When my friend Judy Le discovered that I'd never been to Saigon Pagolac (9600 Bellaire, Suite 119, 713-988-6106) for its [apparently] famous bo 7 mon -- beef seven ways -- she set about rectifying that immediately. We took a trip over to Chinatown last weekend and spent a leisurely few hours with some friends at a table in the calm late afternoon restaurant, utterly destroying platefuls of beef and one entire catfish.
Needless to say, it was a great day.
"It's what they do best here," Judy told me, gesturing to the section on the menu where all of the seven beef dishes were listed. We weren't getting them all that day, because -- as she pointed out -- many of the courses were just "filler." That meant no beef congee, but plenty of the more exciting dishes, like raw beef cooked in a shabu-shabu-style broth.
We started out simply enough, with Vietnamese-style meatballs that we quartered before wrapping in rice paper with lettuce, pickled carrots, unripened slices of banana, mint and various herbs which no one knew the names of in English. They smelled like basil and licorice, a wild and vivid riot of flavors especially when the rolls were dipped into Saigon Pagolac's pineapple-scented fermented fish sauce.
And yes, we wrapped those rolls up ourselves: That's half the fun of dining here after all. We all snuck glances at Judy's perfectly constructed rolls with their tucked and pleated ends and eagerly sought to emulate her, our own wobbly and clumsy efforts only producing mutant rolls, slices of cucumber poking awkwardly through holes torn in the fragile paper. I eventually gave up and made a dumpling with mine. It tasted just as good.
The next courses came out in quick succession. Beef that we cooked in a tiny hot pot, beef flavored intensely with garlic and lemongrass that we cooked on a blistering cast iron skillet shaped like a fish, a random plate of gently fried tofu (perhaps to balance it all out) that was nevertheless palate cleansing. And 30 minutes after we ordered it, the fish arrived.
Baked whole, the fish was perhaps the crowning glory of the meal, even though it had nothing to do with our bo 7 mon. Its crispy skin is topped with chopped peanuts, green onions and -- according to our waiter -- fried pork skin. Gilding the lily much, Saigon Pagolac? Gild on, if it tastes this good. My only sad complaint of the day was that the head and cheeks were too hard to eat. Perhaps next time.
This same afternoon, I was introduced to the avocado shake, something I'd written off as an anomalous concoction that was sure to produce some vile cognitive dissonance when consumed.
"We grew up eating avocado for dessert," Judy explained. "So it was a little strange to see it mixed with tomatoes and onions," as most Texans would normally eat it. Judy told us how they ate its ripe green flesh with a tiny bit of sugar after dinners, a story which made my face contort ever so slightly with distaste.
But I love being proved wrong. Avocado is wonderful with a touch of sugar; that shake was amazing, both sweet and earthy, creamy and vegetal at the same time. And also very fatty, of course, something that was pointed out to me when I ordered a second one after dinner. But we'd just eaten a table heavy with beef and tofu and an entire fish. What was one more shake?