I ran the Run For Your Lives Zombie 5k Obstacle Race in Amesbury, MA this Saturday. (A rompingly ghoulish time if being chased by zombies, sloshing through mud and finding dirt a day later in crevices you didn’t even know existed sounds like fun!) After the run, Joyce and I traded zombies for witches.  We drove to Salem, MA in search of dinner.

What do we know about Salem?  Outside of what I learned about the 17th-century Salem witch trials from Winona Ryder in the 1996 movie, The Crucible… not much!

There’s plenty of witch-related kitsch in Salem. We waded past it all to discover what Salem was truly like – at least from a food perspective.  This led us to Green Land Cafe in the historic portion of downtown Salem.

As an appetizer, Joyce and I shared a large bowl of Prince Edward Island mussels in chorizo tomato wine and cream sauce.  The mussels were consistently sized and succulent.  The sauce?  Holy cow.  Insanely decadent, creamy and tangy, we mopped up every last drop with bread.  Pleasantly surprised, the stage was set for a great dinner.

Joyce ordered the grilled Berkshire pork chop with bourbon mashed sweet potato, garlic and lemon sauteed spinach and homemade spiced applesauce. The medium-rare chop was silky, tender, juicy and mildly smokey.  The interplay between the pork and the spiced applesauce created a great balance.

More often than not, pork chops we’ve ordered at restaurants are tough and dry – or become dry halfway through the meal.  The risk of these bad experiences is well worth it since the perfect pork chop is an absolute treat.  Green Land Cafe’s dish hit the mark.

I tried Green Land’s most popular dish, the cajun blackened grouper with sweet corn risotto.  The fish was nicely spiced, although patrons expecting a mildly spicy dish may be overwhelmed.  The rub definitely had a strong kick.  The risotto was simply made with fresh ingredients and had a perfect velvety creaminess. As much as I love fish, the risotto was the highlight of my dish.

The Green Land Cafe’s brick walls, adorned with flickering candles and dark wood accents, commemorate the restaurant’s New England origins.  The restaurant’s atmosphere was also comfortable and inviting.

Our meal was excellent with the exception of a few weak spots.  Joyce’s sauteed spinach was very salty and my fish was slightly over cooked.  Despite these few drawbacks, the quality of the meal, moderate price point and great ambiance would lead us to recommend Green Land Cafe to anyone visiting Salem, MA.

Restaurant Vitals:

Tray Tables Up Rating: 7/10

Green Land Cafe
87 Washington Street
Salem, MA 01970

The Lunch Lady

It’s not hard to find great food in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest city in the southern reaches of the country.  Turn any street corner and you’ll find a dizzying array of hawker stalls, food carts, hole-in-the-wall food joints and restaurants lacing the air with tantalizing scents of Pho Bo (beef noodle soup), Banh Mi (baguette sandwiches smothered with pate, charcuterie, fish sauce and pickled vegetables), marinated grilled meats and fine Vietnamese coffee.

Every travel destination, big or small, has an amazing food experience that is known mainly in local circles and is widely absent from mention in any established travel guide books.  In Ho Chi Minh City, this experience is a beef noodle soup cart operator affectionately coined, The Lunch Lady.

The Lunch Lady’s corner

The Lunch Lady’s food cart is nestled in a quiet neighborhood that feels like suburbia compared to the constant thundering of scooter horns, revving engines, motorcycles, cars and all of the other bustling activity that surrounds the streets that run through most of Ho Chi Minh City.

After passing several other food cart vendors, navigate a few turns, you know you’ve arrived.  The Lunch Lady’s food cart sits under an expansive tree that looks prophetically like a huge halo above her cart.  Plastic tables and chairs, more appropriate for kindergarten than my supersized Western frame, are neatly scattered around.  Take a step back and you realize the perfection of the setting. This is the mecca of food carts, the Machu Picchu of Vietnamese grub, the Rolls Royce of Pho, the Great Wall of… well, you get the idea!

Freshly made rice sheet spring rolls

I visited The Lunch Lady’s cart with my wife during a recent trip to Vietnam in November of 2011.  Being a fan of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, we were eager to retrace his culinary steps during his Vietnam episode that aired in March of 2009.

We weren’t sure what to expect or even how to order.  Before we could inquire, an assistant of The Lunch Lady brought over a plate of just-made rice sheet spring rolls and dipping sauce made from fish sauce.

Banh canh cua Hue

Almost immediately after, two steaming bowls of Banh canh cua Hue made their way from her cart to our table. Banh Canh cua Hue is a bowl of rice noodles or tapioca noodles, topped with slices of beef, fish cake, basil and pork blood cake (coagulated pig’s blood – it’s not as bad as it sounds), filled to the brim with a magical broth elixir, and you have instant perfection.

Her cart displays a variety of fresh ingredients from shrimp, beef balls, fish cakes and other ingredients not readily identifiable by my Western eyes.  But, it’s truly her cauldrons of bubbling broths, made from slowly simmering beef and pork bones, flavored carefully with fragrant herbs, that define her noodle soup dishes.  It is a complex interplay between sweet and sour, meaty and refreshing.  A mélange of different flavors that create a balanced whole.  It’s just… really FRIGGIN’ good.

The Lunch Lady first gained attention outside of Vietnam by the food blog, Gastronomy, in this post.  It then hit the radar of Anthony Bourdain.  During my visit to The Lunch Lady, there were a few other people that had seen the same episode of No Reservations and were embarking on their own food pilgrimage.  We’re sure that the “Bourdain effect” has had some impact on her business.  Her food cart was the busiest in the area and as we arrived, clearly as non-locals, we got a flash of a smile from her that seemed to say, “Hey… thanks for coming.”

Despite being somewhat of a celebrity in the food stall world, her prices were reasonable, even by Vietnamese standards.  4 rice paper spring rolls, 2 heaping bowls of noodle soup and 2 soft drinks ran 90,000 Dong, or under $5 USD.  Not a bad deal whatever way you slice it.

Her operation opens daily until her supplies run out – usually around 1:00pm.  Get there early to enjoy this great food experience!

Address / Directions:

23 Hoang Sa, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Tip: The Lunch Lady’s stall isn’t exactly a GPS-able address.  Check out this video for great directions: