I've been told on several occasions that Saigon Pagolac is Chinatown's oldest Vietnamese restaurant. Although it's certainly one of the oldest, I've yet to be able to confirm that it's the oldest. But it's a nice story regardless—and one that I used to convince a couple of friends to dine there with me last night. My ulterior motive was to enjoy some of Saigon Pagolac's famous grill-your-own beef. If I'd known my dining partners would be so into the greasy, spattery, raw meat-filled mess, I wouldn't have bothered with the backstory in the first place.
9600 Bellaire Blvd.
That said, the entire bo 7 mon meal can be a bit much if you don't come with a large party in tow; it's seven straight courses of beef, after all. A compromise is to just order the bo nuong vi, or barbecued beef, which you grill yourself at the table (as seen above) and use make your own "Vietnamese fajitas." A plate heaped with paper-thin slices of raw beef also comes with a few condiment plates of vegetables and thin, see-through discs of rice paper. If you're unsure of what to do with all this, don't worry—the friendly waitstaff will help you along. If you'd rather go in prepared, here's how you do it:
- Grab some beef off the plate (you'll want to designate a group fork for this task unless you're into cross-contamination) and toss it onto the sizzling skillet.
- While it cooks, dip the rice paper into its accompanying bowl of warm water for a few seconds. Remove when it becomes pliable et voila—you have the base for a spring roll.
- Take the beef off the skillet when it reaches your preferred level of doneness.
- Tuck the beef into your spring roll wrapper along with the vegetables of your choice—bean sprouts, carrots, rau ram, basil, cilantro, etc.—and top with fish sauce and/or chili paste to taste.
- Eat your Viet-jita and repeat until all the beef is gone.
If you don't eat your beef quickly enough, the waitstaff will come by and start pestering you about it. It's for your own good; they don't want the raw meat sitting out at room temp for too long. Plus, the longer you let the skillet sit with a bright, blue butane flame underneath it, the more of a risk you run of starting a grease fire at your table. Yes, this happens. Don't be that guy.
If you're not a beef (or a raw meat) person, don't fret; Saigon Pagolac is equally known for its whole-fried fish as it is for its bo 7 mon. The catfish comes out with impressively crispy skin that's topped with crunchy bits of flash-fried garlic, crushed peanuts, and green onions. Be warned, however, that even the smallest size is large enough to feed six people. If you order a medium, it will take up most of your table.
"We should have gotten a small!" my friends declared upon seeing the fish for the first time last night.
"This is the small," I deadpanned. "You should see the large and jumbo sizes." Our waiter nodded and grinned in agreement.
We didn't come close to finishing the massive catfish, picking at its soft, dewy skin until we could eat no more. I felt bad when the waiter took it away and wondered what would become of all the flesh we didn't eat. Maybe it would end up in Saigon Pagolac's homemade fish sauce, I mused—a highly unlikely scenario, but it made me feel better.
Saigon Pagolac only offers its homemade fish sauce on request, but if you're a fish sauce fan it's an absolute must. It's a gray sludge that more closely resembles the Laotian condiment called padaek than the clarified fish sauce we're most accustomed to in American Vietnamese restaurants. It's pretty much the polar opposite of the refined, extra-virgin stuff that Robb Walsh recently described in a post on Red Boat's elegant fish sauce.
Much like the raw meat, Saigon Pagolac's fish sauce is visually unappealing. It also smells like warm death, but—just like that beef—it's why you come to Saigon Pagolac in the first place. One taste of the fish sauce and its complex layers of ocean-bound sweetness and brusque, funky brine and you'll be hooked.