"No rushing!" the younger male member of the family running this more than 30-year-old shop in Saigon's District 1 barked at our friend My when she gently inquired as to the whereabouts of our meal.
We'd been waiting more than 15 minutes for two orders of hủ tiếu cá -- rice noodle soup with fish -- and customers who'd arrived after us had already been served. "I don't think they have a very good system for keeping track of orders," My observed.
Let's just say that customer service is not Nam Loi's forte. Mrs. Crabby, a stone-faced matron sitting behind the front desk, would probably pull a muscle if she smiled; Mr. Crabby Sr., dishing up noodles at the front of the shop, rags on the male Crabby Jr. almost as much as the latter snaps at his customers.
I should note that Nam Loi is a democratic establishment. We were not singled out for abuse; many Vietnamese customers also got a dose of the Crabby family's ire.
But it's worth enduring the 'tude for a taste of Nam Loi's hủ tiếu. My, Dave and I were there on the recommendation of another friend, a Saigon native who's been eating at the shop since at least the mid-1970s. They serve hủ tiếu cá, hủ tiếu gà (rice noodle soup with chicken), and hủ tiếu bò kho (wheat noodles with beef -- you can also order bò kho plain to eat with bánh mì -- a baguette).
Most patrons were supping on fish noodles; we followed suit. The base of Nam Loi's hủ tiếu cá is a milky broth with a not-overpowering sweetish fishiness and a bit of bite from white pepper and slivered scallions. The dish's wide koayteow-style rice noodles are silky yet retain their chewiness even after minutes in the soup. When the hủ tiếu is assembled the fish -- a mild, white-fleshed variety -- is added raw, to cook lightly in the hot broth. Bean sprouts lend a bit of crunch. This is not an assertive or spicy dish, but it's so beautifully balanced that it requires little in the way of additional seasoning from the bottles of soy sauce and worcestershire-like sweet black vinegar on each table.I entered Nam Loi intent on limiting myself to a taste of Dave's hủ tiếu (we had other fish to fry that morning) but soon succumbed to one of the small meat pies displayed on the edge of Mrs. Crabby's counter. I expected a char siu (Cantontese-style barbecued pork) filling but was pleasantly surprised with something like a country pate -- roughly chopped pork, a hint of liver, and lots of black pepper, maybe a dash of sesame oil. The crust was fantastically flaky.
I caved further with an order of bò kho sans noodles (I waved away the baguette as well), served with lime juice-black pepper-salt for dipping.
Although I suspect there are better versions out there -- I wanted a bit more richness and complexity in the soup, but then again maybe I'm corrupted by memories of the very American-style beef stew my mom used to make -- Nam Loi's broth was plenty meaty with hints of star anise and cinnamon. The beef chunks were so tender they literally fell apart beneath the tines of my fork (I resorted to a spoon); they accompanied chunks of carrot and tendon slippery, chewy, and fatty enough to make a tendon fan swoon.
We finished up and left without bidding the Crabby family farewell. When she joined us out on the street My told us that as he accepted her money Mr. Crabby senior complained that Dave had taken too many pictures.
"They want to introduce you to other people," she told him. "It will be good for business."
To which he replied: "I don't need it. I'm busy enough already."
You have been warned.
Nam Loi, 43 Ton That Dam Street near corner of Nguen Cong Tra. 6am-noon, Sundays also open from 2-8pm. Our advice: walk in, give your order to the guys at the front straightaway, and head for a table. Don't dither, and don't get in the way. If you want something to drink order tra da (iced tea).