Lunching at Lunch Lady

Want to eat the freshest veggies while on your Asian vacation? Vietnam’s the place to be. In a more formal dining room or at a roadside eatery, the herbs and vegetables don’t disappoint. It’s amazing to consistently see all that vibrant color and wondrous crisp every mealtime. Refreshing!

At the top of my must-eat list was a stop at Lunch Lady, a simple outdoor dining place that’s 100% true to its name. Only available for the early lunch rush as the soup runs out in a snap, this hidden soup “cart” caters to plenty of locals and tourists in its daily operations. A kindly-looking Vietnamese woman does the buying and cooking of all the ingredients. I know that because I discovered Lunch Lady through Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations.

Lunch time!

It took me 2 tries to finally find her! The first day, we arrived a bit late from our exploration of the city. No dice. Lunch Lady had already packed up and left. We were told by other vendors to come back earlier the next day. Well, day 2 almost never happened as the cab driver wasn’t familiar with the address I gave. After never-ending turns and multiple attempts at asking for directions, we miraculously arrived, smack in the middle of lunch service.

Lunch Lady in action

From what I’ve read in my research, Lunch Lady has a daily menu roster. There’s a different kind of soup and side dish every day. No need to browse through any menu. Upon sitting, a man comes and counts the people at the table and brings the right number of soup- and side-of-the day. We were able to effectively communicate our drink orders through gestures and pointing to the display case.

Soup du Jour (think it’s called Canh Chua Tom)

A seafood-y noodle soup was served, complete with the ever-present herbs for extra texture. It’s an explosion of flavor, really. I say ‘seafood-y’ as there are many other components to the soup such as tripe and okra. The taste is comparable to a mild version of Tom Yum: a little sour and super fragrant.

Spring Rolls

Along with it comes a plateful of Vietnam’s famous spring rolls. Again, FRESH sums it all up. The shrimp was cooked perfectly.

Rau ma (Pennywort)

As for libations, I ordered a glass of Rau ma, which I can only describe as resembling wheatgrass. My companions, on the other hand, preferred the more familiar avocado drink.

The bill is reasonable. For around PHP200, there’s noodle soup, drink, and side dish. Try to get a complete meal that’s this fresh in Manila for that price. I dare you.

One thing is for sure, this healthy lunch is a FULL and balanced meal with its carbs, proteins, and veggies. A month of this, I’m guessing, is the equivalent of a cleanse.

Scouting for this venue was well-worth the frustrating search on-taxi, but here’s a little tip: To avoid the hassle of going in circles, it’s best if you had a google map image of the area saved on your phone to show the cab driver.

Lunch Lady –  23 Hoang Sa St., District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

This is Canton! part 3

*For part 1 of the series, please click here.

**For part 2 of the series, please click here.

***Entries in this series are going to be photo-heavy…

Day 2:

Personally, my preference when it comes to travelling is to wake up early and get a good start on my itinerary. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the type to over-plan everything down to the hour. What I mean by itinerary is a vague list of places that are of interest. Perhaps, I’d have more restaurants listed there than actual attractions. But since my parents are the ones behind our travel itineraries and they tend to wake up late, I just make a note to visit Sephora and get myself some milk tea or a fruit skewer.

We used to sign up for tours, but after a particularly nasty experience, we decided to drop it altogether. My father is obsessed with travel books, so he gets all the ideas there. And since the boom of blogs, he’s also checked the net a lot for must-go places.

On Day 2, however, we ended up having lunch at the hotel restaurant. Sounds anti-climactic, I know, but items from the dim sum cart were affordable enough.

Four Seasons Restaurant: “Tolet” is right this way

The restaurant was packed with people at lunch time. We were lucky to get a table at the dim sum section.

BBQ Pork Roll with Oyster Sauce & Gender

Depending on the orders, they have small, medium, large, and XL. It pertains to the price rather than the actual serving size. Each order comes in only 1 size.

Congee

I like an authentic congee, and so does my family. It’s about the quality of the broth. Congee isn’t meant to be salty or peppery. The subtlety of its flavor is the art of it.

Raddish Cake

Chicken Feet

Hakaw

XiaoLongBao

BBQ Pork Bun a.k.a. Asado Siopao

Like I said, the food is standard and can be found in your usual tea house. Okay, so maybe it doesn’t strike one as particularly adventurous choices in food. –At least, not if one is used to eating Chinese food.

Siomai

Here’s something of note: Tofu Rolls with Kraft Cheese. That’s what it says on the menu. And being the cheese-lover that I am, I was naturally curious.

Turns out, it’s mostly just the beancurd and shrimp filling you’ll be able to taste. I didn’t sense any cheese. Boo.

Deep Fried Beancurd Roll with Cheese

The order of Rice Wrapped in Lotus Leaf is basically “Ma Chang” in a rectangular shape, as opposed to the triangle parcels we often see.

Sticky Rice Wrapped in Lotus Leaf

Cake with Papaya and Coconut Milk

As for the dessert, the menu says “Cake”, but in essence it’s jelly. I loved this, as the papaya they used was really fresh. It’s real mashed fruit, not just artificially flavored jelly. –Which is what I see a lot of in Manila. The coconut jelly is also very creamy and soft, not too much gelatine used.

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Another great aspect of staying at Grand Continental is the proximity of shops to it. There is a connecting door from the hotel to a mall that has several levels of tiangge shops. They have housewares, accessories, make up, and clothes. I was stuck on the cosmetics floor for an hour trying to decide on which set of false eye lashes I should get. It was ridiculous.

Then there’s Beijing Lu, which is also a stretch of road with retailers like in Shangxia Jiu Lu. Apart from the apparel stores, they also have lots of food stores.

The Usual Snack Stand: Skewers cost somewhere from RMB 5-10 (PHP 35-70)

Various historical attractions are scattered throughout the length of the road. There are plaques in English that tell the story behind each statue/monument. Lots of photo ops, too.

Attractions

Shopping!

I saw a McDonald’s take-out counter and couldn’t resist buying a cup of  Tiramisu-flavored McFlurry. I love the McDonald’s ice cream in China. The sundae cones come in different flavored swirls. I notice that the McFlurry cup there is short and stout vs. the narrow in the Philippines. Is it because Pinoys don’t consume as much ice cream in one sitting? (Food for thought.)

McFlurry!

Yummers

Further down the road, I was surprised to find a familiar figure:

Look again…

I came running, only to find that, what I thought was a Happy Lemon branch turned out to be Lucky Lemon.

My milk tea was fine, but it was my fault that I asked them to drastically reduce the sugar content. In the end, it tastes like a very literal tea with milk. Gotta keep in mind that the people in China are no rookie tea drinkers. Less sugar means LESS SUGAR (maybe only 20-30% sweetness). While in Manila, “Less Sugar” translates to 75% and “Little Sugar” means 30%.

Old City, a Block from our Hotel

The aura I got from Canton was that it is going through a huge jump from antiquity to modernity. New establishments are cropping up everywhere and the infrastructure is improving, but there are still a lot of old-fashioned details that I find charming and characteristic. For example, the photo above is that of some old shops (the kind where the owners tend to live right above) which look old and a little dilapidated, but they somehow manage to be presentable and fairly clean. Somewhere else, you’d expect a place looking like this to be infested with pests and smell of urine. At least, walking through this old city makes me feel safer. Meanwhile, a big mall is being built across the street from this scene. You now have this contrast between really old and brand new. That’s Canton.

~!~

Dinner was at:

Sorry, I really can’t read that. Isn’t a picture much more accurate anyway?

Dad raves about this place for having the most incredible bread. He wouldn’t stop talking about it for months. –but that’s for dessert. We started the meal off with some Pregnant Shrimp with Wasabi Soy Sauce.

Ta-Da! Pregnant Shrimp

I found it so intriguing. ALL the shrimp on that plate was pregnant and their stomachs were slit open after being cooked in brine, so that you could suck the roe out. The wasabi sauce was so strong that any more than a drop brought tears to our eyes. Really, the concept is simple, but the result is so flavorful. I remember the time when our chef kept telling me to add more salt to my vegetable-blanching water. Now I know that this is what he means. The salt has to saturate the water, so that little or no additional seasoning is required of the product afterwards. It just looks kind of bad that so many handfuls of salt have to go into a tiny pot of water.

Roe, roe, roe your boat…

The dish, for me, is decadent in a way that is reminiscent of China’s imperial era: the cook has to round up all the pregnant shrimp to create this one plate… Sounds luxurious to me.

I wouldn’t recommend this to the hypertensive, though, as all the roe made us a little dizzy.

Steamed Chicken

The second dish was a simple steamed chicken that Mom found too oily and fatty, but not lacking in flavor. Arguably, the flavor stems from the fat itself.

Fish Cooked in a Sizzling Pot

Next up is a dish with fillets of fish in a savory sauce with lots of vegetables, served in a very hot earthenware pot. It burned the tongue, but was sweet and savory from the mix of onions and the sauce.

Kangkong in Broth

There was also some kangkong, as I’ve noticed that Dad tends to order a very well-balanced meal with different kinds of meat and vegetables, much to the  protests of my grandmother who thinks the amount of food is excessive. Secretly, however, I think she is impressed at the spread.

Piping Hot Pineapple Buns

There is something grandly romantic about eating at a place where you know that the cooking expertise has been passed down from many generations. When the food is presented to you, it comes with a sense of authenticity. I can’t help but feel that the concept of terroir has to be applied to Cantonese cooks. –only they’re the ones who are being raised in that  environment.