Jinghis du Jour: Restaurant Review – Sao Mai


Restaurant: Sao Mai

Address: 203 1st Avenue (Between 13th and 12th)

Cuisine/Style: Classic Vietnamese-style pho and rice dishes

Price Range: ~$15 (for light appetites) to ~$25 for lunch + drink

What am I thankful for?

I am thankful for a close-knit, insane, loving family. For a group of friends that I can go to the ends of the world with. For living in a city where anything and everything is possible. For a body that keeps somehow working after 12 surgeries, three concussions, and way too much Fireball and Monster to be anything but fatal.

I am thankful for a lot in my life.

On cold, dark days, when the winds of winter come roaring out of the frigid North, when we are buried under layers of clothing and look out into the forlorn, frozen night with naught but a broken heater and an empty fridge to look forward to, I am also thankful for a little ray of steaming, delicious hope on 1st Ave – Sao Mai.

When you walk into Sao Mai, you’ll be struck by how much they fit into a little storefront, the detailed furniture and beautiful detail they put into creating a small piece of Hanoi or Saigon in the heart of the East Village. The staff, some of the friendliest in New York City, will happily direct you to an empty spot and then begin inundating you with information about the best dishes on the menu. 

If you’ve never had Vietnamese food before, then by all means, listen to them and make your own judgments about what you should order here-your first sip of pho or first bite of sweet chili vermicelli noodles should be entirely your own. But if you have had Vietnamese food before? Just smile and say “Pho Sao Mai, House Special banh mi, Vietnamese iced coffee.” 

Within minutes (or even 45 seconds, if you catch the kitchen on a good day), your pho will be in front of you, in the classic white bowl and with the customary sides of bean sprouts, fresh basil, chopped chili peppers, and a lime wedge. The broth, the base of all that is good with pho, is one of the absolute best in the city. Deep and flavorful, the proud product of many hours of boiling along with a secret blend of herbs and rich marrowbones, it pulls the dish together and tastes more satisfying than an angel’s kiss on a winter afternoon. The noodles are chewy and soaked through with the essence of the broth, and the sliced eye round, meatballs, and fatty brisket added on top give the bowl a beefy punch to counteract the fresh sprouts and basil that you’ll cook in the broth. 

The House Special banh mi is also classically and skillfully done, a halved French baguette containing the beautiful blend of hot peppers, herbs, vegetables, Vietnamese ham, and pate that fuses together the flavors of East and West in a handy package that delivers a perfect bite each time. If you want to be adventurous, try dipping the banh mi in the broth and taking quick bites out of it-sort of a weird take on a French Dip that still remains delicious and true to form.

Prices here are reasonable-a massive bowl of hot pho will only run you around $9-$10 and contain about three times as much food as a Chipotle burrito or five times as much as a Fresh & Co salad. The most expensive dishes on the menu hover around the $15-17 range, and two people can easily have pho, appetizers, and drinks here for only around $50, making it a potentially great date spot as well.

Final Rating: 4.75 out of 5. Delicious, authentic food at great prices and a friendly wait staff.

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