Pagolac - Westminster
"Seven courses of beef." This is a phrase which will either trigger a Pavlovian response or a gag reflex.
If your reaction is the latter, you are a closeted vegetarian and should read no further, because what follows is a report on a meal which celebrates the consumption of cattle flesh.
This past Wednesday evening, a few O.C. food bloggers -- which included Chubbypanda of Epicurious Wanderer, Carter, Joy and Christian of OC Mexican Restaurants -- and I, were invited by Beach to Pagolac in Westminster.
Beach is a reader of this humble blog and a gourmand who has eaten his way through Little Saigon and as well as his native Vietnam. Being a patron of Pagolac for all of its seventeen years in business, he was as enthusiastic about sharing its "seven courses of beef" specialty as we were in trying it.
It was immediately evident to us that he knew this restaurant and its staff well. With a snap of his fingers, servers appeared seemingly out of thin air to replenish the rice paper, refill the water glasses, and cater to all of our requests. He commanded the kind of respect and attentive service reserved for Don Corleone himself.
And he gave us an offer we couldn't refuse; an education on how to eat Bo 7 Mon. Our gracious teacher was also our host (he insisted on treating us all for this extravagant meal) and table-side chef, preparing our food with a dexterity to rival a show-boating Benihana cook.
He started us off to a running start with an order of Tom Nuong Vi ($15.99) -- a plate of raw, butterflied shrimp -- which were immediately deposited onto a domed cooking apparatus that looked like a pith helmet fashioned out of steel. With a chopstick, Beach distributed the morsels around the well of the brim, where a shallow moat of drizzled cooking oil had collected.
"The shrimp takes longer to cook than the beef," he explained.
The beef was the Bo Nuong Vi ($11.99), presented in red, raw, and razor-thin slices, splayed out in glistening sheets on a stark white plate, and garnished with red onion slivers and scallions. It looked ready-to-eat as carpaccio, but it had a date with the convex cooking surface where it was to be quickly seared.
In anticipation of the beef being done, Beach instructed us to peel off a few sheets of rice paper and to mound our choice of herbs and veggies onto it. I did so by picking a few leaves of tia to, mint, a wedge of green banana, pickled lemongrass, bean sprouts, and shredded pickled carrots. There was enough vegetation, herbs, and roughage on our table for a cow to chew as cud and fill its four stomachs. But in fact, it was exactly what we needed to temper the excesses of our beef exploration. Otherwise, our palates would've been quickly overwhelmed from the onslaught of fat, beef, and more beef fat.
Scarcely seconds after I was satisfied at my garden-fresh arrangement, my slice of bovine flesh was ready. Beach plucked it off the griddle and placed it on top of the mound I had created.
All that was left to be done was to roll the contents into a tight tube with the rice paper, which I attempted to do with clumsy fingers.
I looked around and noticed that Beach had completed rolling his to a perfectly taut and symmetrical cylinder, as if by magic or divine intervention. A penny bounced off of it would've ricocheted around the room.
In the meantime, Chubbypanda created a cone-shaped wrap more akin to a sushi-bar tuna hand roll. Joy and Carter's attempt looked closer to the desired egg roll shape.
But all I managed to accomplish was something that looked an exploded garbage bag, with the pliable rice paper wrapper jettisoning its contents onto my plate.
To correct the mess I made, I patched up the breaks with more rice paper. Soon, resigned with the fact that I wasn't going to do any better than what now looked like an obese and ragged burrito, I took it for a dunk in mam nem, a murky thick and pink dipping sauce made of pulverized and fermented shrimp.
But as ugly as my parcel was, it was delicious. The salty tang of the sauce cut through the rubbery pull of the rice paper; the richness of the grilled beef; the fresh crunch of the raw vegetables; the fragrance of the shaved lemongrass; the sourness of the green banana; and the bitter-sweet earthiness of the herbs.
As soon as we had finished the beef, the shrimp were ready. The same protocol followed, and wrapping it was just as frustrating to me as the last time. But similarly, the finished product was delectable. If I were Homer Simpson, a series of "D'ohs!" would have been followed by a series of "Mmmm, mam nem!"
Later, our expert demonstrated the proper technique which Chubbypanda skillfully captured on video. The secret, I observed, was to squish the contents as you roll. The more you squish, the tighter the construct will be.
But little did we know that what we just enjoyed was merely appetizer. The seven courses of beef ($13.99 per person) had not yet even begun.
The first course was called Bo Nhung Dam and was similar to fondue or shabu-shabu. But instead of steeping the meat in plain old hot water, the thinly sliced tenderloin is swished around a simmering vinegared broth in a metal bowl. The acidic brew cooked the meat in seconds and added a noticeable zing. The tart and tender flaps were then to be wrapped up with more herbs and rice paper before consumption.
The stubby meat stogies dubbed Bo La Lot packed a wallop of flavor, of beef and of spice. The la lot wrapper had peppery overtones, and felt like a cross between grape-leaf and nori on the palate.
Paired with it was Bo Sate, rolled pieces of grilled tenderloin with a slender sliver of ginger hidden in its center. Supremely tender since it was essentially nothing but filet mignon, it ate like a steak, but with no cutting utensils involved.
Bo Cha Dum were steamed spheres of ground beef, packed with mushrooms, peas, and bean thread noodle. Crumbly soft and pleasantly fatty, Beach placed his on top of a shrimp chip before he ate it. We followed suit and ooh-and-ahh'd when we felt the contrasting textures dancing in our mouths. The crackling crunch of the chip led the tango while the moistness of the meat followed in a perfect lockstep all the way down our gullets.
On the same plate as the Bo Cha Dum, was the Bo Nuong Mo Chai, round balls of ground beef sausage seasoned with a touch of five-spice. Wrapped in caul fat, the bundles self-basted during broiling. The result was a scrumptious and smoky beef nugget which needed no additional accoutrements. These were the best meatballs, Swedish or otherwise, that I've ever tasted.
The second to the last course, was a salad. Not just a salad, of course, but a beef salad named Bo Bit Tet. More slices of cooked tenderloin, this time sluiced with Italian dressing, adorned a bed of butter lettuce. The pointedly tart vinaigrette worked to balance the richness and the cool lettuce leaves refreshed the palate even further.
Last but not least was the Chao Bo, a clear soup with cooked rice, minced beef, green onion, ginger, and most inexplicable of all, itty bitty pieces of star pasta -- the very same kind you'd find in a can of Campbell's Chicken and Stars. Regardless of the oddity, the soup came perfectly timed as a reprieve from an impending beef overdose. It was the equivalent of downshifting to first gear before rolling to a stop.
When we were completely sated and stuffed, I surveyed the scene: complete and utter carnage. Spent beer bottles, sullied napkins, discarded herb stems, dribbled puddles of mam nem, empty tea cups and glasses covered nearly every square inch of our table -- a mess worthy of a feast hosted by the Godfather himself.
14580 Brookhurst St
Westminster, CA 92683
To read Chubbypanda's report of the dinner:
--->>> CLICK HERE <<<---
To read Christian's post on the dinner:
--->>> CLICK HERE <<<---
To read about Pam of Daily Gluttony's previous visit:
--->>> CLICK HERE <<<---