Photos by SA PA and Rochelle Li, Words by Natalie Goldberg
One of the reasons I absolutely love going to school in Boston is because I get to experience various cultures by enjoying foods from around the world. I get to try local restaurants—especially of Asian cuisines—with diverse ingredients and spices that I had not known existed. Whether I am venturing out to an Indian or Mediterranean restaurant, or sampling one of the plethora of restaurants in Chinatown, I always feel as though deciding what to order and how to order it is a learning experience. When I heard about the opportunity for a tasting at SA PA, a “Modern Vietnamese” restaurant in Cleveland Circle, I knew that I would be in for a treat in a new cuisine.
The restaurant itself has a welcoming and upbeat atmosphere. There were plenty of tables filled with different utensils for any type of dish, which already made me feel comfortable, because I fail at using chopsticks every time. The menu itself simplifies the options, making it very accessible to someone who has never before tried Vietnamese food.
Even though SA PA is a modern twist on traditional Vietnamese food, the restaurant has a wall lined with pictures of the owner, Ky Nguyen, and his childhood of their time spent in Vietnam, which serves as a reminder to customers of the food’s roots. The concept of SA PA is to make Vietnamese flavors accessible to anyone; its easy-to-navigate menu should not be intimidating to anyone.
I had the choice between a rice bowl, a choice of rice or noodles with many fixin’s, or bowl of pho, a traditional Vietnamese soup with a complex broth and a customizable mixture of vegetables, meat or tofu, and other toppings. Usually, when ordering pho, I am faced with a menu with many different options with numerous broths, toppings, and choices that I do not know how to pronounce or identify. But at SA PA, my choice was easy: noodle soup with a vegetarian broth and tofu. Upon taking a first bite, it became much more than that.
And the broth was the best part. At SA PA, the broths for their soups are simmered for 24 hours, which lets the flavors mingle and develop to provide the perfect balance of spice, heartiness, and warmth. The broth had a depth to it that I later learned comes from a layering of spices—coriander, star anise, cinnamon, fennel seeds, sugar, and more with a mushroom base.
The tofu had a crispy texture on the outside, with a firm inside that absorbed the all flavors from the broth. The dish was accompanied with thin noodles, carrots, cilantro, Thai basil, and bean sprouts, with additional garnishes available. I also got to try the beef broth, which had a bit of a lighter flavor and tender pieces of beef in the soup.
I didn’t want to put my spoon down and part with my pho, but then samples of Avocado Spring Rolls came out. I tasted the fresh, acidic pickled daikon complemented with crunchy carrots and creamy avocado wrapped in rice paper. Going in for another bite, I recognized more flavors, such as sweet grapes and Thai basil that further complemented the refreshing roll, which was accompanied by a peanut dipping sauce. These rolls cleansed my palate for the next round of food—Vegetarian and Pork Eggrolls. With a recipe created by the owner’s mother, these traditional rolls packed a warm center with a mixture of jicama, taro root, carrots, and more, surrounded with the flaky crunch of the fried dough, paired with a spicy vinegar-pepper sauce.
As if we weren’t full enough, Hoisin Chicken Wings appeared. These tender wings had the sweet, tangy, sticky, finger-licking flavor unique to Hoisin sauce that I absolutely love. If you like barbecue chicken wings, your life will be forever changed after trying these.
At the end of this unique tasting, we stuck around to speak to the owner to find out more about his concept, the menu, and to tell him how much we enjoyed our meals. From Ky, we learned about the rich traditions and significance of the ingredients, spice blends, and methods they use to create each dish. He said that many of the recipes, specifically for the broth and eggrolls, come from his mother.
Ky also puts a creative spin on typical Vietnamese foods, with dishes such as Banh Mi Burritos, a change from traditional Banh Mi Sandwiches. He noted how burritos have become recently popular and wanted to create a sandwich just as portable and convenient as a burrito, but with his own flavors.
The three takeaways that Ky wants to emphasize are fresh food, eating to enjoy spending time with friends and family, and good service, all of which definitely came through in my experience. He is constantly looking to add more creative dishes to the menu, so look out for small plates and new drinks coming out for the 21+ crowd. If you’re looking for a chance to try fresh, new flavors, or want to get a taste of traditional Vietnamese food in a modern light, SA PA is your new go-to place.
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Downtown: Daily 11am-4pm
92 Bedford Street
Boston, MA 02111
Cleveland Circle: Daily 11am-10pm
1952 Beacon Street
Boston, MA 02135