Sao Mai, perfect for a healthy winter meal.

Sao Mai
203 1st Ave
(between 13th St & 12th St)
New York, NY 10003

These nights have been cold. Normally on a cold winter night, I’ll crave something hot and hearty. But the heaviness of Thanksgiving dinner (with some leftovers still in the fridge, like J.W.’s shepherd’s pie which I had for lunch two days in a row…) has made me crave hot foods that are light. How many of those can you think of?

Vietnamese food is overall one of the healthier cuisines. It uses more natural herbs for flavoring and tends to use water or broth over oil. Pho is the perfect combination of hot and light. A bowl of pho consists of rice noodles in a beef broth made by simmering beef bones, oxtails, flank steak, charred onion, ginger, and other spices. Compared to other noodle soups, pho is definitely a much lighter option. The rice noodles are almost airy and compensate by being great soup sponges. The soup is flavorful but still clear, allowing you to drink up every last drop without feeling sick (this also depends on how much MSG the restaurant uses).

I always walk by Sao Mai but have never cared to try it because the restaurant signage looks so cheesy. Yes, I do judge a book by its cover. And yes, I know that is wrong. Recently, a number of friends, including my Vietnamese friend D.T., have all mentioned how great Sao Mai is and have convinced me to check the place out. After having gone to the restaurant twice now, I reconfirm their thoughts. Sao Mai is great. The outside may look cheesy but the inside is warm and cosy. The pho ($8-9) broth is amazingly aromatic. The meat is tender and just every-so-slightly raw when it comes to the table so you can watch it cook in the piping hot broth. My only qualm about the pho is that the noodles sometimes comes while still in a cube shape. It’s a slight pet peeve of mine to see noodles or rice in container shapes. It translates into lack of care and rushed service because it only takes a little extra time to mix up the noodles or break down the rice.

I like that they also give you jalepenos, in addition to the usual basil, bean sprouts, and lime. The limes have also been very juicy and generously cut.

The banh mi tastes more traditional than what I’ve been having at Xe May and Banh Mi Saigon. The bread is decent: crusty on the outside, soft on the inside. It may actually be too soft because it lacks the chewiness of a great baguette. Pictured here is the Banh Mi Dac Biet ($6), or the house special combination sandwich. It includes pate, various cold cuts, pickled daikon and carrots, cilantro, and jalepenos. The combined taste of all the ingredients was flavorful, slightly sweet and spicy, and quite meaty… If you like the traditional more pate-y flavor, you’ll love this. I’m more of a new-age banh mi fan. I tend to like the bbq pork and tomatoey meatball subs a little more.

Most recently, I had the Bun Sao Mai ($9), which is a house special dry vermicelli noodle dish. It’s a little pricey for what it is, especially since I was hungry about an hour or two later (always happens with Vietnamese food), but it was damn tasty. It came with grilled pork and grilled shrimp, two baby spring rolls, sliced raw cabbage, carrots, scallions, and crushed peanuts over a bed of vermicelli. It was accompanied with a side of sweet and sour fish sauce which I ended up dumping all over my noodles. The pork and shrimp were both extremely flavorful and tasted great with the plain vermicelli. Veggies added a nice crunch and clean flavor.







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