We're not going to sit here and pretend to be experts on Vietnamese food, that's for damn sure. However, when it comes whether something is delicious or not, we may qualify for that. Half the time we go eat pho in this city, we sit there trying to convince ourselves it's good, when in reality it kind of tastes like nothing. The opposite happens at Sao Mai, a sleepy Vietnamese restaurant in the East Village that you would probably walk by and not think twice about unless someone told you to pay attention. That was certainly the case with us. I literally live across the street, and never knew it existed, let alone stopped by to check out a menu.
Even with Sao Mai under our nose, it took a random night when we had a craving for Vietnamese delivery to actually discover it, and thank god, because it's now in weekly rotation. A quick Google/Seamless search revealed that both Nick Solares and Robert Sietsema, food writers we trust, loved the place. Sietsema even went as far as declaring Sao Mai the best Vietnamese in Manhattan. You know what? He's damn right. It's shocking how delicious the food is at Sao Mai, and how cheap it is too - only because you never hear anyone talk about it. And it's not just the pho that's incredible - the salads, the rice dishes, the noodles - it's all f*cking great. I've eaten here like 15 times at this point, and I still can't wait for the next fix. Sao Mai may not be hip or cool, but holy sh*t is it good. Get it in rotation immediately - especially if you live in the East Village.
Summer Rolls/Spring Rolls
All types of rolls here are good. The summer variety are tightly rolled in rice paper, like an art project, and you can get them with tofu, shrimp, or pork. The tofu is actually our favorite. The spring rolls are standard fried goodness with dipping sauce.
Their salt and pepper fried calamari is so good. The sweet chili sauce it comes in is crazy. Pro tip: Only order this if you eat in the restaurant, as it doesn't travel well.
Not as spicy as the papaya salads you find in Thai restaurants, but possibly even more flavorful since you can actually feel your tongue. It usually comes with shrimp, but check and see if soft shell crab in is in season, because if it is, you want that.
Beef Watercress Salad
Or Goi Bo, if you're using the Vietnamese terminology. This salad is by far and away one of our favorite dishes to order here. Their beef is cooked incredibly well, and has tons of Vietnamese spice and herb flavor. So good.
Also known as "Com Dia" on the menu. So simple, and yet so good. It's all about the sauce. A heaping stack of rice, which, at first glance, may appear disproportioned to the amount of vegetables, beef, chicken, tofu, or whatever else you wind up going with. But once you mix everything together, you'll see that it's just the right rice to riches ratio. The beef is our go-to of these dishes, and you better be putting a ton of chili sauce in it. That's key.
The soup at Sao Mai is the crown jewel of the menu. The broth has tons of flavor. In their house special Pho Sao Mai, which is what you should order, they throw in thin slices of beef brisket, beef round, and beef balls. In their chicken soup (Pho Ga) shredded chicken is everywhere, mixed in with a bunch of veggies. Next time you're in the mood for matzah ball soup, consider this for a lighter alternative.
Pan Fried Noodles
Seen on the menu as Mi Xào Dzon, these are simply fried egg noodles topped with your choice of meat or vegetable. You want some.