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I got an even more intriguing letter from Cathy Nguyen. "In your review of Ba Ky, you mentioned that you tried the fajitas and will probably try the bo ba mon. Have you ever been to Saigon Pagolac, which is further down the street on Corporate and located by the rear of Dynasty Mall? If you haven't, then I should tell you that it would be the better place to try these dishes. It's well known in the Asian community for serving some pretty dang good fajitas (bo nuong xa), and you grill the beef yourself. Plus, instead of having three courses of beef (bo ba mon), they have seven (bo bay mon). Be warned: You will leave the place smelling like it, but it'll be worth it!"
After a warning like that, I couldn't resist. (I love restaurants that stink up your clothes.) The first time I visited Saigon Pagolac, I tried the house specialty, which the menu describes as bo 7 mon, and indeed includes seven beef dishes: tenderloin poached in vinegar at the table, ground beef sausages grilled over charcoal, ground beef seasoned and wrapped in Hawaiian leaf and grilled over charcoal, steamed meatballs sprinkled with peanuts over vermicelli, grilled sates, tenderloin chunks over salad with rice, and beef soup with alphabet noodles.
9600 Bellaire, no. 119
Houston, TX 77036
Region: Outer Loop - SW
Tenderloin, shrimp and squid (cooked at the table): $16.95
Bo nuong xa (cooked at the table): $9.95
Bo 7 mon (per person): $11.95
Bo luc lac: $7.75
Com ga roti: $4.95
Tenderloin and shrimp (cooked at the table): $12.95
As you might expect, some of these dishes are better than others. When eaten with a little rice, number one, the tenderloin in vinegar, is much better than it sounds. But by the time I got to course number four, the third variety of ground beef, my interest began to wane. The various hamburger shapes are all fairly similar and bland. Besides, I was getting full. Too bad, because number six, the grilled fillet chunks over salad, a.k.a. bo luc lac, is excellent here. The hearty soup is a nostalgic favorite, too, if you grew up eating alphabet pasta. (Maybe bo 3 monwould be plenty?)
But few of the predominantly Asian patrons in the packed restaurant seemed to be eating the beef seven ways. Instead, table after table had a butane burner set up and a little skillet full of meat or seafood cooking.
It was on my second visit that I first tried the table-cooked Vietnamese fajitas. My daughter ordered half a roasted Cornish hen (com ga roti), a juicy little chicken with crisp skin that would have been very popular under most circumstances. But my daughter shoved it toward me and suggested that I finish it so she could eat more of the thin tenderloin slices coming off the frying pan. I couldn't really blame her.
Saigon Pagolac has a lot of interesting things on the menu. It's just that cooking the steak and seafood at the table and rolling it up in rice paper is so much fun that everybody wants to try it. And once you try a few "fajita tacos" with sensuous herbs that exude flavors of mint, licorice, cinnamon, pepper (and fish), you'll find yourself craving this meal, especially on a hot summer day.
Many thanks to Cathy Nguyen for the tip. Although, I must say, I'm a little disappointed by one bit of her advice: Maybe I didn't go at the right time or on the right day, but not once in three visits did I walk out of the place smelling like Vietnamese beef.