One of the greatest perks to food blogging has been the opportunity to make friends with a variety of people from around the world who share my interest in all things comestible. There's a great sense of community amongst foodies and food bloggers based on the knowledge that despite our political, social, cultural, or religious differences, we're all equal once we sit down at the dinner table. Our love of food binds us together.
So, when Christian from Orange County Mexican Restaurants invited me to join a dining adventure group he was a part of, I was eager to accept. Our latest gathering was put together by Elmomonster from Monster Munching at the suggestion of one of his readers, Beach, a Vietnamese food aficionado with intimate knowledge of Little Saigon's numerous eateries. For our first guided exploration of Vietnamese cuisine, Beach suggested that we sample Bo 7 Mon (Seven Courses of Beef) at Pagolac in Westminster, CA.
Family owned and operated, just the way this panda likes 'em, Pagolac is one of the best restaurants in Little Saigon for Bo 7 Mon. It's also one of the cleaner and classier establishments in the area. Normally, this would put me on my guard right away, since I've become accustomed to the habit certain Southern Californian eateries have of replacing substance with style. This tradeoff between taste and frippery is particularly evident in "ethnic" restaurant chains. Compare, for example, the stylized decor of any PF Chang's with the crap they actually try to pass off as Chinese food and the prices they charge. I see frippery and polish in an Asian restaurant, I start looking for the white businessman who's trying to fuck me up the ass and make off with my money. If the chairs aren't sticky and the table isn't plastic, I'm pretty sure I'm in for a bad time.
However, with its combination of kitsch and clean, the ambience at Pagolac was so playfully cheeky that I thought there might be some hope. Besides, once I arrived, I noticed that the entire clientele was Vietnamese. In fact, Beach recognized me right away because I was "out of place". The Vietnamese customers there knew their own, and my Taiwanese ass was instantly tagged as an outsider. It was awesome. I knew then that I was in for some good eatin'.
Since Beach and I had both arrived well before any of the others, we had a chance to chat for a while. I found him to be a gregarious and complex fellow with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Vietnamese cuisine and a deep passion for food. He also has one of the coolest jobs in the world, but that's about as much as I'm going to touch on that. Suffice to say that by the time the others had arrived, I knew we were in capable hands.
The basic concept behind Bo 7 Mon is simple. A variety of beef dishes, some already cooked, some meant to be cooked at the table, are brought out in an established order. Each serving of beef is divided up amongst the other diners and rolled up in bahn tran (rice paper) with a selection of herbs and other vegetables. The result is highly similar to goi cuon (Vietnamese summer rolls).
While Beach and I waited for the others to arrive, the wait staff began bringing out heaping plates of the herbs and vegetables we were to use to garnish our rolls. The vegetables pictured here are sliced cucumber, sliced green banana, shredded carrot, bean sprouts, and Romaine lettuce. I'm not certain what herbs were included, but I'm fairly positive I saw rau que (Vietnamese basil) and rau ram (Vietnamese mint/coriander). Thinly sliced, pickled lemongrass and whole Thai bird chilies were also provided.
The wait staff also brought out these ceramic bowls of mam nem a fermented seafood-based sauce that's the traditional accompaniment to Bo 7 Mon. It was my understanding that mam nem was made with a fermented fish base. However, Beach told me that the sauce at Pagolac was made using fermented shrimp.
Once the others arrived, Beach showed us how with mix the mam nem with some of this garlic-chili paste to make a fiery dipping sauce for our rolls.
I like my Vietnamese food like I like my CPUs, smokin' hot with a mean kick, so Beach mixed up this fearsome concoction for me.
(I have substituted a geek analogy for the usual chauvinist one here out of respect for my female readers, and because Cat reads this blog and has pretty scary kick for such a thin girl. She put her foot through a dorm wall our Freshman year in Uni, so I'm not getting on her bad side.)
Because he wanted us to get the full Pagolac experience, Beach started off by ordering some meat to be grilled at the table. The wait staff set up this iron grill, similar to one of Korean design, on a stand over a container of Sterno.
To grill, he got us this plate of Bo Nuong Vi, which was thinly sliced beef marinated in a sauce with onions, lemongrass, and scallions.
He also got us this plate of Tom Nuong Vi, peeled shrimp marinated in a sauce with onions, lemongrass, scallions, and peanuts.
Since the shrimp were going to take longer to cook, Beach placed them on the outer edges of the grill pan.
He then laid the slices of beef on top of the dome to be seared. As each piece finished cooked, Beach doled them out to us to be wrapped in rice wrappers with our herbs of choice before being dipped in the mam nem and consumed. He even taught us the proper rolling method.
A side view video of Beach showing me the proper rolling method.
An over-the-shoulder view of Beach showing me the proper rolling method.
The grilled meat was excellent. Beach served it to me medium-rare, so it was still juicy and flavorful. I laid it on top of a bed of Romaine lettuce, herbs, sliced cucumber, and pickled lemongrass, and topped it with shredded carrot. Once rolled and dipped in my fiery mam nem mix, it had the explosively passionate yet subtly balanced melding of flavors I look for in great Vietnamese food.
The grilled shrimp were just as good. Plump and juicy, they burst in my mouth with every bite. This time, I added a few slices of green banana to the mix, which contributed just the right touch of bitterness. My rolls had found a new best friend.
To wash down these grilled delights, I scored this bottle of 33 Beer, Vietnam's answer to Budweiser. While it's not the best Vietnamese beer out there, its round, sweet tones and mild finish made this Pilsner-style beer an excellent accompaniment to our spicy fare.
Already reeling from the amount of tasty food we'd consumed, we had little time to recover before the Bo 7 Mon onslaught began. Our grill pan was whisked away and replaced with a stainless steel bowl filled with vinegar, which we were to use to cook our first course.
Bo 7 Mon First Course: Bo Nhung Dam - Slices of raw beef were poached in the vinegar sauce for a few seconds, then rolled and consumed. Beach told me this was probably his least favorite course and I could see why. The beef was soft and very bland, with a slightly sour flavor from the vinegar. But, enough mam nem makes everything tasty.
Bo 7 Mon Second Course: Bo Cha Dum - One of a number of Vietnamese steamed meat items, Bo Cha Dum contains seasoned ground beef, rice vermicelli, peanuts, and wood ear mushrooms. These were served in huge ball form, which we broke apart with our chopsticks and ate with the rice crackers provided at Beach's suggestion. I garnished mine with a liberal helping of pickled lemongrass, a condiment I fell in love with during this dinner. The meatballs were mild with a soft texture. It was tasty, but I can't say that I was wild about this dish. The texture was too reminiscent of the canned food I feed my cats.
These little scamps would love Bo Cha Dum, but I think I still need some egg to bind the other ingredients into the Cha I prefer, with its firmer texture and quiche-like goodness.
Bo 7 Mon Third Course: Bo Nuong Mo Chai - Little meatballs of roughly ground beef were seasoned with spices, wrapped in caul fat (netting of fat found in the stomach and intestines of pigs, cows, and sheep), and grilled over an open flame. This was one of my favorite courses. The caul fat had melted into the lean meatball, imparting additional flavor and richness that paired nicely with the charred bits from grilling. I put two of them in a roll and enjoyed them immensely.
Bo 7 Mon Fourth Course: Bo La Lot - This was another excellent course. Seasoned ground beef was wrapped in a brined la lot (betel) leaves and fried. The resulting flavors are similar to Greek dolmades and very appealing. I tried these both plain and in rolls.
Bo 7 Mon Fifth Course: Bo Sate - Ground beef sausages were seasoned with curry spices, rolled up in thinly sliced beef tenderloin, skewered in a row, and grilled over an open fire. The complex spices really gave this course a nice kick which added great depth of flavor when rolled up.
Bo 7 Mon Sixth Course: Bo Bit Tet - Thin slices of beef were grilled and served in a salad with a light vinaigrette. This was probably my second least favorite course, after the Bo Nhung Dam, for many of the same reasons. I understood after tasting this course why Beach had been so insistent that we also try the grilled items.
Bo 7 Mon Seventh Course: Chao Bo - A palate cleansing soup made from well-seasoned beef broth, rice, and star pasta, this was a very comforting course. It rounded out our feast nicely.
I had a great time that night with Elmomonster, Christian, J, C, and Beach, my newfound buddy. While a few of the dishes didn't really appeal to me, they were all well prepared with high quality ingredients. Another person faced with the same dinner might feel differently about the items I didn't like, so please read the reviews by Daily Gluttony and Elmomonster that I've linked at the end of this post.
If you're wondering what this last picture is, it's a game I used to play in the UCI dorms much too many years ago called "Plate Art". Starting with a blank plate, each person adds a small item left from their meal to create a visual composite of all the diners. It represents the coming together of every person through the food at the table, and it's always good for a photo souvenir. That was ours. A great evening with great people.
Pagolac - For a marvelous Bo 7 Mon experience at amazingly low prices. Bring your appetite and a lot of friends.
Bill (for six):
The total came out to around $120 with tax and drinks, roughly $20 per person. It was a superb bargain. Beach insisted on picking up the tab, so we'll be taking him out for another food adventure at a later date.
14580 Brookhurst St.
Westminster, CA 92683
Pagolac Reviews by Food Blogger Friends: