Roll Your Own
"Lunch Specials from $2.95," reads the lettering near the door of Saigon Pagolac. As promised, the little lunch menu is loaded with bargains, but I shove it aside and pick out a dish from the dinner menu: beef, shrimp and squid marinated in lemongrass and cooked at the table, $16.95. That may sound like an expensive lunch, but I'm splitting it with a friend, so it's actually a pretty good deal. And when the food is delivered, I realize you could easily split this dish three ways, at which point it would become a hell of a bargain.
First, the waiter brings a plate of carrot sticks, cucumber slices and sprouts to the table along with a dish of rice-paper wrappers. Then he sets up a butane-fired tabletop cooker and lights the flame. A miniature black cast-iron skillet is already hot when he squirts it with oil. Finally, he brings a plate loaded with flat beef slices, cleaned shrimp and squid and another plate bearing a jungle of fresh herbs. I flip some squid and shrimp on the hot skillet with my chopsticks. It looks like we have two full skillets' worth of seafood here and three or four of beef. It's a lot of food -- and a lot of cooking.
As soon as the squid hit the hot metal, they start to hiss and curl. The rice-paper wrappers always seem to be stuck together here, and today is no exception. When we finally get a couple free, we lay them out on small plates and start rolling. I try squid with fresh basil and mint and a squiggle of bright red hot sauce first, then squid and shrimp with rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), cucumber and carrots. But I have to balance the eating with my cooking duties. By the time we've cooked all the seafood, the skillet is too sticky to continue. So we sit back for a minute and look around.
There are three pedicabs with Vietnamese license plates by the front door. Three clocks on the wall give the time in Paris, Saigon and Houston. Strangely, the ones for South Texas and South Vietnam say the same thing. (When it's two o'clock in the afternoon in Houston, it's two o'clock the next morning in Saigon, the waiter explains.) On the back wall, there's a giant photo mural of a public building with the name Cho Ben Thành in big letters. On either side of the main building are long wings with other shops, one of which bears the name Saigon Pagolac.
"Do you know what building that is?" I ask the couple sitting at the next table.
"That's the central market in old Saigon," the man says.
"Was there really a restaurant called Saigon Pagolac there?" I ask.
"Yes, I think there was, and this place is named after it," he says.
"No, there wasn't. It's just a joke," chides his significant other, rolling her eyes at his gullibility. I want to ask them the names of some of the herbs, but they begin arguing in Vietnamese. Having brought enough sunshine into their lives for the moment, I turn my attention back to the butane burner.
Our waiter scrapes the skillet clean. Then he loads it with beef and says, "You go ahead and eat, I'll cook for a while." We pull off more sheets of rice paper and cover them what Saigon Pagolac calls Hawaiian leaf. It's purple on one side and green on the other and has a pepper and cinnamon flavor. We also encounter an odd-smelling herb with a heart-shaped leaf. "What's the name of this one?" I ask the waiter.
"It's named after a Vietnamese fish," he says. "It smells like fish, too. I don't like it."
"Fish or a rusty cast-iron frying pan," says my dining companion, sniffing at the herb. "Looks sort of like a morning-glory leaf." The stinky herb is called dap ca (pronounced "yup ca"). I experiment with some on my beef fajita. It makes the roll taste a tad funky, but not any funkier than a good strong fish sauce. I like the fishy herb -- if only for the novelty. Like the wild fresh herbs, the dining experience at Saigon Pagolac is excitingly exotic. Which is odd, since the main attraction here is beef, the most common dinner item in Texas for the last hundred years or so.
Vietnamese food may be the world's best hot-weather cuisine -- and if you haven't noticed, it's that time of year again. The other reason I'm thinking a lot about Vietnamese food lately is all the interesting mail I received following my review of Ba Ky ("The Durian Dare," June 27).
"After having spent about 14 years of my life in Southeast Asia courtesy of a government agency with three letters for a name, I have a pretty fair appreciation for Vietnamese food. Your review of Ba Ky was right on the money," wrote one furtive foodie who will have to kill me if I reveal his identity. "My wife and I ate there Sunday. It's better than any other Vietnamese food I've had in this country. Next time, try the soft-shell crabs!"
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.
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 mon would 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.
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