Sao Mai is my far and away my favorite Vietnamese restaurant within walking distance of my home, and it might be even be my favorite in Manhattan, period. Just like the best Vietnamese restaurants in Chinatown, Sao Mai has a no-frills, stripped-down dining room with brisk service that offers flavors that are bright and vibrant. With its arrival in the East Village, I have stopped heading down to Baxter Street to Nha Trang or New Pasteur (now Phó Pasteur) for my phó fix.
Goi Cuon ($5.50)—summer rolls— come stuffed with shrimp, pork, or tofu and a dense tangle of vermicelli in a translucent rice paper wrapper. They're delicately herbal and well-constructed.
Or you can roll your own with the grilled lemongrass chicken (Ga Nuon Banh Hoi; $11.50), a platter of marinated chicken, vermicelli, lettuce, pickled carrots, and mint served along side a stack of dry rice paper pancakes and a pitcher of warm water. Soak the pancake for five to six seconds and wrap away.
You can't go wrong with the Phó ($9) at Sao Mai. My favorite is the house special, which comes loaded with thick slices of fatty brisket, beef round, and some dense but spongy meatballs. Eat the latter quickly lest they become too rubbery. The broth is pleasingly earthy, spiked with star anise, and suitably gelatin-rich. The garden of fresh herbs that accompany it—basil, cilantro, mint—brightens the soup, adding a vibrancy and freshness that make it desirable even in the summer heat.
The Bún—rice noodle bowl—section offers a slew of topping options: beef, shrimp, pork, chicken, or vegetables, all for $7.50. Or you can splurge for the special with shrimp, pork, beef, and fried spring rolls for an extra $1.50.
Sao Mai treats its meats well, such as the Com Suzon Nuong ($7.50), a grilled pork chop over rice. The thin slivers of marinated pork are marinated with lemongrass, fish sauce, and sugar, and while the pork is hardly prime real estate, its treatment makes it a tender a product and tremendous value.
But there's one disappointment to watch out for: Tom Ram Muoi ($16), fried shrimp with iceberg lettuce and avocado dipping sauce. There's nothing remarkable about the shrimp or its wilted lettuce, though the avocado does well to add its own creamy richness.
Because so many of the dishes at Sao Mai share the same spices, herbs and flavor profiles (not to mention garnishes!), choosing more economical ingredients—pork and beef rather than seafood for example—is a smart way to go. In fact, I find the cheaper dishes, those under $10 like the Bún and the Phó, to be my favorites.
I can also vouch for Sao Mai's ability to deliver food to your home should you live within their delivery range. On numerous occasions it's arrived fresh and warm.
East Village: you have your Vietnamese restaurant.