An Illustrated Guide to The Lunch Lady
Introducing the only lunch lady in the world with a definite article attached to her name. Nguyen Thi Thanh is THE Lunch Lady of Saigon.
Under the endorsement of Mark Weins, the incisive food-travel blogger behind Migrationology, Tim and I set course to find Saigon’s famed Lunch Lady. In 2009, Nguyen Thi Thanh, an ordinary Saigonese noodle vendor tucked away in the northern recesses of District 1 was visited by a gentleman named Anthony Bourdain, who put her tiny stall in the international spotlight. After the Vietnam episode on ‘No Reservations’ aired, this neighborhood haunt skyrocketed in popularity. Today, the tiny blue plastic chairs are filled with local business-folk on their lunch breaks and sunburnt tourists waiting to dive into a broth of soup that Bourdain raved “…is the broth that the gods would have suckled on.”
Looking for more Saigon Street Food? Read my guide to Street Food in Saigon.
When reaching our destination, we realized that we had driven down the same alleyway only a few nights before under the misdirection of Google Maps. It felt like we were destined to eat at this stall and not at the behest of trendy food gurus! It was hard to find at first since the yellow and red marquee pictured in almost every blog post was nowhere to be found. She now shares the same blue and white banner as her neighbors, which looks like a standard business regulation around the block.
What really lured me to this specific food stall was not the Bourdain stamp-of-approval, but the daily rotation of her noodle dishes. Now that was the real draw for me since in Saigon, a rotating menu is very atypical due to the high cost of ingredients. Street food menus tend to be minimal, no more than four dishes at most. It’s really a benefit to the eater since one hopes the vendor has perfected the offerings of his/her limited menu. However, The Lunch Lady’s “Soup of the Day” concept is a way to ensure her customers don’t get bored. For a streetside operation, there are plenty of tables sprawling across more than one block. We were seated under the shade and the breeze was nice that day which is imperative when going out for lunchtime noodles to stay cool.
*EDIT: I’ve been pointed out that the information regarding the price differentiation was a misunderstanding on my part. Thank you to the reader who wanted to prevent false impressions from forming due to my lack of sensibility. I apologize for circulating a shady opinion about this place and I feel greatly negligent for not asking more questions first.
The bowls are priced accordingly: 30,000VND (normal) and 40,000VND (special). They will serve most people the 40,000 bowl but just ask for the 30,000 bowl if you’re on a budget. The price difference stems from the amount of meat included in the dish. For example, a bowl of Bún Thái has two shrimps instead of one. Also, just a heads up on the local culture, nothing is complimentary in Saigon. You will have to pay for iced tea, wet napkins, and parking… so please don’t assume the fresh spring rolls being brought to your table will not be tacked unto the bill. It’s on you if you eat them. Don’t pull the ignorance card!
“Like all truly great soups, it soon becomes center of the universe. You pass through an event horizon of pleasure, moments ticked off in mouthfuls, everything else ceases to exist.”- Anthony Bourdain
Only one dish is prepared per day and Mondays happen to be Bun Thai day. Bun Thai is a Thai-Vietnamese soup that includes bun (pronounced ‘boon’), a thicker version of rice vermicelli with the same girth as spaghetti and a tangy, spicy broth, something I would liken to a sweeter version of tom yam goong. What makes this not-so-Thai is the absence of that spicy gut punch. It’s a much tamer broth. This is a surf-and-turf soup, with sliced squid rings, meaty shrimp, and the item that stole the show: the semi-rare slivers of beef that cook in the hot broth. People come here for the broth specifically so don’t alter the taste of the stock by adding chili or hoisin sauce. Taste the broth in its original glory before you amp up the flavor. A squirt of lime was all I needed. What I love about Vietnamese food are the garnishes. For our meal, we were given snips of morning glory and shredded banana blossoms. Both are very mild in flavor which means they’re more for texture than anything else. Seeing the morning glory was a big treat and its crunchiness enhanced the meal.
And to spoil the surprise a bit, here’s a comprehensive guide to what’s on the menu Monday through Sunday 🍴
UPDATE: For Tuesdays and Wednesdays, she has 3-4 different dishes and it changes weekly. On Tuesdays, there’s also a mushroom noodle soup, mi quang (yellow rice noodles), something like hu tieu (Cambodian-style noodles) but with a lot more meat and on Wednesdays, she offers bun thit nuong (rice noodles with grilled pork and fried egg rolls) .
The bowl of noodles felt endless and by the time we finished, we were perspiring like crazy. Before making a quick escape (from the heat, not the noodles!) I had to see The Lunch Lady in action. She was on that lunchtime grind and I didn’t want to disrupt the kitchen flow. I quickly stole a picture of her rocking her wildly printed pajama pantsuit and she returned a gracious smile (not captured on film.)
My final verdict on The Lunch Lady
Good, but not THAT good. I think that the broth was a bit bland in comparison to some of the others I’ve sipped in HCMC. I really liked the flanks of beef but other than that, it seemed like a pretty ordinary bowl of noodles. I like how the menu changes day-to-day but the dining is not a heavenly experience. Still, it’s very satisfying and the dish is well-balanced.
Haven’t been to Saigon but I don’t think I’ll be stopping by this place when we go! The spring rolls are a turnoff. But man I love the broth in Vietnamese noodle dishes. Why they gotta make it so damn good?!
I’m glad someone agrees with me on the spring roll debacle! Its the principle right? But yes, the broth here of all the soups I’ve tasted thus far is out of control. How do they do it?!?
Pinay Flying High
I like the fact that Bourdain made this small business famous but I also hate the fact that they tried to scam you with the spring rolls. I too would be very very disappointed if it happened to me and I actually might leave and transfer to another stall.
Its the double edged sword fame carries. I agree that its wonderful how Bourdain has put a humble nobody in the spotlight but now they are trying to pull tricks because they “can”. I think you summed up my feelings very nicely: disappointed for sure.
Haha. That’s hilarious locals get charged more. Luckily it’s only 50 cents. I love this. I 100% would go.
Foreigners get charged more 😛 I just thought about it but the locals are the loyal customer base so I guess the lowered price could be a reward for loyalty.
Thanks for this honest review of the Lunch Lady! Maybe before Anthony Bordain visited, she had more time to make her soup more delicious, but now with the tourist demand… Yikes. From your pictures, the food looks so mouthwatering and I want to try it too! I love seafood!
Oh I never saw it from that angle. Now I wonder if her soup was really amazing prior to the visitation. I’m obsessed with seafood too! They prepare it really well here in Vietnam!
I would eat and pay for the spring roll anyways since I love spring rolls so much haha. Thanks for sharing this!
There are even better spring rolls around the city then what I’m sure they offer! Don’t settle 😛
Very honest review and detailed too. I love noodles. Never tried Vietnamese ones though, while living in Thailand. I guess if I ever Vietnam,which I will I’ll try this. But I gotta put chili…I can’t eat bland food. Just can’t.
You’ve never tried Vietnamese food ever?!? Seriously, if you are a food fan, this needs to be higher on your list of priorities! So when coming to Vietnam, come to the South. That’s where the chili lifestyle is happening. The northern Vietnamese are purists.
Oh man… you’re making me hungry! Bun bo hue is the best and I haven’t had bun rieu in soooooooooooooooooo long. I’m going to revisit Vietnam for Thanksgiving and this place looks delicious – will definitely have to make a stop here 🙂
Omg I just ate Bun Rieu for the first time the other night and I am in love! That tangy, salty goodness… I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a broth that complex! if you are in town, come say hi! I will be in the neighborhood!
Wow this looks amazing and delicious ! And I love the illustration! Do you do them yourself?
Hi Cassie! Every graphic here is featured by me but the illustrations were stock photos that I manipulated so I can’t take full credit for them 😛
I love local gems. The food looks amazing, it’s a shame about the shady service.
I don’t think it was purposefully a shady action; I think that the fame has justified this type of behavior and these street vendors are doing what they do best which is hustling. It could’ve also been an honest assumption (doubtful, but thinking the best of humanity).
Your pictures tell it all, have not been to Saigon, but being a vegetarian i would like to know about the food options for vegetarians in Vietnam.
I’m actually writing a guide on the best vegetarian selection that Saigon has to offer in a future post so stick around and you’ll definitely get a taste of green-friendly food choices 🙂
Ah, love this post; it so reminds me of the Bun Bo Nam Bo we used to have in Hanoi, I’m really beginning to miss all that Vietnam had to offer. 🙁 I’m sure we’ll be back for a visit sometime though.
WHOA?!?! Bun Bo Nam Bo? I have yet to see this dish anywhere in Saigon! This my next mission for sure! I know you and Amy will be back here — its only across the border from Thailand 😉
I am from Hanoi, and have been living in Saigon for more than 2 years. I was introduced to The Lunch Lady just about 6 months ago. Although it is not my favourite spot for lunch, I think it’s quite brilliant. I love Bún Thái there.
Anyway, about the price thing you noticed, I guess you never had the guts to ask them why. Also you didn’t notice the bowls too. Let me clarify this, they always serve 2 kind of portions there, 30,000VND (normal) and 40,000VND (special). As for most people, they serve the latter one, even for me a Vietnamese guy. But if you become a regular guest, you will hear others ask for a normal size. And the differences? Like your bowl above, a special bowl of Bún Thái has two shrimps in there, or a special Cà Ri Gà has two chicken thighs instead of one (or you can customise it the way you want). I just hate the fact that you made it sounds like a shady/scam thingy to others without getting your facts straight.
One more thing about the spring rolls, you should learn better about Saigon local culture. Nothing is free here (but I guess nothing is free in the world especially food). You will be charged for parking lot, iced tea, wet tissues, literally everything; unlike Hanoi, where you get all of that for free. And they always put out dishes like that to somehow seduce you to eat it (quail eggs in some restaurants, Bánh da heo in some coffee shops, Vietnamese sausage in Bún Bò Huế, …); it’s part of the culture here.
As a blogger, you don’t need to have responsibilities like a journalist/editor, but please be aware of consequences of your words. People might jump into conclusion immediately. I don’t say that Vietnam doesn’t have scams, it has, a lot unfortunately. But some others Vietnamese, especially in the South, they are just amazing, honest, and modest. And therefore this kind of review would hurt those decent people businesses.
P/S: You spelled a lot of Vietnamese words wrong, like Ao Dai, Hu Tieu, … And some of your infos are wrong too.
Thank you Quang for pointing out the error of my information.I think its quick of you to surmise that I didn’t do any research… on the contrary, I cross-checked my blog post with others who had been there and I was circulating the information that seemed concrete. But then again, it happens thatthe wrong kind of information is conveyed and I will edit my post to display the right information.
I understand wholeheartedly that your defensiveness stems out of the your need to protect your culture, if I am to assume you are a born and bred Hanoian. In my defense, I was purely writing from a first impression encounter and as a foreigner. People who read blogs know that everything circulated is purely opinion-based, one voice in a sea of many. She is a very decent sales vendor and there are many who love her and still congregate to her stand to eat regularly. I don’t think I’ll ruin her whole order of operations by posting that I was slightly unimpressed. And truly, I believe that people should come to their own conclusions about things that I’ve written upon which is why I worked my ass off to create this menu to attract more eaters to her fold and the map to get them there. All of what your constructive criticism has been noted and is being edited as we speak. I will not take back my issue with the egg rolls because the women who served us scowled when we declined them. I’m not oblivious to the concept of complimentary items and lack thereof in different cultures.
If you can point out whatever else I was mistaken on like spelling errors and information, please do. If I had a Vietnamese person who would cross-check my work, I don’t want to offend anyone else.