203 First Ave
City: New York, NY
Phone: (212) 358-8880
2nd Cuisine: Asian
Area: East Village
Whether it's for takeout or eat in, Sao Mai delivers some of the best Vietnamese food around. The restaurant is small with wood paneled walls, hanging pendant lamps at the rear over a small bar, Vietnamese folk art on the walls and soft lighting. Servers speak ample English and the menu offers lots of choices, broken down into rice dishes, pho, bahn mi (the traditional, wonderful, Vietnamese sandwich), Rau Cai (vegetable dishes) etc.
My dining companion, a local, has enjoyed the food from this outpost numerous times but this was her first in-person visit and it's clear she'll be back. We had the beef and watercress salad, the beef piled on a heaping pile of veggies and Mi Xào Dzon, a rectangular bed of crispy pan-fried noodles served with chicken, both delicious.
The wine came in individual bottles and at $7 a pop, it's a good deal. (More expensive wine is available as is beer, an excellent companion to this cuisine.) Prices are pretty low all around which probably account for the restaurant's popularity along with the freshness of the ingredients and the authentic preparations.
The family at the next table were into--among other things-- a dish of asparagus with shrimp and an enormous plate of friend noodles with mushrooms, carrots, pineapple and what I think was chicken as well as a bahn mi.
Smoothies are on the menu (avocado, pina colada, strawberry) as well as fresh lemonade, a lychee drink and preserved plum soda, a very Vietnamese beverage. Vietnamese iced coffee, Ca phe da, uses coarsely ground Vietnamese-grown dark roast coffee brewed cup by cup using a small metal French drip filter. The result is then poured into a cup holding sweetened condensed milk, the whole stirred again and served poured over ice. It's a unique and wonderful drink.
The pho wins raves whether eaten in-house or ordered as takeout. The broth hits the right notes and isn't over-salted; takeout eaters are delighted with the way the restaurant compartmentalizes each ingredient so you can build your soup as you see fit.
Sao Mai is open daily for lunch and dinner from 11 AM until 10:30 at night. Besides hordes of people from the 'hood, it's a great choice for those going to one of the theaters at St. Mark's place as service can be as snappy as you wish. It gets crowded at peak hours so those in a hurry should aim for slightly early or later times. Having eaten at numerous Vietnamese restaurants all over town, Sao Mai gets my vote for overall deliciousness.
Review By: Mari Gold