Tag Archives: calamari

Sao Mai

A bowl of pho from Sao Mai

Up in Yorkville, right around 2nd Avenue, there once existed this cancerous cluster of terrible restaurants that really ought to have been dug right up and replanted in some godforsaken upstate strip mall. I spent a lot of time in those sorts of restaurants, because my middle-school friends evidently couldn’t get enough of…well, whatever it is those sorts of places hawked, I guess: usually terrible “sushi,” and depressing Thai on occasion, too. I remain bitter. (Maybe that’s why my blog posts are so insistently obnoxious?) Today—nearly a decade later—a satisfying percentage of those restaurants are gone. But I think one may have been reincarnated about 70 blocks south of its original spot.

This is, of course, my roundabout way of saying that the Lower East Side’s Sao Mai reminds me of the shame-inducing restaurants of my middle-school career. It’s the terrible decor that gives me the flashbacks. Shitty lighting casts an orange hue on exposed brick walls; ceiling fans spin on, even in the middle of February; picture-plastered menus come in flimsy little booklets; the cashier lives behind a shiny-tiled podium that really belongs at the front of a medical spa; a strip of pink flowers do nothing to spruce the place up. I’ve come to associate this sort of aesthetic with terrible attempts at Asian cuisine—so by the time I’d taken my seat at my first Sao Mai table, I was already expecting to be let down.

Sometimes—sometimes, I said—I love being wrong.

A grilled pork bánh mì from Sao Mai

105 posts, and not a single mention of Vietnamese cuisine. How that happened, I’m not sure—but I’m thinking Sao Mai will be a good entry point, given its unusual degree of nut allergy–friendliness. There are no tree nuts in Sao Mai’s kitchen, but that’s not really out of the ordinary for a Vietnamese restaurant. Nearly all the Vietnamese restaurants I call tell me that they don’t use tree nuts in any of their food, but almost none of those restaurants’ bánh mì are made with allergy-friendly bread. (The restaurant I called immediately before Sao Mai responded to my bread-origin question with laughter—then, when the woman realized I was serious, she told me that they got their bread “from some bakery in Chinatown,” and that I’d probably be wise to stay away from it.)

Sao Mai’s bread supplier is Neri’s Bakery, a peanut-free bakery that’s grounded up in Port Chester, of all places. With regard to tree nuts, though, the situation at Neri’s is a little more complicated. Here’s what I was told via email:

We are a Peanut Free facility, which means we do not use any Peanuts in any portion of the bakery. We also have a written Peanut Free policy and all employees are trained accordingly. That being said we do use some Tree Nuts in our pastry division for items in our retail store for Biscotti cookies. That room is completely separate from the rest of the bakery.

Now, as you’ve probably inferred from the above photo of a half-eaten bánh mì, the response I got from Neri’s was enough to make me feel comfortable with their breads. That makes Sao Mai the only Vietnamese restaurant I’ve found that meets my standards, bread-wise. (I’m sure there are others, but I can only make so many phone calls.)

Calamari from Sao Mai

It took approximately one dish to make me start questioning my initial read of Sao Mai. The crispy calamari (pictured immediately above) didn’t singlehandedly bring me around, but it sure did help the process along. Like a lot of Sao Mai’s dishes, it’s very sweet—too sweet for some, perhaps—but I love it. I really, really do. The squid’s always perfectly fried, and it’s good plain, with the dipping sauce it comes with, or with a little cilantro on top. The lettuce underneath is a little iffy, and the tomato slices on the side are weak, too—but what can you do? Overall, a lovely appetizer.

It was the pork bánh mì, though, that sealed the deal. Pictured second above and immediately below, this is one good sandwich. Given the whole can’t-eat-most-breads thing, I can’t say much of anything about how this sandwich fares against other bánh mì, but I can evaluate on its own merit, and let me tell you: This thing is good. The grilled pork is sweet and soft, and all the cilantro in this thing complements it ridiculously well. There’s just enough mayo, and I’m even a fan of the cucumber that comes wedged in the crook of the roll. (I have a thing with cucumbers. I think they’re disgusting. I’d had big plans to leave this cucumber wedge uneaten, but Sao Mai foiled them.)

My favorite thing about this sandwich, I think (aside from the flavor of the pork—and aside from the fact that I can eat it, which is a huge plus), is the way the arrangement of its ingredients lends itself so well to strategic eating. When I get tired of the pork, I can scoot over to the right for some cilantro or some cucumber, or over to the left for some carrot and daikon—and when I get tired of those, it’s right back to the center for pork. It seems like a silly thing to praise, but it’s a big part of why I like this sandwich so much. Here it is:

A grilled pork bánh mì from Sao Mai

Rather than giving a play-by-play of everything else I’ve enjoyed (or, in some cases, disliked—I’m looking at you, pan-fried egg noodles), I’m going to cut right to the chase and get to talking about the phở. (I actually think it’s illegal to use the phrase “cut to the chase” when you’re already a literal thousand words into a blog post, but you’ll forgive me.) Sao Mai offers seven types, and both of the ones I’ve tried have been pretty damn good.

The first time I went, I ordered the beef brisket phở, which (like most of Sao Mai’s other phở dishes) is served alongside a plate of bean sprouts, lime, basil, and jalapeño. The brisket was good enough, but the beef eye-of-round phở—or “beef eye round noodle,” as it’s called on Sao Mai’s menu—has since become my regular order, literally only because I’m a sucker for bright-pink beef. (Okay: I like the eye-of-round’s taste and texture just a little more than I like the brisket’s. But it’s 97% a matter of color.) I mean, come on:

A bowl of pho from Sao Mai

Irresistible.

(Actually, the eye-of-round’s not all that pink in the photos I’ve included with this post. It darkens pretty quickly, and photos take a few minutes. Sorry.)

Anyway, this phở’s pretty great. (NYC definitely isn’t known for its Vietnamese food, but Sao Mai does consistently place on best-phở lists, so that’s something, at least.) The broth is subtle (but not bland!), and I’m particularly grateful for all the onions and scallions throughout. I like the noodles themselves, too—and I typically hate super-thin noodles like these—and the meat’s good till it toughens up five minutes into your meal. (Really, though, it takes effort not to eat all the meat within 30 seconds of your bowl’s arrival, so if you’re aware that its texture is time-sensitive, you’ll be fine.)

Here’s a bonus phởto (har har), just ’cause:

A bowl of phở

Obviously, I like Sao Mai. I’m most grateful for their bánh mì, and I have a lot of fun with their phở, but there’s no reason to stop at those; the menu’s definitely worth a poke-around, and I’m genuinely glad to have gotten my hands on it. There are a bunch of dishes I still want to try, but for now, I’m pretty confident: Sao Mai is a restaurant that will be in my rotation for a long, long time.

Find Sao Mai at 203 1st Avenue, between 12th and 13th Streets. And if you’re planning on having a sit-down meal, be sure you have either (a) a free afternoon ahead of you, or (b) the cojones to use your hand/voice/a kazoo to signal for the cashier’s attention if you ever, ever, ever want to be given a check. Ever. (Oh, also: Bánh mì aren’t served after 5pm.)

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Mika Japanese Cuisine & Bar

A plate of sushi and rolls from

Another all-you-can-eat sushi post, another apology. Here’s the obligatory “I am sorry—this is a little gross, both in concept and in flavor. Get real sushi, please.” At this point, these posts (and especially their many apologies) are getting a little tired, but whaddya gonna do? I ate at Mika, so you’re going to hear about it—and I feel bad, so I’m going to apologize.

Now that I’ve let that out, we can proceed. Let’s.

I’m not sure where I read about Mika, but somehow, the restaurant made its way onto my to-call list. I never really got around to calling, though, until I recognized their name one night as I was walking home. I hadn’t known Mika was so close to my apartment, and I guess the realization sparked my half-interest, because I ended up calling the next day. No nuts in house, they told me—so I moved them to my to-try list, and for a while, that was that.

If you can imagine a person whose cravings are even more persistent and unreasonable than mine, then you can imagine my boyfriend, Sam. For weeks, he had Mika on the brain, and no matter how much I tried to talk him out of going, he remained resolute. Eventually, as the result of a bargain of sorts, Sam ended up with the privilege (read: burden) of choosing singlehandedly that night’s restaurant—and that was how we ended up at Mika.

To the point. When we went, it was storming, and Mika seemed to be having an off night. It’s a big restaurant with lots and lots of tables, but that night, no one was feeling it. The bar was empty, the tables (save for two) were empty, and there didn’t appear to be many employees on duty, either. Sam and I attributed the emptiness to the storm, but it was eery regardless—especially as we sat alone, in the dark, in the corner of the restaurant’s largest room.

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Like Yuka, Mika takes all-you-can-eat orders via paper form. For our first round of food, we ordered beef fried rice (pictured immediately above), fried calamari (pictured below), shrimp tempura, and, of course, a bunch of rolls and quite a few pieces of nigiri (some pictured at the top of this post).

First came the fried food. The fried rice—a huge portion, which we couldn’t help but read as an attempt to fill us up quickly—was all right, though I don’t think I’d order it again. The rice itself was fine, and the vegetables were inoffensive, but the beef was tough and tasted overwhelmingly of char. Still, we chewed our way through the entire serving, hoping there’d be better flavors to come.

The shrimp tempura was better, but not by much. Again, it was a big portion—four large pieces of shrimp—but the dish was certainly more manageable than the fried rice. Flavor-wise, the tempura was bland, and the dipping sauce didn’t do much to remedy that, but again: an inoffensive dish. We got it down without issue (and so avoided being charged extra), which was what really mattered.

The calamari, though, was the stand-out. To our surprise, it was actually good—good enough that we ended up ordering a second helping. Unlike pretty much everything else we’d ordered, the squid itself was flavorful, and its texture was perfect—neither mushy nor tough, but enjoyably chewy. The dipping sauce (basically sweet and sour) wasn’t my thing, but still. I liked the calamari. It was (by far) the best thing we ordered.

Calamari from

With regard to the sushi, I had mixed feelings. (Not that mixed—my feelings ranged from “ick” to “huh, okay.”) The salmon was grocery store–quality, and the ikura was worse, but the white tuna and fluke were both all right. Some pieces were watery and had obviously just been defrosted; others had passably normal textures. The rolls (one shrimp tempura, one salmon) were bearable—though both were made with lots of unripe avocado. But then we made the mistake of ordering one more, at which point things took a distinct turn for the worse.

Neither of us had ever tried a salmon skin roll, so perhaps they’re just inherently terrible. But I’ve since looked at a lot of photos, and I feel pretty confident in declaring that what we ate was not the norm. Honestly, it was disgusting—there’s very little else I can say. (An exchange that took place 30 seconds ago, for science: “Sam, what’d you think of the salmon skin roll?” His reply: “Covered in sugar-sauce, mushy shit inside, no crunch whatsoever. Gross.” Accurate.) It came with six pieces, and we sure as hell weren’t getting any further than the one we’d managed to finish together—so we had to come up with a plan, lest we end up with a surcharge. I’ll leave the rest of the story to your imaginations, though.

Anyway, Mika was all right, I guess. Their sushi was some of the worst I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant, but it wasn’t inedible or anything—and their entrees were tolerable, at least. I’m not in a rush to return, but it isn’t as if I’m orchestrating a boycott, either. (After all, our meal was really cheap, considering how much we ate.)

In all: Meh.

Find Mika at 150 Centre Street, between White and Walker.

[Apologies for the coloring of the photos in this post. Mika has some weird-ass spotlight-esque lighting, and there’s only so much I can fix in post. Forgive me.]

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Terrace Fish & Chips

Fried fish, calamari, and fries from Terrace Fish & Chip

Until last week, I had no idea how much I needed a reliable source of fried fish. But now that I’ve found Terrace Fish & Chips, there’s no unknowing what I now know: I need this stuff, and I need it often.

To tell you the truth, I have no idea how I found out about this place. I keep a list of restaurants to look into, and Terrace sort of just showed up on it. I know I must’ve added it, but I don’t even remember having heard of it. There it was, though, begging me to call and ask a bunch of repetitive questions. So I did.

The man who answered the phone assured me that there were no nuts or nut products involved in anything at Terrace—and why would there be? It’s a very straightforward place. They do fried seafood, grilled seafood, seafood salads, seafood burritos, seafood sandwiches, and seafood rice. That’s it, so it isn’t as if there’s much room for nuts. I was psyched.

The first time I went, I tried a bunch of different things (all of which I’ve ordered many times since): the fried fish, the crab sticks, the calamari, and, of course, the fries. The woman behind the counter switched around one of their (many, many) pre-set meals for me so that the above assortment would count as a combination meal (and thus cost a whole lot less), which was very nice of her—especially considering the fact that she could’ve just as easily told me to get over myself and either (a) settle for one of their six trillion pre-sets or (b) pay the menu price for all the shit I wanted, but she didn’t. She just asked what I wanted, found me a similar meal, and made the necessary substitutions. Small potatoes, but I appreciated it.

Service was quick, too. Within 5 minutes of placing my order, I was out the door—and on a bench around 20 feet away. (There are only like four chairs inside the restaurant, but there are plenty of public benches in a cute little square-like area outside, so the lack of seating doesn’t matter all that much.)

By the way, these “fish and chips” are not British-style (which is to say that they aren’t fish and chips at all). But if you go in with that in mind, everything’s still pretty good. At places like this, it’s all about your expectations, and if you walk into Terrace expecting a big heap of greasy, fried, American seafood, then you’re going to leave happy. (I know I did, at least.)

Fried crab sticks from Terrace Fish & Chip

The fried fish (pictured at the top of this post, atop calamari and fries) is boring as hell, in the best possible way. It’s the sort of boring that comforts, and I must admit that I’m a fan. It’s a little fishy, a lot crispy, and a wee bit salty—and that’s all it takes to win me over, really. It comes in huge pieces, and it’s supremely satisfying, in that way only fried food can be. Swoon.

The calamari is a little bland, too, but it isn’t unpleasant. It’s neither too tough nor too mushy—and to my surprise, tartar sauce goes a long way in brightening up the flavor. (I’d really like it to come with lemon, but oh well. Meals come with ketchup, hot sauce, and tartar sauce. I hate ketchup almost as much as I hate hot sauce, and tartar sauce is pretty hit-or-miss with me, but I’ll make do.)

The crab sticks (pictured second above) actually aren’t bland; they’re sweet and chewy—not tough, but chewy—and when they’re fresh, they’re sickeningly delicious. (I’ve tried to eat them as leftovers, and all I can say is that I do not recommend you do the same. Ick.) Aesthetically, they always remind me of the Angry Whopper—I have no idea why, because they don’t look much alike—but I can assure you these things aren’t anywhere near as revolting as any of Burger King’s latest cries for attention. They’re good, and that’s all I really have to say.

Anyway: Terrace Fish & Chips isn’t the most exciting place to eat. Their food isn’t gourmet, nor is it particularly interesting, but it’s damn good at being what it is: an inexpensive fried seafood joint that seems to have erroneously slapped the phrase “fish & chips” on its awning. [Actually, their awning says “fish & chip,” singular, but their website (and most others) say “fish & chips.” It burns.]

Find it at 77 Pearl Street, not too far from Pier 11/Wall St.—you know, in case you were planning a trip to IKEA or something.

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