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Anyone tried Sao Mai on 1st Avenue?

Sao Mai, a Vietnamese restaurant, just opened on 1st Avenue between 12/13th Street. Has anyone tried it? It looks promising. The quality of Vietnamese food in NYC has never been great, it would be wonderful to have a good place close by.

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Sao Mai
203 1st Ave, New York, NY 10003

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  1. I just heard about Sao Mai - it's the former chef of Xe Lua, one of the more decent Vietnamese places in Chinatown. They had solid pho, and an excellent chilled shrimp & grapefruit salad. Sounds like he's kept about half the menu, and is just doing it with more organic / local ingredients as to better fit the current EV zeitgeist...

    Anyway, I'm looking forward to checking it out. Heck, might do it tonight...

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    Xe Lua
    86 Mulberry St, New York, NY 10013

    Sao Mai
    203 1st Ave, New York, NY 10003

    3 Replies
    1. re: sgordon

      Are their meat organic/local? If so, it would actually be worth a trip downtown for us as my husband could actually have a bowl of pho with all the good stuff in it.

      1. re: uwsister

        Do you know of any inexpensive Asian restaurants in the city that use local/organic meat?

        1. re: erica

          Depends on what you define as "inexpensive" - truly inexpensive Asian places, no, but there are a few places where they use local and/or organic meat, i.e. Totto Ramen, Souen, Hung Ry, etc.

    2. ...and here's a bit from the Times today, with the current (soon to expand) menu:

      http://eastvillage.thelocal.nytimes.c...

      2 Replies
      1. re: sgordon

        That looks promising. I don't normally trust giant menus, even seeing pho + banh mi + expansive Vietnamese menu made me wonder, but I dropped in last night and it looked pleasant. (I had already eaten.) Nice that they've already got a good record.

        1. re: sgordon

          sounds good, and i like the location

        2. Thanks for posting. We really like Xe Lua, so we will have to try this new spot.

          1. Tried it the other night - it's good! We got a bowl of pho, (delicious if not too remarkable) a pork chop on rice (a bargain at $7.50 and a great example of this affordable staple - thin but unusually tender, and well seasoned) and and a banh mi (good hot bread, traditional filling. It didn't come with fresh chilis, but when I requested some they brought me some real incendiary killers - not the usual bland jalapenos). Next time I will not play it so safe in my ordering since everything was excellent. The staff was very nice, attentive, and professional. Sao Mai is a real asset to the neighborhood and I wish them well.

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            Sao Mai
            203 1st Ave, New York, NY 10003

            5 Replies
            1. re: hungrycomposer

              Are the banh mi available all day? I thought I'd read only until 5...

              1. re: lucyj

                Banh mi are only available until they run out of bread. Tonight I arrived at 8:30 and there was no more bread. Their chef's specialty is a pho banh mi, which I look forward to trying.
                Tonight we tried the beef and watercress salad which was delicious. Much more watercress than beef, but very good. We didn't eat the out of season tomatoes, though. Also got Chinese broccolli, which was good but not terribly different from what I might make at home.
                So happy to have this restaurant in the neighborhood!

                1. re: hungrycomposer

                  Had the banh mi pho tonight, which I'd seen mentioned here and the hostess encouraged me to order. (I was there around 7 and they were still serving them, restaurant was almost completely empty). Not exactly a traditional banh mi (or unlike any I've had) and not cheap by banh mi standards ($7.63) but absolutely delicious. Messy, saucy, I think it was beef, I was told it had noodles in it, (it was described as all the ingredients of pho in a sandwich) other than that though I don't really know how to describe it. But I recommend trying it and there other options if this was representative.

                  1. re: lucyj

                    I also tried the pho banh mi. It's kind of like a Vietnamese French dip sandwich. Tasty and different. It also has bean sprouts. I was there for dinner of Sunday night and I'm happy to say it was crowded.

                    1. re: hungrycomposer

                      Just a quick mention of a dinner here on Christmas Eve. I wanted to like this much more than I did because the staff were really sweet. The "pho banh mi" was worth traveling for. Great flavor and textural contrasts. Unfortunately, the actual pho did not impress me at all due to the weak broth that had little or no beef taste.

                      The banh cuon (rice crepes) were quite good. We also liked the fried calamari (muc chien dzon). But three of us agreed that the fried red snapper, although very well fried, was virtually flavorless. Perhaps this is what farm-raised snapper tastes like. Or perhaps the fish had been frozen..

                      I do wish them well and they do seem to be doing ok, as all tables became filled by 7pm or so.

            2. For Vietnamese, at present, I go to Cong Ly (124 Hester St (between Bowery & Chrystie St), New York, NY 10002). It might not be a nicely decorated modern or classic interior with low lighting for those dining evenings out, but its food is really good, closest I have found to Vienamese food in Vietnam.

              Cong Ly: http://cheapassfood.com/eats/show/230...

              http://www.roboppy.net/food/2009/11/c...

              Google image this "Cong Ly hester street vietnamese" and you will see all there so good food.

              I will check out Sao Mai though, thanks.

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              Cong Ly
              124 Hester St, New York, NY 10002

              1. Just tried it for lunch - we were very impressed! Very good at both pho and bahn mi - unusual to do both as well as they do. A very nice addition to 1st Avenue's slim restaurant pickings!

                1. I dined here the other night and enjoyed it. I had an order of so lua curry, a healthy portion of plump steamed mussels covered in a savory coconut curry gravy, some sliced red onion, and topped in holy basil. Aromatic and delicious. I also had a soft shell crab dish, which I cannot recall the name of and do not see it on Menu Pages. It was a coiled up papaya and herb salad that was topped with 2 medium sized fried softshell crabs. The dish played similar to the soft shell crab app at Sripaphai, although with papaya rather than mango. The dressing was less limey but still excellent. I finished with a shrimp claypot. The sweet caramelized soy sauce broth was good but the shrimp was probably defrosted formally frozen. Not so great in flavor or texture. The waitress had recommended the salmon version though. They are still BYOB at the moment, but license pending. I look forward to going back and trying more dishes.

                  1. In his review a few months back Robert Sietsema asked “Is Sao Mai Our Best Vietnamese Restaurant?” I figured if he was entertaining that question it would be worth going to make up my own mind. On the basis of 2 visits my answer is that it certainly ought to be in the conversation.

                    In New York Vietnamese seems to come in 2 flavors. There are the “bright lights” places in Asian neighborhoods like Sunset Park which serve up pretty good food in a bare bones atmosphere. Then there are the “nice” Vietnamese places in Manhattan that offer Americanized versions of the classics in a room with pleasant ambiance. It’s not that the food is bad, it’s more like you’re listening to a decent cover band perform versions of the Stone’s greatest hits. It’s better than nothing but not a substitute for the real thing. People who’ve never heard the originals like it fine – those of us who know what “Gimme Shelter” should actually sound like are less enthusiastic.

                    Sao Mai is something new – real Vietnamese food served in a room where you wouldn’t be embarrassed to take a date. The ambiance is pleasing, not luxe but 3 or 4 steps up from Sunset Park and Bensonhurst.

                    http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8435/79...

                    http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8308/79...

                    http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8319/79...

                    http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8029/79...

                    As I mentioned above we’ve now been to Sao Mai twice. We’ve managed to try 3 starters but we liked our mains so much we ordered them on both visits.

                    Our starters, by the numbers -

                    http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8176/79...

                    #7. Banh Cuon - rice pancake wrapped with minced pork and ear mushroom, served with shredded cucumber, bean sprouts and dipping sauce. Delicate but flavorful. Actually, you can say that about a lot of Vietnamese dishes although that doesn’t mean that they all taste alike. I suspect the French colonial influence rubbed off on Vietnamese cuisine, a factor that might explain its relative subtlety. BTW, that’s a type of pate served served with it. It’s mildly flavored but tasty.

                    The rice wine vinegar based sauce served on the side allows you to tweak the favor if you like. It accompanies most dishes here. In Sunset Park the Vietnamese places routinely plunk down a tray of four or five condiments on every table (salt isn’t one of them – it’s not needed) so you can adjust the flavor profile of dishes to your heart’s content. Sao Mai just gives you a couple but I suspect they’d bring out some more if you asked.

                    http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8040/79...

                    #9. Ga Nuon Banh Hoi – grilled lemongrass chicken served on flat noodle pancakes with lettuce and pickled carrots. Vietnamese dishes really define what grilling ought to be. They have a light touch with the grill which keeps meats juicy and adds a slight touch of smokiness. Mainstream restaurants could learn a thing or two from them. This was served with paper thin dry pancakes and a bowl of warm water on the side. You dip each pancake in the water which instantly makes it flexible without absorbing much of the water, load it up with the chicken and other ingredients, and then pick the whole thing up. This sounds like it would be a pain but actually it’s quite easy. Fun too. And delicious.

                    http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8177/79...

                    #12. Bo La Lop - marinated ground beef wrapped in grape leaves and served on flat noodle pancakes with lettuce and pickled carrots. The beef wrapped in grape leaves might look dry in that picture but it’s pleasantly juicy and delicately spiced. It’s served with the same pancakes I mentioned above but of course you can just pick them up with chopsticks or a fork.

                    On to the mains.

                    http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8169/79...

                    #64. Suon Heo Nuong - marinated sliced pork chops grilled golden brown and served with iceberg lettuce and tomatoes. More of that delicate grilled flavor. While the slices are about half an inch thick they were nicely juicy.

                    http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8176/79...

                    #65. Heo Dong Co - black mushrooms stir-fried with pork in a traditional Vietnamese sauce. Thin juicy slices of pork in a delicate sauce served with lots of shitake mushrooms. Do you blame me for ordering it twice? This is a great dish.

                    Service was smooth and attentive, thoroughly professional. The prices are almost embarrassingly low. Starters run from $5.50 to $11.50 and beef and pork main dishes between $12 to $15. Seafood entrees are pricier but still not punishing. With prices that low you keep expecting a catch – tiny portions, sloppy preparation, something not right. For once your instincts are wrong. It really is that good.

                    There is wine and beer listed on the menu but as yet they don’t have their liquor license. On our first visit we skipped out to the deli across the street for some Sapporos. The second time around we stopped off at Astor Wines for a bottle of pinot noir. Even when BYO goes away it will still be an attractive deal. Right now it’s just crazy good.

                    Menu - http://www.menupages.com/restaurants/...

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Bob Martinez

                      Bob, thanks for the report. How would you compare Sao Mai to a somewhat-less-opulent Chinatown place like, let's say, Pho Viet Huang?

                      1. re: knucklesandwich

                        I haven’t been to any of the Vietnamese places in Chinatown. Since I’m Brooklyn based (and have a car as well) I’ve visited a number of restaurants in Sunset Park (Gia Lam and Nha Trang Palace) and Bensonhurst (Pho Tay Ho.) They’re high on authenticity but low on glamor.

                        I’ve also tried a couple of the Manhattan mid range places – Nam Phoung and Nam. While the ambiance at both was pleasant the food was Americanized. Pleasant enough but you’re more likely to be impressed if you’ve never had the real thing.