Man Food: Banh Mi Disappointment at Sa Pa

While the banh mi and pho-focused menu is promising at this downtown newcomer, the execution left something to be desired.

Welcome to Man Food, where burger pro Richard Chudy steps away from his usual burger beat to explore food challenges, street eats, and other gut-busting delights. Ladies are welcome, of course.

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all photos by Katie Barszcz for Boston magazine.

It was the experience that could have been. Stepping into Sa Pa I had high hopes, as I always do, for a quality meal. My love of pho and banh mi is about as extreme as you can get, and the fact that this newly opened Vietnamese fast-casual spot has both was a big thumbs up. The ordering here is counter-style: at the start of the line you request which item you want (banh mi, noodle salad, pho) then customize it based on protein and an assortment of toppings and sauces. Even a few bites into to the very large and seemingly traditional banh mi sandwich, I was enjoying it, despite the laughable price tag ($19 for a sandwich and soup plus a Vietnamese iced tea) which of course is about two or three times more expensive than any place in Chinatown (which, it’s worth noting, is only steps away).

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But then, as I bit into my first pork meatball, I noticed a very odd and unexpected pink color. Not pink in a just-shy of medium-rare temperature, but more like a raw kind of way. As I brought my sandwich up to the counter to inquire, I was told by the manager on duty that this was due to a special breed of pork that remains pink even when fully cooked. Dubious and frustrated, I sat back down (with no offer of a new sandwich) and took a stab atanother meatball. Meatball number two was actually purple in the middle, and ice-cold to the touch.

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I brought my sandwich back up again, and was able to swap it for the chicken banh mi by a helpful counter staffer. A few bites into a poorly put-together dry chicken sandwich, we spied the same manager as before eating with his bare hands directly from the steam table that the prepared food had been sitting in. This is not exactly a sight you want to see. Feeling sheepish after being caught, he came over to ask how everything was. After we expressed our disappointment, he again defended the pink and purple meatballs saying that it’s the type of pork they use, and that they are “cooked to death” if nothing else.

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Rarely do I ever enjoy leaving food on my plate, especially when Sa Pa had potential. A few slurps of the non-traditional pho were pleasant; the paper thin noodles soaked up a hearty broth that also contained a generous helping of shredded and braised beef. Most disappointing about the experience was the way it was all handled; no apologies were made, only hollow excuses. No, this was a case of a cooking screw-up, and, fair or not, I caught them on the worst day possible.

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*A different manager followed up with me the next day after I left a message with the restaurant. I re-explained the situation from the day before, and he did offer a sincere apology. When I questioned the logic behind the breed of pork I was initially informed about and the color inside of the meatball, he acknowledged that was not Sa Pa’s intent. He did, however, admit that the food “may not have cooked in the steam table long enough,” to which, of course, raw meats should never be cooked from start to finish in a steam table. Backtracking a little, he said that perhaps the meat over-cooked and dried out, which could result in the pink or purple color. He also went on to defend the employee who was eating food with his bare hands in front of customers, saying he “was just checking on the meatballs” and that it was no big deal. I for one, call this a very big deal.

Sa Pa, 92 Bedford St., Boston, 617-303-7000,