Tag Archives: pho

Saiguette

Saiguette's skirt steak bánh mì

Bánh mì are tough. I don’t have any trouble finding tree nut–free Vietnamese restaurants, but Vietnamese restaurants that happen to use allergy-friendly bread? For a while there, I’d given up on finding any more. Sao Mai is a singular godsend—I don’t know how they ended up using the bread they use, but I’m so very glad they did, as every other Vietnamese restaurant I’ve called has either told me that they don’t know where they get their bread (oh), or that yeah, no, it’s just not going to work. I made the decision, then, to be content with Sao Mai, and my eye hasn’t wandered since.

And then I stumbled upon Saiguette, a surprisingly allergy-aware grab-and-go Vietnamese restaurant, way up on the corner of West 106th Street, whose menu proudly bares those rare, magic words: “…on our homemade bread.” Though peanut-heavy, that menu is entirely nut-free—and yes, the bread is made in-house, and it is, in fact, safe. Naturally, I found myself at Saiguette’s teeny-tiny, hardly-a-restaurant storefront within an hour of finding out the above. I’ve since tried 7 of the 11 sandwiches on the menu. Go figure.

Saiguette's pork belly bánh mì

Now. Because I often lament how infrequently I get to rank things, I’m going to take this opportunity to do some sandwich-ranking. (I swear this isn’t just a clunky setup; I really do wish I had more opportunities to order items from best to worst.) The last things I ranked were the characters of Malcolm in the Middle (Lois > Dewey > Francis & Piama > Hal > Malcolm > Jamie > Reese—yes, I’m certain, and no, I won’t reconsider), but that was months ago, and no one cared, so. Saiguette’s pork belly bánh mì is the best one I’ve tried, followed by the grilled pork shoulder with lemongrass, followed by the classic (pâté and pork terrine), then the flank steak, then the grilled pork shoulder without lemongrass, then the skirt steak, then the chicken thigh. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

But these sandwiches are hard to rank. Most differ only in their proteins—so because they share so many components, they’re probably best evaluated in the aggregate. Overall, then, they’re rather good. (Likely not the city’s best, but perhaps the city’s safest, and that counts for a lot.) The bread, though nothing special, is passable—better when not slathered in spicy mayo, a.k.a. the world’s most boring condiment—and the vegetables (and technical fruits) are surely good enough, despite the fact that they’re not exactly the sorts I’d want to eat outside the rather forgiving confines of a sandwich. Plenty of cilantro; a giant, satisfying wedge (or two!) of snappy, snappy cucumber; flavorful jalapeños; and just the right amount of pickled carrot…

Saiguette's classic bánh mì

They’re good. All of them—which I suppose means it’s time for me to get into the details. So. The pork belly (pictured second above) is absurdly juicy, to the extent that it sort of just continuously oozes itself. It’s sweet—too sweet—but somehow still balanced, and if you don’t make the mistake of turning to another of Saiguette’s bánh mì within minutes of putting (half of) this one down, the fact that it never fails to blow out your palate will be a total non-issue. And the two pork shoulders—one grilled, with lemongrass, and one roasted, without—are almost as good. Both are rather sweet, but I find the grilled version significantly less overbearing. And though the added lemongrass doesn’t do much, I get a kick out of knowing it’s there.

Then, the flank steak—which is better than the skirt steak (top of this post), and by a large margin, too. These two are all about their textures, and given that, it’s a no-brainer to place the tender, juicy flank steak ahead of the tougher, drier skirt. But I think the classic (immediately above) is a little better than the both of them. Piled high with pork terrine and a few chunks of what tastes like (but isn’t) a takeout-style Chinese spare rib, that sandwich is pretty goddamn great. And it’s the cheapest one on Saiguette’s menu, too. It’s not perfect—without a doubt, it could use a little more balance, a little more nuance—but I do like it, and I do recommend giving it a try.

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In fact, the only of Saiguette’s bánh mì I wouldn’t recommend is the grilled chicken thigh (immediately above), which is labeled “juicy,” but which actually sits at a rather unimpressive position on the juice scale, all told. It’s fine, I guess. But flavor-wise, it’s painfully boring—and a painfully boring central feature makes for a blunt, unbalanced, and all around underwhelming bánh mì. It’s no matter, though; there are obviously a bunch of other things to order.

But I do stick to the bánh mì. There’s nothing all that wrong with the phở, but I find it hard to justify going all the way the fuck up to 106th Street only to order a dish that just makes me go, “huh, that was all right—but I prefer Sao Mai’s.” By the time I’m stepping over Saiguette’s threshold, I feel as if I’ve earned something grand. (It’s all that time on the C train. I usually have earned something grand.) And as soon as I start feeling all earny-entitley, ho-hum phở becomes a total non-option. It just isn’t worth it—especially when there are nut-free sandwiches on the menu.

Besides, even if you’ve ordered it to-stay, Saiguette’s phở comes disassembled, which has some serious downsides. The flavors get less time to mingle, for one—and the noodles, which are just okay, get less time to loosen up and fall out of their noodle-glob. But the broth is excellent. It has depth and breadth and areas of interest and probably an interesting life story or two to tell, and there’s a ton of it, which definitely helps. The eye-of-round hardly has any flavor of its own, and the brisket, though rather tasty, comes with a few too many bits of gelatinous flab. But the broth is good enough to carry the phở—not to any sort of distinguished status, but to the status of a decent dish nonetheless.

But it’s all right. Those bánh mì deserve my focus anyway. They just about demand it.

Find Saiguette at 935 Columbus Avenue, on the corner of 106th Street. (By the way: If you call ahead and place your order for pickup, they’ll give you 10% off—and if you happen to be dining between 11am and 5pm, you’ll save 10% more.)

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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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