Michael “Bao” Huynh’s BaoBQ (229 First Avenue, 212-475-7011) isn’t the only Vietnamese-influenced restaurant to open on First Avenue this month. Just a block south in the old Quantum Leap space, you’ll find Sao Mai (201 First Avenue, 212-358-8880), a new casual eatery offering a standard menu of Vietnamese staples, including pho, bun, and banh mi, plus meat and veggie entrées.
We popped in for lunch last week and started off with a lotus-root salad, which was nicely crunchy, a tangle of pickled carrots and thinly sliced lotus all dressed in a fish-sauce-based dressing and crowned with basil. It came topped with shrimp, but they tasted off, with a farm-raised muddy taste, though the veggie part of the salad was pleasantly refreshing.
We also sampled the grilled pork bun, a room-temperature rice-noodle dish containing thin rice noodles, plus shredded lettuce, herbs, and pickled carrots, topped with tender strips of slightly charred meat. This was probably the best dish of the bunch, nicely flavored and the meat well cooked.
Finally, we opted for the pho tai. The herb plate that accompanied the dish featured both Thai basil and cilantro in addition to crunchy bean sprouts and sliced jalapeños, which was a nice touch. All in all, the broth was good, though not outstanding, slightly on the weak side, a sort of cross between Northern and Southern styles. But it was a large portion and quite filling — the kind of food you want to eat on a particularly cold day.
While it won’t factor into our top Vietnamese restaurants in the city, it’s a decent new spot, especially for the East Village, which doesn’t have a ton of full-service Viet options. The waitstaff was quite friendly, too, and Chowhounders seem to be digging the banh mi, so we’d drop by again to sample the sandwich offerings. Pho sure.