A few hours earlier, Jeni and I were able to sample one of Bourdain's first pit stops in his No Reservations: Vietnam episode – a Vietnamese crepe-like snack called banh xeo that was both fun to eat and somewhat tasty. We got there the hard way and saw first hand how hectic Saigon street traffic was from the perspective of a cyclo transport. No thanks, we were done with that tourist trap. At our guest house, we were able to rent a scooter for only $7 the whole day, which was killer cheap. Jeni didn't like the idea of it, nor would the mother-in-law, but hey, you only live once.
We pulled out our little food itinerary and talked about our next destination. There was just too much to eat but since we were on the Bourdain tip, we might as well have paid a visit to the lunch lady he also visited on the episode. This stall was a bit out off the radar but it only meant more good times on the scooter. Thanks to Cathy's many nice postings on her blog, Gastronomy, we were able to find our lunch lady with ease. It was time to meet Mrs. Thanh Thi Nguyen.
As we were on our way, I prayed to god that Nguyen Thanh Thi would make her bun bo hue. Bun bo hue, is a Central-region soup noodle dish that includes beef slices, pork sausage, fixings in an aromatic lemongrass and chili-oil broth. This is simply my favorite Vietnamese soup noodle dish. When I saw it on the Bourdain episode, I stood up, pointed at the screen and was like, "Goddamn! That looks good". With food flying out of my mouth. To fill the void, I think we got some bun bo hue that same weekend.
Go down a main street, turn left on to a smaller street and go down an alley - the instructions said. We were finally in the vicinity. I slowed down and started to look around what was basically a large courtyard with surrounding buildings. I flared my nostrils wide to detect the smell of sweet lemongrass. To my surprise, there wasn't just one food stall or restaurant, but more like 5-6 others. All with the same set up - a makeshift tent, small blue tables and small red stools. Men sat around on their scooters smoking and drinking. We scanned the courtyard from left to right and it didn't take us long to realize which one Nguyen Thanh Thi ran because out of the 5-6 stalls, there was one stall with a good 15+ customers. I took off my space-ship like helmet, removed my exhaust mask and ducked my head to look around. And there she was, as in the episode, wearing the traditional straw hat and working the control tower. We parked the scooter and she immediately greeted us with a warm smile.
Where's the Lunch Lady? Find her now!
I walked by her 'kitchen' and checked out the broth. YES! It was bun bo hue. I remembered sitting down on that little stool and just grabbing a chunk of towels to wipe my sweat. One of the ladies came over with a bottle of water and I guzzled that thing down. It was super hot and here we were about to eat some soup noodles. I looked over at Nguyen Thanh Thi and she was busting her chops over there, serving up noodles next to a scalding hot cauldron of bun bo hue broth. I know this is gross, but I wouldn't be surprised if her secret is some accidental salt if you know what I mean haha. Sick.
The color of her broth was a fiery red, a sign of dense chili sauce and probably annatto seeds. The chocolate-like cubes you see are anything but chocolate. Andrew Zimmern would probably spend two whole episodes trying to eat this congealed, pork-blood delicacy. The Vietnamese call it huyet, and its used in pretty much used by every Asian ethnic group including the Chinese, Korean and Thais. It's not for everyone but I like it for the texture. There's not much taste to it.
Also in the cauldron were Vietnamese pork sausage patties called cha. I wish places like Wurstkuche would serve this because I'd for sure order it grilled with a bun. This is basically a beige-colored, Vietnamese version of spam that tastes good with virtually everything. Even pigs like it.
Once Nguyen Thi Thanh adds the hot noodles and toppings in the bowl, her "sous chef" takes over by adding the fragrant, red-colored broth and adding a few pieces of "pig chocolate" and Vietnamese "spam". She walked over to our little table and served us the piping hot bowls. Is it me, or do Asian servers have heat-proof hands made out of silicon? And it's not even like they're traveling a short distance, sometimes they are walking at least 50 paces to bring you your food. Most people couldn't even carry a hot bowl for more than 2 paces!
Foreplay was over. It was business time. I had waited for this moment for a long time. To eat one of my favorite soup noodle dishes, in the country of origin, on little red stools, under heat and humidity, with my wife. I took a sip and tasted the soup, which was really nice. I've tasted a lot of bun bo hue, and this would be on the strong flavoring end that some people either like or dislike. There was a good amount of spice but a few slivers of the orange and yellow chilies could only make it better. The beef was tough and wasn't what I expected. She might have pulled out the beef shank an hour too early. But I think the best part was the "Vietnamese spam", cha. That log of goodness took up a good amount of surface area in the bowl and it was just done right – with large bits of black and white peppercorns - just how I like it. Overall, the bowl was very good and for those that may never travel to Vietnam to eat this, you can definitely find a decent bowl in Little Saigon but you won't get that Saigon experience. I still find homemade version of bun bo hue more comforting then any restaurants.
From the scooter ride to finally eating a Bourdain-approved noodle stall run by a sweet lady, it was one awesome experience. Nguyen Thi Thanh is one of thousands of food stalls in Vietnam and in case you happen to visit on her day off, trust me when I say that you will never run out of food options. Thanks to the Gastronomer for a great find and thanks for reading.
Nguyen Thi Thanh Lunch Lady
23 Hoang Sa (Down the alley on the right side)
Cross Street: Nguyen Thi Minh Khai
District Binh Thanh
Everyday from 11 am - 2 pm