Restaurants in Downtown Crossing: Sa Pa

Posted April 8, 2013 by Rachel Leah Blumenthal in Chinatown
Sa Pa in Downtown Crossing

While there are many great lunch restaurants in Downtown Crossing, the latest addition is definitely worth a visit. A new weekday lunch spot from Ky Nguyen and Dana Love (owner and chef respectively of nearby restaurant Kingston Station), Sa Pa just opened on Bedford Street. While the location is a bit removed from the heart of Downtown Crossing, workers in the neighborhood already have caught on, crowding the place at peak lunch hours. The line can be long, but the service is quick. Most diners take their meals to go, but the former Hot Tomatoes space has plenty of seating and a welcoming ambiance if you want to stay to eat.

Named after a northwestern region of Vietnam, Sa Pa has an energetic color scheme, from the bright red chairs to the sky blue wall covered with vintage Vietnamese posters and black-and-white family photographs. The centerpiece of the restaurant is a giant chalkboard that displays the menu. Upon entering, you place your order at the far left and move along the counter, cafeteria-style, as your meal is prepared in front of you. The process was a bit hectic on my visit—different counter staff repeatedly asked my dining companion and me what we had ordered as we moved down the line—but everything worked out. We arrived at the register on the far right at the same time as our orders, which were correct.

Sa Pa’s menu is simple: three Vietnamese dishes, each with a choice of meat (or tofu). You can get a banh mi (sandwich), bun (noodle salad), or pho (noodle soup). (At this point, that’s the full menu, plus a few bottled drinks by the register.) The protein options include sake-cured salmon, slow-braised beef, pork meatballs, ginger-lime chicken, and marinated tofu. The salmon is not “your typical bland and boring lox,” wrote Love in a Kingston Station newsletter announcing Sa Pa’s opening. “It’s literally a 30-spice-rubbed, 48-hour salt-cured salmon. I’ve used star anise, fennel, coriander, citrus zest, and kaffir lime leaves to infuse it with as much flavor as possible.”

Nguyen (a native of Vietnam) and Love initially began experimenting with Vietnamese food at Kingston Station. “I would bring him stuff from Chinatown, or my mother would bring ingredients for him to try,” wrote Nguyen. “[Love] started incorporating Vietnamese flavors into some of his dishes at Kingston Station.” The practice paid off, and now Sa Pa gets Nguyen’s mother’s stamp of approval on the authenticity scale. “If mom likes it, you know it’s legit,” wrote Nguyen, “and she loved it. I breathed a little sigh of relief!”

Bun at Sa Pa

Sa Pa’s banh mi with pork meatballs. Photo Credit: Rachel Leah Blumenthal

Everything smelled and looked delicious, so choosing was tough. Pho was calling to me on such a cold day, but I opted for the bun with slow-braised beef, a perfectly sized helping of noodles garnished with plenty of beef and other brightly colored treats: fresh cilantro, mango, and small bits of chopped pistachios. A sauce station near the register had the essential additions, plenty of sriracha and fish sauce. The beef was delicious, and the rest of the flavors complemented each other well.

A bit of advice: Don’t skimp on the add-it-yourself fish sauce: bun noodles (thin rice noodles) by nature are rather bland, but the fish sauce adds an extra layer of flavor that is both sweet and savory. I would definitely get the slow-braised beef again, but first I want to try the sake-cured salmon.

Banh Mi at Sa Pa

Sa Pa’s bun (noodle salad), topped with slow-braised beef. Photo Credit: Rachel Leah Blumenthal

My dining companion was similarly satisfied with her pork meatball banh mi; the meatballs, in particular, were exceptional: big, juicy, and full of flavor. Oddly enough, we were both impressed by the cucumber, a visually appealing slice that was ultra-thin and ran the entire length of the sandwich. The bread was crustier than what she’d encountered in other versions of banh mi, but that didn’t detract from the overall tastiness. Who can say no to a crusty baguette?

We washed everything down with IZZE sparkling grapefruit juice—one of the only available beverages but a good match. Citrus works well with the freshness of the cilantro, the mango, and Sa Pa’s other fruits and vegetables.

With time, Sa Pa’s ordering process is sure to smooth out. I’d love to see a larger beverage selection and possibly some side dishes, though the tiny menu is probably a key factor in the efficient lunch service. Sa Pa is a welcome addition to the restaurants in Downtown Crossing, and I could definitely see myself enjoying the bun several times a week if I worked nearby.

Sa Pa is located at 92 Bedford St. and is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays only.



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