Chinatown's answer to the "lunch lady'

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A Cho Lon couple serves something different and tasty seven days a week

Toan (C) works the alley while Nuong does most of the cooking at this little valley lunch spot in Ho Chi Minh City's District 5

Four years ago, a blogger and food writer named Catherine Dang dubbed Nguyen Thi Thanh "the lunch lady."

When Anthony Bourdain's researchers read about Thanh and decided to feature her in his show, No Reservations, her spacious alley on the north end of District 1 boomed with new business.

"Prior to appearing on No Reservations, she averaged about 100 bowls each day," Dang wrote on her site,, last November. "These days, she sells 130 to 140 bowls during service, and even more if a tour bus rolls into her shady courtyard."

Today, the plump cook with the loud pajamas, conical hat and Cheshire grin serves as the unofficial ambassador of Saigon's street food. You can preview her menu in the many YouTube videos shot by excited food pilgrims or comment on her offerings at TripAdvisor.

You can even email her.

She continues to provide a great service to the people of District 1. But if you are looking to explore new flavors and territory, consider paying a visit to a narrow alley in District 5.


Address: 409/19 Nguyen Trai Street, Ward 7, District 5

Hours : 1:p.m.-whenever food runs out

Price : VND30,000 for noodles VND20,000 for dumplings and rolls

Every week, an old married couple serve a tasty rotating menu right in the heart of Cho Lon the Chinese market town that officially merged with Saigon in 1931.

Every afternoon, during the hottest part of the day, Toan and Nuong set up plastic tables under a striped awning across from a cafe packed with shirtless old men.

Their place has no name. As a matter of fact, it does not really belong to them.

They have rented their tin counter from their neighbors for the past 19 years. Their house, which sits right across the alley, is too small to set up a restaurant.

Toan is the front-of-house man, an avuncular Chinese-Vietnamese who pushes deliveries up and down the lane in the basket of an old green bicycle.

Their constant flow of chubby housewives and rail-thin students keeps him on his toes. But, as soon as there is a break in business, he takes off his cap, arches his bushy eyebrows and asks how you are doing.

Nuong's shy smile and strong arms belong to a girl who grew up in the Mekong Delta province of Bac Lieu. But her quick hands stir, ladle and chop with the fluid strokes of a Saigon street vendor.

Throughout the day, she acts as manager, head chef and cashier, without ever leaving her trio of bubbling stockpots. Nuong's soups typically arrive covered in a tasty slick of fat that clings to the lips until it is wiped away.

Together, the duo prepares Chinese staples and Delta comfort food.

On Sunday, Toan and Nuong serve bowls of sủi cảo (pork and shrimp wontons) for VND20,000.

(at the moment)

Monday: Tapioca noodles and a pig's foot or duck in Chinese egg noodles. There may also be wontons.

Tuesday: Bún giò Huế a beefless take on the Hue classic

Wednesday: Chinese egg noodles, tripe and fried wontons.

Thursday: Bún mắm rice noodles and pork belly in fermented shrimp broth.

Friday: Duck-a-palooza Duck rice porridge, duck innards salad and duck and bamboo noodles (rice or cassava)

Saturday: Cà ri bánh mì chicken or duck served in sweet Vietnamese curry with your choice of rice noodles or bread.

Sunday: Bún mì vàng Expect shrimp and pork wontons (fried and boiled) and two kinds of Chinese noodles (yellow and white) served with slices of pork brisket and plenty of onions. The couple also makes bánh xếp a pork dumpling encased in chewy tapioca dough.

Monday may bring either bánh canh giò heo (sweet and sour pig foot soup with thick tapioca noodles) or mì vịt tiềm (duck in soy broth with wiry Chinese-style noodles).

On Thursday, Nuong makes her take on bún mắm the Mekong classic of roasted pork belly served in fermented shrimp broth.

Last Friday, they dished out moist duck and rich blood pudding buried in heaps of tart rau răm and smoky bamboo. Customers had their choice of rice porridge, bún or miến (chewy glass noodles).

For dessert, I ordered the bird's heart, lungs and buttery liver chopped up in crisp ribbons of white cabbage. The salad came alive with a splash of ginger fish sauce.

The patrons of this fine establishment all seem to be the couple's Người Hoa (Sino-Vietnamese) neighbors. Outsiders are still something of an anomaly and friendly old timers may stop by to say hello or simply stare at you as you eat.

Times are changing, however, as foreigners marry into this tight little community.

A few Taiwanese husbands have developed a taste for the couple's curry and lately, Toan has become drinking pals with a Singaporean. Every afternoon, the two men get together and speak Chinese and (a little) English over beer much to the consternation of Nuong, who wishes he'd give it up.

But what can she say? Toan still gets up every morning and helps her knock it out of the park.

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