegetarian rice & egg noodles)
- FRIDAY: bún thịt nướng (grilled pork & noodle salad)
- SATURDAY: bánh xèo (crispy rice flour savoury pancakes)
Dish: bún măng vịt (bamboo & duck noodles) Price: 30,000vnđ ($1.50)
Something about the autumnal colours of this soup – toast-brown, amber, beige – makes me think of it as a warming, soothing antidote to a chilly November day. The broth is a rich concoction of poultry flavours, reminiscent of that quintessential winter comfort food: chicken soup. Onion and shallot also come through strongly and, although the broth is clear, it tastes somehow creamy. A generous portion of slow-cooked, tender duck, and a cube of pig blood cake, sit atop the rice noodles. The duck is on the bone so this is definitely a ‘slurp ‘n’ suck’ soup – don’t forget to dip the meat in the ginger, garlic and chilli dipping sauce. Rough-cut slices of young bamboo – bark-brown and wiggly, like branches off a bonsai tree – add a unique texture and shape to the soup. The addition of fresh morning glory stems, beansprouts, and a couple of mint leaves adds a satisfying crunch. There’s something rustic and rural about this soup: it has all the colour and texture of a bracing autumn day: crunchy and soggy, bright and crisp; like the leaves in a Constable painting of an English landscape after a November shower.
Dish: bún bò Huế (Hue-style beef noodles) Price: 25,000vnđ ($1)
With a broth so bright it would glow in the dark, today’s soup – bún bò Huế – is as red, rich, and fresh as blood. It’s a tactile soup: the thick rice noodles (bún), strips of beef brisket (bò), spirals of onion, and giant hunk of pork chop, are just asking for my lips, tongue, and teeth to engage them. But before I tuck into these textures, I take a moment to appreciate the sweet fragrance of lemongrass rising from my bowl. Bún bò Huế is one of those mystical, complex Vietnamese broths, that’s fascinating just to look at in the cauldron: watching the processes – the magic, the alchemy – taking place, as the bones, spices, herbs, and, in this case, pineapple, change and evolve. I add even more colour, taste and texture to my bowl: shredded banana blossom, beans sprouts, curls of morning glory, mint, lime, chilli. The broth is bouncy, zesty, and light: if yesterday’s bún măng vịt was autumn; today’s bún bò Huế is spring. There’s a freshness and kick to the soup, which counterbalances all those heavy textures. Initially, I’m surprised at how mild the broth is, but, as I eat my way through the bowl, I realize that the broth is still ‘working’, still changing: it’s getting stronger, meatier, zestier the longer I take to eat it. In particular, the lime, mint, chilli, and pineapple keep on imparting their flavour; and as they do, this soup grows on me.
Dish: hủ tiếu Nam Vang (Cambodian-style noodles) Price: 25,000vnd ($1)
I arrive early at Ms Nga’s soup stall today. The broth is bubbling away: chunks of daikon floating around – orbiting bunches of spring onions – and pig blood cakes bobbing up and down like boats on a rough sea. Hủ tiếu Nam Vang is a clear broth with a mild aroma and light flavour that I’ve always found hard to describe: it’s fresh and clean, like cucumber – a refreshing soup for a hot day in Saigon. The bowl is packed with goodies: shrimp, pig blood cake, pork on the bone, pork liver, sliced pork, pork intestines, minced pork, quail egg, bean sprouts, and onion. Beneath these chunky bits, lies a thick nest of hủ tiếu noodles. The thing about these noodles is that they have a distinctive texture, and they have edges. Unlike other Vietnamese noodles, which are slick, slippery and smooth, hủ tiếu stick together and absorb the juices. Thus, there’s a satisfying release of broth with every mouthful. The taste is porky but light, with a little sweetness. It’s so well-balanced that I can hardly distinguish the flavours from one another.
Dish: hủ tiếu mì chay (vegetarian rice & egg noodles) Price: 20,000vnd ($1)
Due to a new moon, today’s dish is a vegetarian alternative to the regular Thursday soup, which is bún riêu (crab meat and tomato noodles). I ate the bún riêu here the previous Thursday, and I thought it was a bit weak, so I’m glad of the unexpected change in menu today. The Buddhist tradition of eating vegetarian food on new and full moons is observed by many Vietnamese, even those that wouldn’t consider themselves Buddhist. There’s noticeably more of a buzz here today: because vegetarian soup stalls are hard to find, on ‘moon days’ they are always packed with people. This soup has a mixture of rice and egg noodles. Heaped on top of the noodles is a mountain of crispy, curly, crunchy things: fried wonton dumplings, tofu skin, and cubes of sautéed tofu. Beneath them are slices of daikon, cabbage leaves, carrots, wood ear mushrooms, and button mushrooms – which release a striking aniseed flavour when bitten into. The clear broth is light, mildly sweet, with a cool, celeriac flavour. Ms Nga’s mother is worried that, without meat and bones, the broth lacks depth of flavour. She urges me to add soy sauce. It works: the saltiness somehow beefs up the broth. I find that the variety of textures compensates for the lack of flavour very well, and – even without animal parts – there’s still a lot going on in this soup. But, even as the vegetarian soup is being ladled into bowls, I can see meat marinating on skewers in the kitchen, ready for tomorrow’s dish.
Dish: bún thịt nướng (grilled pork & noodle salad) Price: 25,000vnd ($1)
There’s a sense of anticipation around Ms Nga’s soup stall today. A handful of customers sit at tables, awaiting their noodles; several motorbikes are pulled up on the sidewalk, waiting for their lunches to take away. Nga’s husband sits on the roadside, wafting a fan over a small charcoal barbecue. The grilling pork skewers send scented smoke streaking across the street. Ms Nga is busy frying spring rolls in a large wok full of bubbling oil. Today’s dish is a southern classic: bún thịt nướng – essentially a cold noodle salad with grilled pork and spring rolls. Sweet, savoury, crunchy, soft, but most of all, fresh and light, bún thịt nướng is perfect for a hot, oppressive summer’s day. It’s also one of the prettiest noodle dishes in Vietnamese cuisine: full of colours, shapes, and textures. There’s no broth. Instead, a sweet and sour nước mắm sauce is poured over the noodles and stirred in with chopsticks. Stirring is important because, under the delicate white rice noodles, grilled marinated meat, and fried spring rolls, there’s a cooling salad of lettuce, cucumber, mint, shredded carrot, daikon, and peanuts. With the noodles now moist and all the components stirred through, it’s ready to eat. My favourite place for bún thịt nướng happens to be a few doors away from Ms Nga, but I have to admit that they are pretty evenly matched.
Dish: bánh xèo (crispy rice flour savoury pancakes)
I work all day Saturdays, so I’m not able to make it to Ms Nga’s soup stall for the Saturday special: bánh xèo. However, these crispy rice flour pancakes are a central and southern Vietnamese classic, and are almost always excellent: I’m sure Ms Nga’s version is too. On Sundays, the family takes a well-deserved day off. Breakfast is also served here daily: each morning from 5am, Ms Nga’s husband and daughter cook bánh cuốn (steamed rice flour rolls filled with pork and mushroom) for 15,000vnd ($0.75). I tried them on a Monday morning, and they were good.
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Saigon’s other Lunch Lady:
Address: 152/6A Dien Bien Phu Street, Binh Thanh District, Saigon
View ‘Saigon’s other Lunch Lady’ in a LARGER MAP