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Hẻm Gems: One Bowl, Two Noodle Dishes, and Heaps of Hometown Glory

On the slope connecting Binh Thanh and Phu Nhuan districts lives a small pocket of Quang Nam culinary spirits — in the form of “two-in-one” noodles.

I would be the first to admit that I’m not too in touch with the central Vietnam roots of my family. In a proudly central household, I’m the only one born in Saigon, and grew up speaking the southern dialect.

Though I didn’t spend my upbringing in the countryside, I’m lucky to have connected with the delicious fare of my homeland. It’s a personal point of pride that I’ve “inherited” from my mom a must-visit list of central Vietnam eateries here that few are aware of, and one of them is Mì Quảng Mai Linh.

Admittedly, my mother has never used the word “delicious” to describe the restaurant; she only remarked that its food is “similar to that in Hoi An.” Then again, my mom is notoriously terse, so in a way, this is already a Michelin-starred assessment.

Mì Quảng hails from my mother’s hometown in Hoi An, Quang Nam Province, but many renditions have been lovingly created by residents of other localities: Da Lat’s version has jicama, while in Phan Thiet there is chicken involved, etc. The bowl at Mai Linh is special above all other versions I’ve ever sampled because it incorporates another Hoi An delicacy: cao lầu.

Both noodle dishes encapsulate the customs and temperament of Quảng-ians. Albeit seeming similar in passing glance, they are actually very different. Find out how different here in one of our past Hẻm Gems.

Mì Quảng Mai Linh is a humble street eat set up in front of a small house on the busy thoroughfare linking Binh Thanh and Phu Nhuan. Nothing particularly flashy stands out about its interior or exterior. On the left, a neon yellow sign lights up the shopfront, bearing a rustic design commonly seen in any central Vietnam eatery. On the right are two stainless steel tables that can fit a maximum of eight people, though most customers come for takeaway.

As the place claims in its canopy banner, Mì Quảng Mai Linh is a home for central Vietnam food, though its breakfast menu has only one dish: cao lầu-style mì Quảng. Other mì Quảng stalls in Saigon often present a smorgasbord of topping choices, from pork rubs and shrimp to an assortment of many proteins. The portion, meat choices and how it should be served are already set in stone by Mai Linh, the owner. As an indecisive eater, I am pleased to not have to make choices.

To assemble our order, she starts by arranging lettuce, rau răm and some bean sprouts in the bowl. She layers on chả lụa, chicken bits, shrimps, sliced pork and quail eggs (two of them!) alongside strands of noodles as yellow as the neon banner. Last but not least, she pours in a ladle of broth from the vat nearby, then sprinkles on top some peanuts and a morsel of sesame cracker before carrying the bowls to our table.

The first thing I taste is always the cracker when it still retains its crunchy texture while absorbing some of the broth. Linh’s crackers are remarkably airier than those I’ve tried elsewhere; she explains that she “steam-fried” them prior to serving. The cracker pieces are heated over a pot of boiling water so the moisture helps soften the texture and reduce the oil used. The morsels are therefore not as tough as when they are grilled, and are just sufficiently airy without being greasy.

There are two central pillars to Linh’s noodles — strands of mì Quảng and the cao lầu broth. According to her, she learned the cao lầu recipe from her Hoi An grandmother before settling in Saigon. A true-blue cao lầu requires noodles to be made from highly particular local ingredients, like water from the Ba Le well and ashes from trees grown on the Cham Islands, so it’s almost impossible to replicate or purchase outside of Hoi An.

So she came up with the next best thing: substituting the noodles with mì Quảng, a rice noodle that is present at any market across the country. Its threads are flatter and less elastic than those of cao lầu, so are more recognizable among southern eaters; they also absorb the flavors of the broth better, she raves.

When asked about her broth concoction, she is surprisingly generous and tells me that it’s made of cooked-down pig and chicken bones. Every day, she gets up at 4–5am to begin braising the bones and prepping other ingredients. The pot is simmered for hours until the remaining liquids can serve 50–60 portions.

She assures us that, when the broth runs out, she tells everyone that the stall is closed, and would never dilute the flavor by adding more water. I know that’s true because my mì Quảng-cao lầu serving is bursting with flavors, even though it’s sweeter and less salty than its central Vietnam counterpart, an adjustment to fit the southern palate.

As it is relished in Hoi An, each bowl only receives a bit of broth, about one ladle. Still, my way of eating central Vietnam food has taken on some of that southern magnanimity, so I request an additional bowl of broth, and Linh is happy to oblige.

Each of the proteins — chicken, shrimp, and char siew — takes up considerable broth seasoning to become both savory and gently sweet. Nonetheless, it errs on the sweet side, at least when compared to my mom’s home-cooked braised meat.

Sitting imposingly on the table is the striking crimson of chili sauce, a testament to central Vietnamese’s fondness for heat. Linh, without a sliver of reluctance, smears the hot sauce on four pieces of crackers as casually as buttering a piece of toast, and offers them to us. Contrary to our expectation, the heat is almost non-existent, but there’s a pronounced taste of chili, alongside some unknown spices. That’s Linh’s homemade chili sauce, crafted fresh every day; it’s so good that some customers buy extra sauce. She doesn’t include it in the noodles by default, but leaves it on the table for personal seasoning.

In our chat, she says that the noodle stall has been open for 12 years, welcoming not only patrons from central Vietnam seeking an authentic taste of home, but also foodies from all over the country. “I only sell noodles for some extra grocery money. If you like my food, come back more often,” she says. I imagine that she’s smiling behind that mask. “I know some families that have eaten here for three generations. The mother took the kids, and then when the kids had kids, they took their children here. The little one keeps saying, ‘I want Madame Linh’s mì Quảng.’”

There are times when I wonder if the future entails me hauling some diminutive versions of myself here. No matter if that vision will turn out to be true, I’m still glad that on this nondescript neighborhood street, there’s a tiny corner where immigrants like my mom can seek out a taste of home, and impart that taste of the “two-in-one” noodles on future generations like myself.

Mì Quảng Mai Linh is open from 7am to 11am every day.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5

Price: 3.5/5 (60.000VND/tô)

Atmosphere: 4/5

Friendliness: 4.5/5

Location: 4/5

Mì Quảng Mai Linh

32B Nhiêu Tứ, Ward 7, Bình Thạnh

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