Every morning on the pavement just outside our house in Saigon's District 1 a vendor arranged eight tiny plastic stools around a makeshift cooker. There, from about 630 until 10 in the morning, she served order after order of op la (fried eggs cooked with various sausages).
Back then Dave worked a different sort of job, one that required a shirt and tie and his presence at an office from an early hour, so we didn't partake often. But when we did, we marveled at the perfectection of her sunny-side-up eggs: lightly crispy on the bottom, whites just past the point of jiggly, and yolks runny enough to generously stain the baguette we ate alongside.
After we left Saigon in 2005 that op la served as our fried eggs gold standard -- until, on this last trip back, we were introduced to the op la at Hoa Ma Quan.
This 40-year-old establishment occupies a typically long, narrow corner shop in District 3. Tables overflow its small space onto the alley outside. And on Saturdays and Sundays and before office hours on weekdays, they're filled with folks digging into op la.
Hoa Ma Quan opened as a banh mi shop (we'll have more to say on that specialty later). The proprietress, who moved with her family from Hanoi, can still be found behind the counter taking money and making change while her daughters split and stuff baguettes.
At Hoa Ma Quan they do things the old-fashioned way, which means that most banh mi and op la ingredients -- mayonnaise, pate, and many of the sausages -- are made in house. Baguettes are kept warm in an oven heated with charcoal.
All of this attention to detail makes for an op la that is a cut above the average.
Think Western-style bacon and eggs given a twist and a leg up courtesy of Vietnamese culinary ingenuity.The eggs arrive in individual pans, yolks done just so and bottoms browned and crackly. Nestled in the egg whites are slices of pork sausage and a few chunks of a bacon-ish meat that, unlike many lesser pork products, really taste of the pig. Triangles of chewy gluten browned in pork fat add an intriguing textural dimension.
The op la is served with a plate of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers and a bit of bracing carrot pickle. And, of course, a big warm, crusty baguette.
There's only one way to improve upon Hoa Ma Quan's op la, and that is to order it with a side of pate (smooth, mild, and very porky) and mayonnaise (impossibly rich and eggy). We allternated bites of egg and sausage and baguette dipped in runny yolk with bits of bread spread smeared with pate and freshly made mayonnaise. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.
A couple of weeks ago, this was my birthday breakfast. And I couldn't help but imagine that starting the day with pate must be an auspicious way to start a new year.
Hoa Ma Quan, 53 Cao Thang, District 3. 6am-12pm (officially -- they close up shop when the run out of supplies, which can be as early as 1030am).