Friday, December 28, 2007

Saigon Pagolac - interactive Vietnamese food

Getting out of my Vietnamese rut

Fifteen years ago, I knew all the best Vietnamese food in Houston. I had been to every Vietnamese restaurant and noodle shop in Vietnamtown, which was then in Midtown. But then the Vietnamese community moved outside the Loop, and I stayed inside it -- which has kept me out of the loop when it comes to new Vietnamese restaurants.

To escape my rut, I asked for help from my friend Ann. About 17 years ago, Ann immigrated to Houston from Saigon. Ann suggested we try Saigon Pagolac.

Saigon Pagolac is in the new Chinatown, behind the Dynasty Mall on Bellaire Boulevard. The interesting interior invokes Vietnam. One wall has a mural of the main market in Saigon -- the Pagolac. Another wall has stringed instruments from North and South Vietnam. Another wall has actual bicycle taxi carts, and right now a life-sized Santa Claus.

Seven Course Beef

Although the menu is quite large, Saigon Pagolac is well known for two things: (1) seven course beef, and (2) table-cooked dishes. The seven course beef costs $15.95 per person, but it will easily feed two. It consists of:

1. thinly sliced tenderlin that you boil at your table in vinegar and wrap in spring rolls, plus a variety of herbs and lettuce to wrap;

2. charcoal-grilled beef slices served with thin noodles;

3. a plate of four kinds of bite-sized beef items, including meat balls, marinated grilled beef, a roll of ground beef, and something that resembles a grape leaf around beef.

4. a tasty ground beef soup with small noodles.

For me, the star of the seven course beef was not the beef dishes, but one of the two dipping sauces. One sauce was nuoc mam cham -- the ordinarythin fish sauce mixed with lime juice, sugar, and garlic. But the real revelation was a thick concentrated fish sauce mixed with pineapple juice and pineapple chunks. Without the pineaple, the concentrated, fermented fish sauce might be very strange to a Western palate. But the sweetness and acid of the pineapple cuts the dead-animal funkiness of the fermented fish, making a very interesting combination. This second sauce worked best with items 1 and 3.

The array of ingredients served with the seven course beef is dizzying. You may want to get some help from the waiter. Also, the spring roll paper is oddly shaped as a triangle. You have to dip it in water for about 10 seconds, and then roll the ingredients inside the triangle as if it were a sushi hand roll or an ice cream cone. Then you fold the tip of the cone over so the juices do not run out of the roll. It is easy, once you get the hang of it, but daunting if you have not seen someone else do it.

Table Cooking

In addition to the beef boiled in vinegar, a number of othe dishes at Saigon Pagolac involve cooking raw ingredients on top of the table and rolling them in spring rolls. Ann ordered two items marinated in lemon grass -- shrimp and squid. We had to cook them on a hot plate on the table, and then roll them in the triangle paper.

Saigon Pagolac is deeply interactive eating. It is fun because it is a challenge. It may help to have someone like Ann who knows what items go with which sauce, who knows how to cook the raw beef and seafood, and who can demonstrate how to roll the spring rolls. But even without a guide, it is fun to try to figure out how to cook and assemble your meal.

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