If you asked your 2019 self to describe a perfect restaurant experience, you probably wouldn’t have conjured up hand sanitizer with 70% ethyl alcohol, disposable soup bowls, and QR codes linking to Venmo pages. But all of that, along with some top-tier Vietnamese food, is what you’ll find at Saigon Social on the LES, and a night out here is as perfect as 2020 currently allows for.
Saigon Social was set to open their first permanent location in the beginning of 2020. They built out their interior with a mural of Baby Yoda eating a bánh mì, and developed a menu of bún chả, garlic noodles with fried shrimp, and a bánh mì burger - favorites from their pop-ups at Boys Don’t Cry and other spots around the city. Then, the pandemic hit, and (like just about every restaurant) they rethought their approach.
In addition to opening a takeout window on an unusually-empty Orchard Street in March, Saigon Social began providing free or discounted phở gà to anyone who needed it, and delivering food to hospital workers, first responders, and elderly communities in Brooklyn and Queens. (They’ve provided over 15,000 meals in collaboration with WCKitchen, Off Their Plate, Frontline Food, and Heart of Dinner.) Saigon Social continues to nimbly adapt to 2020’s own version of perfection. There is no table service, they only accept Venmo payments, and their indoor dining room is a charitable meal assembly zone.
You will inevitably get attached to this food like a serial monogamist navigating a casual fling. There are a few constants to memorize on the rotating menu, including some water spinach that tastes like it successfully quarantined with garlic for several months, and a towering fried chicken sandwich that’s covered in slightly-numbing lime leaf aioli, pickled cabbage, lemongrass, and jalapenos. Perhaps most importantly, Saigon Social’s bún chả is the best version we’ve had in the borough. To order it is to engage in group therapy with rice noodles, fried crab and pork rolls, more assorted pork, herbs, and aromatics.
Yes, your 2019 self may have preferred a corner booth inside to life with QR codes in 2020. But your 2019 self isn’t here, and she’s not coming back anytime soon. The fact is, the perfect restaurant experience is a luxury of a different time (one that we should probably reexamine, anyway). Between serving the best new Vietnamese food in Manhattan and donating thousands of meals for the NYC community, this is our version of perfect for now.
Bánh Mì Cóc Tay
We’d like to take this time to announce our resignation from the smash patty bandwagon - and Saigon Social’s thick burger will likely convince you to do the same. Although it’s draped in pickled carrots and daikon, a handful of cilantro, and a couple of jalapeno slices, you can still taste the quality of the meat. Also important: it comes with piping hot tater tots, as do all of the sandwiches here.
Bún Chả Hanoi
Eat this combination of vinegary vermicelli, pork, and herbaceous greens once, and your body will start crying out for bún chả about every 30 days like you owe it a utility bill. If you’re ordering just one thing, make it the bún chả.
Bánh Mì Gà Chien Sả Ớt
Our favorite thing about this sandwich is how the spicy lime leaf aioli interacts with the crunchy exterior on the chicken thigh. It’s like watching someone accidentally nod off on the subway during a morning commute. Your attention will be consumed by it.
Simple and slurpable garlic-coated noodles. Over the summer they offered them with soft shell crab on top, but the fried shrimp option is just as good.
Bánh Mì Thịt Nướng
This bánh mì comes on an idyllic bun that’s fluffy in the center and makes a crusty mess when you bite into it. The heat from the sweet, marinated grilled pork melts the pate on the bottom of the sandwich into a nice spread. Saigon Social only serves lunch on the weekends, and this is a wonderful way to improve a Sunday afternoon.
The soup options at Saigon Social change fairly often. If you see the spicy bún bò Huế on the menu, and want something with a lot of power, get it. In case you need the equivalent of a pat on the back, this rich brisket beef pho should do the trick. It travels really well, so keep it in mind for a delivery experience.
Nem Cua Bể
Four crispy rice paper rolls filled with ground meat, crab, glass noodles, and mushrooms. Make a lettuce wrap with each one and dip it into the vinegar sauce for a hot-cold, savory-sour, meaty-fresh hybrid experience.
Rau Muống Xào Tỏi
Sure, the burger and the crispy grilled pork will probably catch your attention before this sauteed water spinach side. But these garlic-heavy greens are a secret star of the menu. Plus, you could use some more vegetables this week.