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Hẻm Gems: At a Corner of Nguyen Van Linh, Saigon's Best Korean Cold Noodles

Much like a stereotypical meet-cute in a romantic comedy, the majority of my most memorable food experiences often involve a faux pas of varying degrees of humiliation.

Last year, in our Hẻm Gem introducing Mi Quang Tri’s cao lầu, I wrote about my first experience with the elusive Hoi An delicacy and how I made a fool of myself by demanding more broth in my bowl of noodles, apparently something that’s frowned upon in central Vietnam cao lầu etiquette. It’s only natural that I begin this week’s food review with another social blunder that marked my first memory with Korea’s piquant cold noodles, naengmyeon.

For the uninitiated, naengmyeon is a noodle dish commonly eaten during summertime thanks to its cooling effects and refreshing ingredients, though some ardent fans — like Korean food blogger Maangchi — find the chewy noodles so irresistible that they could enjoy them regardless of the season.

The noodles are made from the starch of a range of root vegetables and grains, including the mainstay buckwheat, in addition to potato, sweet potato, arrowroot starch and kudzu. In a shade of purplish-brown, these strands have an incredible bite and hold up extremely well after a long time submerged in the broth without getting soggy. The broth is ice-cold, tangy and full of umami flavor, with just a light touch of sweetness. And sprinkled on top is a healthy serving of lightly pickled daikon, cucumber, half of a boiled egg and toasted sesame seeds.

Despite our long-term existence as tropical dwellers, Vietnamese tend to shy away from savory food that’s cold, with the exception of maybe northern thịt đông — jellied pork puddings that are a favorite Tết treat for some families. Our ideal summer dishes revolve around vegetable soups like canh chua (sour but ever-enticing) or canh ngót (hearty and simple), and beverages like chilled coconut and herbal teas, or nước sâm. It took me well into adulthood to start appreciating the comforting coolness of cold noodles, thanks to Japan’s zaru soba and, recently, naengmyeon.

My brush with Korean cold noodles, however, began years ago when I was in primary school. Our family was invited to a sumptuous buffet, a pan-Asian banquet boasting exotic fares that childhood me had neither seen nor sampled before. A rainbow of dainty sushi pieces spanned a wooden boat right in the middle of the table next to towering stacks of bamboo steamers cradling a compendium of Chinese dim sum. In the corner, however, stood a beautiful crystal bowl half-filled with a cold liquid that gave off a faint herbaceous fragrance.

As curiosity slowly took over precaution, I was compelled to gather two glasses of the mysterious concoction, bring them back to the table and carefully take a sip. Saltiness, sourness and a light pickle-esque funkiness overcame my senses. It wasn’t unpleasant, but I was in shock; the experience almost felt like Dumbledore being fed sip after sip of the Emerald Potion by Harry in a hidden cave as they scoured the earth for Voldemort’s Horcruxes. Someone later pointed out that the “drink” was actually a Korean broth to be eaten with naengmyeon and wasn’t meant to be a thirst quencher.

Scissors are provided so diners can cut up their noodles before eating.

In today’s Saigon, Korean cuisine has become a popular fare relished by the young and old thanks to the rise of Hallyu. BBQ, fried chicken and kimchi soup remain the top-of-mind culinary associations with the East Asian country, almost to a dominating degree. Which makes family restaurants serving more obscure offerings, like Mi Lanh Yoo Chun, a rare treat. Introduced to us by a Korean colleague, the noodle shop’s interior looks nondescript, save for two expansive traditional paintings on the wall depicting pastoral ideals of South Korea.

According to the owner, Joo Won-mi, the restaurant has been open for more than a decade. Its shopfront faces Nguyen Van Linh Boulevard, while the back looks over the Korean enclave of District 7’s Tan Phong Ward. In the distance, the hulking metal carapace of Crescent Mall looms. Won-mi relocated to Saigon due to her husband’s job back in October 2002. The couple now raises their two sons while operating one of the most authentic naengmyeon shops in town. Even though cold noodles are the specialty, as the restaurant's name suggests, Mi Lanh Yoo Chun also puts forth tasty-looking versions of bibimbap, Korean dumplings and a plethora of hot pots.

Our naengmyeon lands on the table in a stainless-steel bowl, looking handsomely put together. The strands of noodles glisten, their dark amber body providing a contrast to the brightness of the slices of cucumber and pickled daikon. Traditionally, one is not supposed to cut naengmyeon noodles, as they represent longevity, but usually noodle shops offer to cut them for you, or a pair of scissors so you can snip them yourself — a prudent move considering these will be the chewiest flocks of noodles you’ll ever come across in your life. Coupling with the soft tanginess of the vegetables and broth, the noodles’ texture will compel you to never stop eating. At VND120,000, this is a relatively expensive bowl of noodles, but the portion size is huge and can easily feed two.

Won-mi tells us that she imports the noodles from her home country, but the rest of the produce is all sourced here because she believes that her food should feature local ingredients. Due to the dish’s relative obscurity in Vietnam, only around 30% of Mi Lanh Yoo Chun’s patrons are Vietnamese; up to 60% of diners are Chinese and Korean; and the rest are Japanese, according to her.

Left: Some of Mi Lanh Yoo Chun's free panchan, including a verdant buchujeon (chives pancake) and japchae (stir-fried glass noodles). Right: green onion pancake with seafood.

In addition to cold noodles, we also order a plate of haemul pajeon (VND200,000), the famous green onion pancake that may look like pizza at a glance, but tastes like anything but. Fresh seafood and ample amounts of allium are mixed in with a light batter and fried to greasy perfection. While we were munching on our slices of pancake, Won-mi brings out a bowl of chogye guksu, chilled chicken noodles that derive its unique flavor from vinegar and mustard. For the carb-averse, these portion sizes might prove too much to handle, but we soldier on because one does not simply refuse free noodles, let alone nimbly put-together and cooked ones like these.

A bowl of chogye guksu.

As our gorging session winds down to a lull, dusk is already sheepishly painting the outside. Mi Lanh Yoo Chun’s colorful neon sign bathes the pavement in a concoction of psychedelic colors. Inside, the dining area boasts a full house, with a special table in the corner hosting some special guests: Won-mi’s own family having their dinner right in a booth. She introduces her sons to us; we settle our bill and continue on our evening journey home, all satiated in different ways. Gastronomically, without a doubt; culturally, more for me than my Korean colleague; but more important than most, emotionally — the kind of warming fulfillment that can only come from eating delicious home-cooked food prepared with care.

Mi Lanh Yoo Chun is open from 10am to 9pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5

Price: 3/5

Atmosphere: 4/5 

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 5/5

Khoi loves noodles, is a raging millennial and will write for food. 

Korean cold noodles (naengmyun)

3 Khu Pho My Hoang, Tan Phong Ward, D7 (the shopfront faces Nguyen Van Linh)

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