In researching his first trip to Vietnam—his parents’ birthplace— Vancouver’s Michael Tran looked to Anthony Bourdain for inspiration. Tran watched every related episode of the late globe-trotting chef’s No Reservations and, in 2012, went to each eatery that Bourdain covered.
The nation was one of Bourdain’s favourite places on earth, once saying “It grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Once you love it, you love it forever.”
Among the spots Tran visited was a tiny stall with two metal tables and low plastic chairs in crowded alleyway in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Run by Nguyễn Thị Tần, it’s called the Lunch Lady. Nguyen serves a single dish every day for a total roster of seven menu items, and, thanks to Bourdain’s praise, the hawker is now legendary.
Tran could see why after having his very first sip of bún bò huế, a spicy beef noodle soup with heaps of fresh herbs.
“I fell in love,” Tran tells the Straight. “It was comfort food with these vibrant flavours.
“I fell in love with the place, too,” he adds. “You watch all the people and scooters go by, there were chickens running around all over the place; it was just so alive.”
Working in collaboration with his mom, Victoria; friend and chef Benedict Lim; and Nguyễn herself, the Lunch Lady will soon open on Commercial Drive.
Here’s how it all came about.
Tran comes from a family of restaurateurs. His mom, Victoria—who immigrated to Saskatchewan from Ho Chi Minh City at 15, along with her parents and 10 siblings—opened the now defunct Mekong Restaurant in East Van and later launched Five Elements Café, a Vietnamese and Thai eatery, at 1046 Commercial Drive (the former home of Tony’s Deli), the space currently under renovations for the Lunch Lady. She learned the ropes herself growing up; her dad still runs eight Vietnamese restaurants in Regina. Tran opened Pacific Poke, which is about to launch its 10th location.
To get more closely acquainted with his family’s roots, Tran returned to Vietnam year after year after that first trip, stopping in at the Lunch Lady every time. (The food stall was apparently simply called “restaurant” before Bourdain and his crew suggested she change the name.)
When he visited in 2018, she remembered him. She pinched his cheek and showed him a copy of her cookbook.
“When I got home and started reading it, I fell in love all over again,” Tran says. “I just thought, ‘We need something like this in North America. I wanted to carry on her legacy.’”
Tran and his mom, as translator, travelled to Vietnam to get Nguyễn's thoughts on a collaboration.
“She just cried, she was so happy,” Tran says. Apparently, Bourdain had talked to her about opening a Lunch Lady in what was supposed to have been Bourdain’s street hawker-inspired Market in New York.
To get the wheels in motion, Tran went to Vietnam anew, this time with his friend Lim, who trained at the Art Institute of Vancouver and has been cooking professionally for two decades. The founder of CWB Kitchen specializes in private dining, specifically six-course tasting menus in people’s homes.
Tran and Lim spent a full week with Nguyễn.
“She gets up at 6 in the morning to go to the market,” Lim says. “She hands picks all of the produce she’s going to use each and every day. She makes her beef stock from scratch every morning. She still cooks over coals.”
The Lunch Lady’s opening date is still being determined, but (travel restrictions aside) the team hopes to bring Nguyễn here for staff training plus the restaurant’s launch in the near future.
The menu will feature Nguyễn's popular dishes, which represent various regions of Vietnam, including that beef noodle soup Tran fell in love with. Bún mắm. a broth of fermented fish and tamarind, is one that blew Lim away: “I had never tasted anything like it,” he says.
Look for bún thái, Thai-inspired hot and sour noodle soup with jumbo shrimp and squid; mì vịt tiềm, twice-cooked five-spiced roasted duck in egg noodle soup; and mì quảng, flat turmeric noodles with pork, shrimp, and crackers tossed with pork broth and fresh herbs; and more.
The restaurant will also incorporate some fan favourites from Five Elements, like Victoria Tran’s spicy satay pho, which has a loyal following, and delicious salad rolls.
In the evening, Lunch Lady will morph in to a place for share platters with grilled meats and shellfish, along with craft beer and cocktails. Lim describes the approach as Vietnamese authenticity with local ingredients.
Studio CM is designing the new space, working off so many photos of the Lunch Lady stall, using bright bold colours, like burgundy, red, blue, and yellow to bring it to life. The stainless-steel tables are like the metal ones in that Ho Chi Minh alleyway. Expect it to be a lively atmosphere. The only thing missing will be the chickens running around.
Stay tuned for details on opening date.