"The food, culture, landscape and smell; they’re all inseparable," said the late food icon Anthony Bourdain of his time in Vietnam. "It just seemed like another planet; a delicious one that sort of sucked me in and never let go."
The chef, writer, and TV show host made several treks to Vietnam for his shows, exploring the Southeast Asian nation through its food, culture, and people. One visit for a 2009 episode of his show "No Reservations" found Bourdain at a Ho Chi Minh City food stall called The Lunch Lady.
The Vietnam National Administration of Tourism describes the street food spot and one of its famed dishes: "The famed Lunch Lady (23 Hoang Sa Street, Phuong Da Kao, District 1, HCMC) is sequestered in an unassuming alleyway on the northern edge of District 1. Hoards of Vietnamese businessfolk and now, tourists, meet here around lunch time."
"Snag a table close to the mobile kitchen where Ms. Nguyen Thi Thanh hurriedly orchestrates the operation. Sitting at one of these tables affords the diner a theatrical performance complete with the sounds of cleavers pounding against wooden boards and men barking out orders, fanning worn out Vietnamese dong to relieve themselves of Ho Chi Minh’s oppressive heat," reads the tourism entity's Bourdain-based food guide to the country.
At The Lunch Lady, Bourdain ate the dish of the day, bún bò huế, with its dark broth "riddled with a generous amount of delectables such as fatty pig trotter, slices of beef brisket, and hefty log of cha lua, a type of Vietnamese sausage. Strong citrus notes come through from the broth long-simmered with stalks of lemongrass."
This 2016 video shows a visit to the stall to enjoy one of its signature dishes:
Vancouverites will soon need travel no further than 1046 Commercial Drive to try out this and more dishes, where The Lunch Lady is branching out to serve its street food-style authentic Vietnamese eats.
The Lunch Lady has been reworking the East Vancouver space that was previously the Vietnamese-Thai Five Elements Café. They describe their venture from Vietnam to Vancouver as a journey "of passion and collaboration." That collaboration includes the family behind Five Elements, who have been working to renovate and re-launch their space for several months.
Restaurateur Michael Tran travelled to his home country of Vietnam in 2012, and says his initial visit to the Lunch Lady stall there would change his life forever. Tran says a fresh bowl of noodle soup he enjoyed at the stand - crafted by Ms. Nguyen Thi Thanh - that connected him to his homeland. Tran brought his mother, Victoria, of Five Elements, to visit The Lunch Lady, and the trio formed a bond. Ultimately the plan to bring The Lunch Lady's stories and food to Vancouver emerged.
On the menu: "Lunch Lady classics and new Vietnamese inspired cuisines."
You'll find, of course, the bún bò huế immortalized by Bourdain on TV, along with items like bún thái (Thai-style noodles), bún mắm (a thick seafood soup with seafood), and bánh canh cua (sticky noodles with crab), among others. They've teased taste buds with photos of their prawn and pork skewers, and garlic noodle dishes too.
Their traditional Vietnamese brunch will be availabled daily from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. You can also expect some neighbourhood favourites from Five Elements to make a lasting return on their lunch menu. The dinner menu will feature dishes that include a variety of shareable “family style” bites made with authentic and local ingredients. Additionally, the bar program will feature a freshly minted cocktail menu that reintroduces some classic drinks with a Southeast Asian twist.
As they gear up for the long-anticipated opening, Lunch Lady is keeping busy honing their take-out skills, and recently teamed up with Feed the Frontline Canada to serve meals to staff at St. Paul's Hospital and Vancouver General Hospital.
Speaking of take-out, The Lunch Lady has just announced they officially launch to-go offerings from a limited menu as of June 15. To follow, dine-in service, featuring the full menu, is slated to begin July 1.
Follow them @thelunchlady on Instagram for updates.
This story was originally published on May 20, 2020, and has since been updated to include new information.