Hoi An, Vietnam, 2009: As I am cutting my fresh rice noodles destined for pho, I am talking about how I will make my way eventually to Hanoi and remark that I look forward to trying “cha ca.” The men surrounding me all giggle. There are four of them: two drivers who have brought small groups of tourists to the Red Bridge Cooking School, my instructor, Chef Phi, and his brother-sous chef, Anh. Beet red, I ask if I have pronounced the famous turmeric and dill fish dish of North Vietnam wrong. No, Phi reassures me, they are just amused that I used the Vietnamese term.
Truth be told, I never had pho until going to Vietnam, but there I was, a week into my trip, only one bowl of pho down, and I was already making my own. Soup was not something I ate for a long time (I still veer away from liquid meals), and when I returned to it, I was more comfortable with purees. Broths scared me because I knew they were born from carcasses, and they all looked like dirty water. It took me a while to get down with carcass fat, but I was ready when I came to Vietnam and especially when I had locals hold my hand in the art of making and eating it.
While the other two dozen or so cooking students were in another part of the complex, I was the private student of Chef Phi that day as no one else paid the $15 extra for the deluxe class and market tour. Needless to say, it was some of the best extra few dollars I have ever spent. Phi and Anh did most of the cooking, but obviously my eyes were opened to the beauty behind this dirty water broth when I got to have a hand in making it: the grilling involved, the Christmas-y spices, and the supple noodles all helped me overcome my standard Vietnamese ordering rut.
And while I have come to crave a good bowl of pho, I have not moved away from determining my go-to Vietnamese restaurant based on how much I also like their vermicelli, or bun. Right now, I am all about Sao Mai in the East Village. I have tried Chinatown standards such as Nha Trang, Pho Grand, and Pho Bang, but I have not been overly impressed. I would agree with others that the best Vietnamese food in New York is probably found at Bun-ker, but it is in Ridgewood, Queens. To get there, I have to take either two trains and a bus, or two trains and a long walk. And their prices are almost double what you will find elsewhere. Yes, it is the best I have tried here and their ingredients are high quality, but it is not worth the trouble when I can get to Sao Mai in a third of the time and half the cost. Budget and time sometimes beat “best.”
I almost always get the bun bo nuong, or the vermicelli with grilled beef, with an add-on of a spring roll. I will also ask for an extra plate of herbs to supplement the few leaves they include in the bowl. One of my biggest takeaways from Vietnam was seeing how important and what large quantities of fresh herbs play in the cuisine. A bowl of bun is completely different with a heavy hand of herbs. It becomes the cold noodle salad it should be rather than the comforting bowl of noodles it often serves as. This is tropical heat cuisine, remember. Bun is such a simple dish, but it can easily vary between restaurants. I like my noodles properly skinny like vermicelli (I have had thick spaghetti-like noodles before). I do not want my noodles to taste like they have been sitting out. The nuoc cham should have a some sweetness. I do not want my meat too fatty.
But sometimes I crave a bowl of pho. Old Man Winter often pushes me in that direction. One of the primary lessons I learned from my Saigon friends about eating pho was that you do not drown your broth with hoisin and hot sauce. A proper pho broth should not even need such doctoring. Instead, you take a side plate and spoon out both sauces, like ketchup for fries. You then dip your beef into the sauces before eating. Thus, an easy measure for determining how good the pho is at your restaurant of choice is to taste the broth naked and see how it measures up. Sao Mai’s does. The cinnamon and star anise shine, and there is that bass note of smoke from the grilled beef and aromatics that go into the making of the broth. Also of note is that the noodles are never overcooked.
I prefer my spring rolls made with rice paper wrappers rather than those made of wheat, but I will still give props to Sao Mai for serving their rolls as they should be with lettuce and herbs. To the uninitiated: That is not garnish on the plate. The Vietnamese eat spring rolls by rolling them in a lettuce leaf with herbs and then dipping them. Hot, crispy, cooling, fresh.
The hospitality at Sao Mai leaves much to be desired, as the servers rarely crack a smile and often rush you to order and then to leave—so it is kind of like you are in Chinatown instead of the East Village. I do not mind the lack of niceties when all I want is to hoover a bowl of noodles. But, sometimes, I would not mind a giggle when my order is “fuh.”