Pagolac Is a Big Fish in a Smaller Pond
There have been a lot of changes in Little Saigon recently, and I don't like them at all. Call me sentimental, but when I heard that Pho Thanh Lich (winner of multiple awards we've bestowed as the county's best pho) had moved out of its iconic location at the corner of Hazard Avenue and Brookhurst Street in Garden Grove, it made me sad. The dank room with its tangy smell of mildewed rags and dried mops, ceiling-hung garlands from Christmases past, and well-worn tables where I slurped many a hot bowl of pho was now gone. Admittedly, the place it moved to is newer and cleaner, but it's in a bad location, hidden under the armpit of a two-story edifice and in danger of being forgotten. It reminds us that Little Saigon, as with any other place on Earth, isn't immune to the passage of time and that even hallowed institutions such as this have leases that can run out.
The same happened to Pagolac, one of Little Saigon's oldest seven-courses-of-beef restaurants. It ceded its old location—which is coincidentally at the same corner as Pho Thanh Lich—to a Thai restaurant that has now completely remodeled the building to something more appropriate for the Wynn, with an interior design and prices to match. But I still remember when it was Pagolac, the place where I tried bó 7 mon for the first time in a room so spacious the owners were able to display not only two Vespas at the entrance, but also a rickshaw and one of those carnival claw-game machines no one bothered to play.
Pagolac's new home is nowhere near as roomy. It's now relegated to windowless quarters next to a Laundromat in a space more bunker than restaurant. And though they've attempted to update things with dark wall panels, the room still feels claustrophobic. When I made my visit, I was glad there was no other table available except the one at the entrance, where there was a breeze coming through the door. The rest of the tables in the back were filled to capacity, each equipped with at least one Sterno-fueled table-top griddle. The cooking vapors from meats sizzling atop them, the steam from the gurgling fondue pots and the peculiar alcoholic smell of the Sterno accumulated inside the room with nowhere to go. A box fan had been turned on, but it was futile in circulating the air, leaving the space as stifling as a sauna.
But the food remained great—perhaps even better than I remembered. We began, as usual, with the ta pin lu, a sampler that sees raw calamari steak, butterflied shrimp and beef sliced as thin as carpaccio served on a plate and covered in an oily mix of minced onion and peanuts. We seared the meats atop our own griddle, a greased dome resembling a pith helmet fashioned out of steel. When each morsel finished cooking, we rolled them up into rice-paper cigars with aromatic herbs, scraps of dewy lettuce, sliced green bananas, cucumbers and pickles. We then dipped the bundles into a salty-sweet sauce made with diced pineapples and fermented shrimp paste. And each time we rolled, our technique improved. I discovered that using two wetted rice-paper discs, each overlapping the other as though the circles of a Venn diagram, allowed for more room and easier rolling.
The ta pin lu was merely an appetizer. Soon after that, the seven courses of beef began. The first was a fondue, in which we swirled slices of raw beef in a simmering bowl of a vinegary broth. The next four came on the same plate: ground beef stogies swaddled in peppery la lot leaves; rolled pieces of grilled tenderloin with a slender sliver of ginger tucked inside; steamed spheres of soft ground beef packed with mushrooms, peas and bean thread noodle, the whole thing eaten with a shrimp chip; and finally, meatballs wrapped and broiled in self-basting caul fat, which were perhaps the best of them all. The final two courses—a brisk salad of lettuce with thin beef slices and onions drizzled in an Italian-like dressing, plus a steaming bowl of rice soup with bits of ground beef and ginger—eases you down to a slow, steady stop.
There's still more to explore, more to enjoy here, regardless where they ended up. So far, I've not tried their baked catfish. From seeing other tables ordering it, the dish looks as grand as I remember, but it's now also an unintended metaphor for Pagolac: a really big fish in a smaller pond.
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