- Location: 1046 Commercial Dr., Vancouver
- Website: thelunchlady.com
- Phone: 604-559-5938
- Prices: Specialty soups, $15; lunch and appetizers, $8 to $18; dinner entrées, $18 to $24
- Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
- Takeout: UberEats, DoorDash, Ritual or pickup through website.
- Additional information: Reservations for dinner (recommended); limited patio, weather permitting; stringent COVID-19 protocols.
Anthony Bourdain was right: Mrs. Nguyen Thi Thanh’s noodle soups are awesome.
Or at least we can say this about the local versions being served at The Lunch Lady, a new Commercial Drive restaurant that has partnered with the Ho Chi Minh street vendor made famous by the late television superstar.
Mind you, some of the other dishes – the clean pho bo, the nouvelle floating prawns and the classic pork belly skewers, in particular – are just as good, if not better.
And to be honest, the story of how this multigenerational family business has evolved to become a quintessential Vancouver restaurant reflective of the times, is actually more interesting than a remote, but nonetheless genius marketing hook.
The Bourdain connection has been well documented and is now commemorated in an outdoor mural.
The two-storey brick building, which dates to 1909 when streetcars trundled past and speculators were trying to turn Grandview into a premier residential neighbourhood, is apparently the oldest building still standing on The Drive.
Victoria Tran operated the Five Elements Café at this address for seven years, until she and her son, Michael, closed to renovate and reopen last July as The Lunch Lady.
Five Elements was well known for its satay peanut pho – the cheapest, at $10, soup in the hood. Before that, she ran the beloved Mekong Restaurant four blocks down, from 1994.
Hospitality runs deep in the family. After Ms. Tran and her 10 siblings emigrated to Saskatchewan from Ho Chi Minh City as refugees in 1980, her parents opened Lang’s Cafe in Regina (where her father now owns eight Vietnamese restaurants).
In 2016, Michael Tran opened his first Pacific Poke, an on-trend franchise operation.
But back in 2012, he was eager to explore his roots. He went to Vietnam for the first time and, like many besotted Bourdain fans, traced the food star’s increasingly well-worn paths down narrow back alleys to slurp from the same holy grails.
Mrs. Nguyen charmed him the most. Unlike most one-hit street wonders, she has a rotation of seven soups and serves a different one each day.
Six years later, he mustered up the courage to make an offer – by phone, through a friend who walked up to her stall and convinced her talk to the Canadian boy on the other end of the line. She turned him down.
The next day, his friend went back, this time with Ms. Tran on the phone. The two women established a rapport. Talks ensued. And when Mrs. Nguyen finally said yes, they immediately booked a flight to go visit her.
The original plan, thwarted by the pandemic, was to have Mrs. Nguyen come stay in Vancouver for three months.
Even more worrisome, especially to Ms. Tran, was all the uncertainty around dining out compounded by steeply rising food costs and a sudden doubling of their rent.
A century later, Grandview has finally moved up. The Lunch Lady, with its polished concrete floors, hip-hop soundtrack, beautiful branding and excellent cocktails (do try the coffee negroni) is a big part of that gentrification.
But the transition wasn’t going to be easy. And even before it opened, Ms. Tran’s regulars were already complaining about the price increases.
Ms. Tran might have lost some customers, but the new restaurant has obviously gained more. The lineups slowly subsided in October, when the restaurant began accepting dinner reservations.
The Lunch Lady’s specialty soups are only available at lunch. And true to Mrs. Nguyen’s system, they rotate daily.
On Saturdays, you can try the banh canh cua with its fat tapioca noodles and starchy crab broth, dense with shredded pork hock and shrimp cakes.
You’ll be even more mesmerized if you order a side of nuoc beo, or seasoned beef tallow, which is rendered from bones in the base stock and scooped off the top. This is usually a secret-menu item, poured back into the finished soup to make it extra flavourful and is available at most mom-and-pop pho shops along the Kingsway.
Yet most people don’t know. And by making it a regular menu add-on, The Lunch Lady is richening our understanding of the cuisine. This is what good next-gen restaurants do.
The Lunch Lady’s takeout game is strong. The soup noodles and accompaniments are packaged in full-size bowls with broth on the side and instructions for reheating.
But there are many reasons to eat in.
At lunch, try the banh mi op la, an elevated ham-and-egg fry up served on a personal skillet with a thick slab of house-cured pork belly marinated in fish sauce and toasty spices, golden-crusted baguette (delivered daily by Seasons Bakery down the road) and a wedge of Laughing Cow cheese – a remnant from the U.S. soldiers and still popular in Vietnam.
There are some terrific street-style appetizers, including the lemongrass-infused thit nuong pork skewers, which are sliced thin and folded so the inner layers stay rare and moist while the outer edges get nicely charred.
Chef de cuisine Benedict Lim has reimagined and modernized several other interesting dinner entrées, including garlic-fried noodles sautéed in XO butter and finished with aged Parmesan and a butter-drenched luc lac ribeye hand-torched for extra sear.
The safety protocols, which include temperature checks and an abundance of plexiglass barriers, are tight. When one staff member came down with COVID-19, the owners were completely transparent and closed for three days.
Service is exceedingly attentive. There is one waiter named Dexter who must have eyes in the back of his head.
Mr. Tran calls his mom, who still works in the kitchen every day, the Lunch Lady of Vancouver. While Mrs. Nguyen and her soups definitely gave this restaurant a huge bump of publicity, I think it’s her legacy and the palpable passion for hospitality she passed down that has made this restaurant a success.
Plan your weekend with our Good Taste newsletter, offering wine advice and reviews, recipes, restaurant news and more. Sign up today.