Last week we dealt with the infamous ramen noodle. This time, my four buddies and I head into the world of Pho and vermicelli, the rice-based cousin of wheaty ramen. We do so at Saigon Shack, a Vietnamese sandwich and noodle shop at 114 Macdougal Street, a few short blocks away from Washington Square Park.
From the outside, it’s somewhat difficult to see the restaurant itself, as there is always a crowd waiting for seats and blocking the glass storefront. If you decide to be brave and shove your way through this crowd, though, you’ll see an equally packed, unpretentious interior made of brick and wood. The crowd was somewhat deceptive, though; we had to wait only 20 minutes for our 5 spots at a common table. Still, though, the wait wasn’t fun, and it would have been much worse if it had not been for Thelewala, an Indian Street food restaurant that we found right next door.
This place gets top marks for saving us from our pre-meal starvation without forcing any of us over our $13 cap. We got a Thelewala Chicken roll, (Chicken, fried eggs, red onions, house blend spices and lime wrapped up in a warm, soft roti) and a Chicken Malai roll (the same, with lime and house spices) for $5.50 each to split between the five of us. $2.10 per person, we thought, was well worth it. Thelewala’s approach is similar to that of other Indian street food vendors; neither of these rolls were unprecedented creations, but their execution made them stand out against their peers. They were packed with complex flavor, they were hot and substantial, and most importantly, because this is not the case with most other rolls, they were moist and tender. The rolls were relatively small, making them not ideal for five-way sharing, but they were good enough to makes us all happy with what little we got.
My only regret is that we had to eat them so quickly… As we were eating these outside Saigon Shack, our table was called after a reasonable 20 minutes (only 5 minutes longer than we were told it would take.) Bringing outside food into the restaurant is taboo, so we had to scarf our rolls down. Somewhat of a waste. Still worth it.
After being seated at the common table, we got settled in quickly with menus and water. We were so happy with out first 5-way appetizer split that we decided to do it again in Saigon. We got Grilled Pork Chop Summer rolls: $5 for 4 rolls of crisp greens wrapped up with noodles and a generous portion of meat by a wide, translucent rice noodle. (My friend Jen took one for the team and selflessly went without a summer roll; I’d like to take this chance to memorialize her noble action. Thank you Jen Chan. You, of course, missed out tremendously.) These, again, were delicious. Crunchy and chewy, warm and cool, they were just what we needed to clean away the lingering spice leftover from the Thelewala rolls.
Finally, it was time for the main course. All four of my friends got the $8 S.S. Spicy Special Noodle, a spicy compromise for the indecisive meat lover: rather than just one type of meat, it featured smaller portions of beef, roast pork, and vietnamese ham, all of which were very fatty and tender, stewed to perfection. Spiced with what I’m guessing was Sriracha, it was a little too much for my delicate palate; I’m a bit of a wuss when it comes to spiciness. For the masochists, though, Saigon Shack provided us with plenty of extra chili peppers and Sriracha for an optional heat boost. The noodles themselves I thought were a tad over cooked. This may have been because I was only allowed to eat the scraps in the bowl fifteen minutes after it was first served, though, so I won’t be too harsh on this point. All four of my buddies, after all, gave an enthusiastic two thumbs up to their pho, the classic, thin Vietnamese rice noodle that they had all been homesick for. (There aren’t many Vietnamese restaurants around Morningside Heights)
I, for the sake of diversity, got Roast Pork over Vermicelli for $8, with an extra egg for another $1.50. The dish was simple, but high quality: roasted meat over dry rice noodles, covered with a layer of chopped lettuce, served with a pungent orange colored sauce on the side. The food was very accessible. Further, the portions, given the price, were fantastic. I actually ran out of noodles before I ran out of meat, which I’m pretty sure has never happened to me ever. 10 points to Saigon Shack for generosity with their protein.
I have only two regrets. First, I’m not sure the egg was worth it. It was a tasty egg, for sure, and it looked nice on the dish, but it was too small to really affect my experience of the dish as a whole. Second, our pork summer rolls were essentially a more expensive version of my dinner wrapped up in rice noodle, making my order somewhat redundant. Next time I’m back, which I’m sure will be fairly soon, I’m planning on either trying out another appetizer or ordering the roast pork vermicelli, sans egg, as an appetizer.
In spite of our imperfect ordering, we got out of a double-restaurant dinner at Saigon Shack and Thelewala for $10.35 each, (or in my case, $12.85, with the extra egg.) That’s a lot better than a meal swipe.