655 Larkin St (at Ellis St)
San Francisco, CA 94109
Hours: Closed Mondays. Open for dinner only.
Tue-Sun 5:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m.
I dined at Pagolac for the first time around four years ago. Jen H, my resident Vietnamese food expert, introduced me to Pagolac. Just like visiting an old high school friend, things have changed but for the better.
A newly remodeled decor yet the food remains exciting. In the past few blogs, I have ranted about bad service. Thankfully, I can say without hesitation that the service at Pagolac is not only great but worthy for many restaurateurs to follow.
Pagolac has arrived to provide an authentic Vietnamese restaurant experience in San Francisco. Vietnamese cuisine may be familiar to many San Francisco diners, but chef owner David Chan’s stirring dishes with alluring flavors could only be found in his restaurant. Served uniquely at Paola, Bo Mon 7, the seven course beef set meal, steals the show.
Embedded in a seedy neighborhood, patrons could easily sidestep the modest signage on the streets of Tenderloin. Once past the squalid street entrance, candles, mahogany tables, and chestnut walls create the feeling of a sanctuary. With dimmed lights and Billy Holiday in the background, the ambiance is modern and serene.
Typically served at weddings, Bo Mon 7 ($16) literally translates to “seven courses of beef” in Vietnamese. Manager Thomas Chan kindheartedly introduces each dish and suggests assembling techniques.
I start my culinary excursion with Bo Tai Chahn. Purple onions and peanuts provide a nice crunch, while rare beef with marshmallow texture is marinated in lemon juice resulting in a sweet and vinegary flavor.
I then jump right into the next two beef dishes: the do-it-yourself courses. A vibrant medley of vegetables and herbs arrives. Coriander, mint, sprouts, cucumber, and lettuce act as cooling agents contrasting the sizzling beef.
A plate of rice paper for wrapping and a bowl of hot water arrive. Dip the rice paper into the hot bowl of water, the rice paper turns translucent and soft in a matter of seconds. Now, its time for the assembly line.
In the Bo Nhung Dam, blushing beef sliced paper thin is lightly boiled in a vinegar and water mixture. Patrons control the wellness of the beef. The rice paper cleverly wraps the vegetables, herbs, and beef together.
The chewy texture of the rice paper goes well with the filling. A slight dunk into the fish sauce provides a sweat and sour flavor boost. For an extremely pungent enhancer, dip the beef roll into the nuoc man sauce. Made from anchovy and pineapple bits, nuoc man heightens the rolls with a salty anchovy taste.
The next dish, Bo Nuong Vi, resembles the American steak. Swirled in a salty butter, thin slices of beef are cooked over a rustic grill. Skip the dipping sauce, the buttered beef is best admired with a few sprigs of mint. The remaining beef courses are cooked by the chef. A trio of beef skewer dishes arrives.
My favorite is Bo La Lot, beef sausage wrapped in pepper leaves resulting in a smoky flavor. The sausage is chewy in texture, similar to a bratwurst without the casing. The natural spiciness from the pepper leaves round out the dish. The Bo Cuon Mo, grilled beef cloaked in carmarlized scallion marries tenderness with sweetness.
With a beef jerky texture, the Bo Lui is a skewer of well done beef marinated in a sweat and savory glaze. Yearning a subtle flavor to balance the savory jerky skewer, milky beef rice porridge arrives (Cha Obo). Toasted broken rice creates a slight nutty taste that compliments the sweet minced beef perfectly.
End the meal with Chuoi Chien Kem ($3.50), a dessert that focuses mainly on the contrast of texture and temperature. Four scorching and crunchy fried banana nuggets surround a scoop of chilly coconut ice cream.
Behind this humble neighborhood restaurant, Pagolac has gone through some challenging times. In August 2005, owner Phuong Thi To died from a tragic automobile accident nearby the restaurant. As a tribute to their mother, To’s children continue to run the restaurant. As the head chef, David replicates her mom’s recipe while James, sous chef, artfully plates the dishes.
With a constant smile, Thomas serves as a great wait staff. James said, “the restaurant filled the hole as a gathering place. It’s a place to heal. Mom was the center of the universe.” The union of an attentive wait staff, elegant décor, and exciting food makes this a great destination for Vietnamese food at neighborhood prices.
After interviewing James, it is clear that his vision is to keep his mom’s legacy as oppose to expanding to make a small fortune. James shared an emotional story. After a San Francisco newspaper wrote a review about the restaurant, readers supported his family by dining at his restaurant after reading about the tragic death of his mother.
I often advise mom ‘n pops not to spend their money on advertising. But instead, focus on great food, service, and provide customers with a dining experience like no other. Food writers want to write about magnificent finds.
Surely, Pagolac can blossom in a less seedy area. With the drug, prostitution, and homeless problem, many patrons may hesitate to visit Pagolac in the Tenderloin. I can only imagine the bustling business if they located in a shopping plaza.
Pagolac has differentiate themselves from other Vietnamese restaurant by specializing in the 7 beef tasting menu. Restaurant owners should take notes and do the same.