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No cuisine is as obsessed with fresh herbs as Vietnamese. Take the papaya salad ($8.50) at Sao Mai. In the moist toss of pale green fruit and bright orange carrots—both shredded into shoelaces—darker flecks catch the eye, like exotic birds flitting through foliage. And when you take your first bite, these pungent herbs assail the tongue in wonderful ways. Holy basil, better than a licorice Twizzler. Peppermint, reminding you to brush your teeth. And Vietnamese mint, flinging off a smoky and spicy scent—you’ve never tasted anything like it before. Garnished with crushed goobers and laved in a mild vinaigrette, the salad will leave you wanting more, much more.
Situated on First Avenue in the East Village, Sao Mai (“Morning Star”) was the subject of a partial review by Lauren Shockey in the Voice last February. But over several visits in the past few months, I’ve become convinced it might be the best Vietnamese restaurant in town. The room is deep, with seating in several isolated areas. A framed collection of butterflies provides decoration, and French doors open onto the busy thoroughfare, allowing you to enjoy the street without actually sitting on the sidewalk. Released from the confines of Chinatown—where many Vietnamese restaurants are found—Sao Mai doesn’t have a menu larded with Chinese dishes or dumbed down for tourists. In fact, the bill of fare is refreshingly short, offering fewer than 70 selections, rather than the usual 150 or so.
A commonly heard assertion is that real pho—pronounced “fffffuh,” like air escaping from a tire—doesn’t exist in Gotham. Detractors point out how great this noodle soup can be in Houston; San Jose; Falls Church, Virginia; and even Atlantic City—places with a significant Vietnamese population. (As of the last census, NYC had about one-third the Vietnamese immigrants Houston does.) Our broths are too dense and sweet, aficionados say, the cinnamon and star anise too pronounced, and the herbs not fresh or diverse enough. Well, they now have Sao Mai’s pho to consider. As with the papaya salad, green herbs are a highlight, with holy basil and the rarely seen sawtooth Vietnamese cilantro abundantly served on a side plate, to be tossed in from time to time at your discretion.
The flavoring of the broth is surpassingly subtle, the density light as a stray sunbeam. It reminds you that back in Hanoi, where the soup originated a century ago, pho is often a breakfast dish. Rather than overwhelming you with dozens of choices, Sao Mai offers seven, with three devoted to traditional beef combinations. The house special ($9) features brisket and rib eye, with rubbery fish balls bobbing in between. The brisket is fatty as all get out; while the thinly sliced steak is lean and nearly raw. In a subcontinent that overwhelmingly prefers pork, the beef used in pho is something of a throwback to French colonial days, but whether the broth shows more Chinese or Gallic influences, I leave for you to decide.
Beef also shines in goi bo ($8.50)—a watercress salad served on a bed of tomatoes and sprinkled with crunchy fried shallots—and in bun bo nurong, little cylinders of grilled beef accompanied by paddies of rice vermicelli, to be wrapped with fresh mint in lettuce leaves and dipped in nuoc cham, a mild fish-flavored vinegar. Don’t you dare spill any on your pants, or cats will be chasing you down the street.
There is one menu section to stay away from. Supposedly cooked in a clay pot, the stews called kho ought to have a thick caramel gravy. What arrives is more like a waterlogged stir-fry of pork, shrimp, tofu, or fish, depending on which variety you choose. Much more compelling are the tamarind-laced soups called canh chua, further thickened with tomato and a good dose of hot chiles. The shrimp ($9) was my favorite. Don’t be surprised if you find some pineapple floating around in there.
Despite the shortened menu, all the Vietnamese standards are present, including bargain grilled pork chops over rice, and an exemplary banh cuon ($7). While most places make this crepe the easy way using an omelet wrapper, Sao Mai deploys the preferable rice-noodle covering, filling it with minced pork and mushrooms. But Sao Mai’s most unique offering is “pho banh mi,” a baguette sandwich bulging not with the usual pork products, but with beef, herbs, and sprouts. Making pho into a sandwich is a flawed conceit, to be sure—but it’s damn fun to eat.