Friday, June 22, 2012

The Hunt for Anthony Bourdain's Lunch Lady in Saigon

To say that Anthony Bourdain was one of the inspirations for my travels is a huge understatement. Don't get me wrong. There were quite a few times when I loathed the man's guts what with his strong opinions on food, politics, and everything in between. I saw him as a pompous, self-indulgent celebrity chef cum traveler cum writer, who scoffs at anything that didn't pass his self-righteous standards. Then I realized, that's precisely the same reason why I like him so much. His I-got-an-opinion-about-everything-especially-food-and-travel-so-go-f*ck-yourself-and-deal-with-it attitude endeared him to me. The foodie cum traveler cum writer in me wanted to emulate those qualities.

So when the opportunity came that I was once again passing through Vietnam, a country Anthony Bourdain loved so much he considered moving his family here, I knew I had to hunt for at least one of the foodie joints the man gushed about. I found the perfect prey: Anthony Bourdain's Lunch Lady in Saigon.

Anthony Bourdain's Lunch Lady in Saigon, Vietnam
Anthony Bourdain's Lunch Lady in Saigon, the lovely Nguyen Thi Thanh.

There is a small problem, however. Anthony Bourdain's Lunch Lady in Saigon isn't anywhere near the touristy places (I would find out later on that she isn't even on a busy area). Though she is very popular on Google searches, her exact location, according to this fantastic blog, is, well, not that exact. Still, with a sketchy Lonely Planet map on hand, I trudged on, turning here, crossing there, not minding the hundreds of motorcycles whooshing by as I have learned that in Vietnam, I am the rock and they are the stream.

Anthony Bourdain's Lunch Lady in Saigon, Vietnam
Where the hell has my hunt for Anthony Bourdain's Lunch Lady in Saigon lead me?

I reached a place where the road meets, not the sea, but a filthy, black stream, a tributary of the Saigon River, I suppose. Where has my hunt for Anthony Bourdain's Lunch Lady in Saigon led me? I thought. I looked left. I looked right. No one around. Just pavement, residential high-rise buildings, and a couple of construction sites. Granted it was the middle of the day (they don't call her Lunch Lady in Saigon for no reason) and the neighborhood didn't look that dodgy. I decided to give the hunt five more minutes before turning back. That's when I noticed this nondescript street. This kind of looks familiar, I thought. I went down it and there it was: the sign that sounded the holy chants from heaven.

Anthony Bourdain's Lunch Lady in Saigon, Vietnam
I have reached noodle Nirvana!

Upon locating the small street-side area where Anthony Bourdain's Lunch Lady in Saigon serves her loyal clients, the first thing I noticed was that I was probably the only tourist here. Most of the diners in the 10 tables she has around her stall looked like locals from nearby houses and offices. I cannot tell you how many foodgasms this foodie wannabe had at the point (and you probably wouldn't want to know). So I went up to her and ordered today's noodle dish: mi ga tiem. That's egg noodles on a dark, livery, bloody soup, with a huge chunk of chicken leg, perfectly boiled bok choy, and a few bits of liver thrown in for good measure.

Anthony Bourdain's Lunch Lady in Saigon, Vietnam
I wanted to live inside that bowl. Forever.

She only serves one dish per day and rotates 7 to 9 types of soups per week. Anthony Bourdain would argue that this is precisely why dishes by the Lunch Lady in Saigon are so good. They have been perfected week after week of preparing and serving them. I agree, if you are going to do just one thing in this world, might as well do it well. And how Ms. Nguyen Thi Thanh does it so well!

Anthony Bourdain's Lunch Lady in Saigon, Vietnam
This table full of Vietnamese goodness can be had for 2 dollars US. Believe it.

A spring roll stand right beside the stall of Anthony Bourdain's Lunch Lady in Saigon would serve you a couple of fresh spring rolls to go with your soup, bringing your total lunch cost that day to a whopping 2 dollars US! Yes, believe it. Once again, I have proven to myself that if you want the best and the cheapest kind of food in your travels, you go where the locals go, or in this case, where Anthony Bourdain would go. It may not be easy. It may be far and out of the way. Rest assured, however, that the delicious rewards would always, always outweigh every effort spent.

Traveler Tip: I didn't realize it at the time but Anthony Bourdain's Lunch Lady in Saigon is on Google Maps! See her exact location below. It seems accurate enough.



Have you had a similar foodie experience in your travels? Where did you find the best and the cheapest kind of food in your travels?


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