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Hẻm Gems: The Lunch Lady You Haven't Met

In Saigon, there is no such thing as a one-stop shop. It's part of the city's charm: coffee in one place, lunch in another, dessert three blocks down and two alleys away. You can turn a single outing into a full day's adventure, provided you know where to go.


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But every now and again, what with the bumper-to-bumper traffic and the rain and the possibility that wherever you're going may already be closed, it doesn't hurt to find a place that has everything.

Which is what makes District 3's resident lunch lady so special. Not Anthony Bourdain's soup-of-the-day Lunch Lady, but a lesser-known – albeit equally talented – connoisseur of the sweet, sweet art of cơm văn phòng.

From pork-stuffed tofu to thịt kho trứng, braised fish to fried shrimp cakes, the District 3 Lunch Lady is a woman of many talents. Everyday, at least a dozen dishes are piled atop her massive street cart just north of the Nguyen Thi Minh Khai-Truong Dinh intersection.

It's a family affair: the lunch lady herself, a pajama-clad, middle-aged woman shovels helpings of rice onto your plate as you select your preferred dish. Her husband, a bearded fellow in a polo shirt, handles the soup and trà đá, while their daughter is in charge of finances, carrying around the standard wad of cash fastened with a rubber band.

As soon as you see the cart, you'll understand this woman's greatness. Based on looks alone, her spread of meat, veggies, tofu and fish is food porn at its finest, but the food tastes even better than it looks. Turn up on any given day, pick any given dish and, rest assured, you cannot fail: each one is made to perfection and, thanks to the D3 Lunch Lady's popularity, none of her food sits out more than an hour or two. Everything on the cart is a good decision. But if you're going to make the best decision, you should probably get the chicken.

This is the kind of chicken you cancel meetings for. I have no evidence to support this claim but I am certain that, at some point, it has saved lives. Torrential rains, extraterrestrial attacks, the end of days and a particularly good plate of this woman's chicken are all valid reasons to leave work and never return.

Gà muối, literally translated as “salty fried chicken”, is a name that doesn't quite do justice to this plate of finger-licking, fried goodness. One order is all it takes to make a believer out of even the pickiest eaters. These morsels of heaven are fried to a golden-brown crisp on the outside but juicy and tender on the inside. Combined with a helping of rice and a few veggies, it is the perfect midday feast.

For our lunch, we decided to be open-minded and order something else – and the chicken. Because you always order the chicken. Always.

That said, the D3 Lunch Lady is no slouch when it comes to braised fish, fried shrimp cakes and canh chua, or sour soup, either. Everything was fresh, flavorful and still hot – a good sign in the street food world.

According to her daughter, her family has been at this spot since the mid-70s, and judging by the hordes of office workers who turn up as soon as the clock hits noon, they've done well for themselves.

Make sure you get there by 12:30 at the latest or you may find that the chicken is already gone. Prices vary, depending upon what and how much you order, but you can expect to pay between VND25,000 and VND50,000 for a good meal. The D3 Lunch Lady also takes a break at the weekend, so this is a Monday-to-Friday spot.

Best of all, this is one of Saigon's rare one-stop shops. Beyond fried goodness and rice, the Lunch Lady has also managed to attract other vendors to the area, making it easy to grab a coffee after your lunch or tuck in to an especially good bowl of đậu hủ, the sweet dessert tofu with coconut milk, ginger and tapioca pearls.

To sum up

Taste: 6/5

Price: 5/5

Location: 5/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Atmosphere: 5/5

 

Dana is 70% caffeine, 50% fish sauce and hasn't taken a math class since 2004.

Cơm gà muối

Near the corner of Nguyen Thi Minh Khai & Truong Dinh, Q. 3

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