Perhaps one of the biggest adjustments to life after Saigon is lunch. Eating on the street became part of my lifestyle, and it’s something that I’ve tried to incorporate into my routine here in New York. Working days in Midtown, I didn’t think that would be easy. But soon after starting my gig I discovered the Midtown Lunch blog, an indispensible compendium to street stalls, cheap eats, and food happenings in the corporate jungle.
I was intrigued one day to find an anouncement on Midtown Lunch for the opening of Cha Pa Noodles & Grill, a new Vietnamese joint just two avenues from the office. Bun thit nuong, my lunch of choice while living in the Ho, seemed to feature prominently on Cha Pa’s menu. It took me a few weeks to carve out time to try Cha Pa, but last night I needed a quick bite before attending a Granta Magazine reading at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, so I hoofed over to Hell’s Kitchen, fleet footed at the thought of grilled pork slathered in nuoc cham.
And then things went wrong.
The first sign of trouble? No bean sprouts. Whatever. I can deal. I stirred the dish to mingle the rice vermicelli, pork, carrot, daikon, cucumber, and peanuts, and alarm bells went off. A plume of steam wafted from the bowl. “Is this…? Are the noodles…?”
Yes, the noodles were hot. I texted a friend: “Have you ever had hot bun thit nuong?” She inquired as to whether I meant the meat. I did not. She was disturbed. So was I. I tried a few chop stickfuls and gobbled up the pork, which was quite good. But overall, the dish was a big fail. The pickled daikon and carrot were there, but the flavor was MIA. Weak nuoc cham. A miserly dash of peanuts. Disappointment. Regret. Longing.
I left a pile of noodles in protest, ordered the bill, and left my $15 (including tip), feeling like sucker. Suddenly moving back to Saigon for the sake of frequenting my Tran Khac Chan Street bun thit nuong stall didn’t seem such a ridiculous proposition. Yes, New York is the center of the universe. But Saigon has bun thit nuong for 15,000 VND, or $1 (plus cha gio). If you think that’s an uneven trade, you’ve probably never had good bun thit nuong.