About seven years ago, for about a year, a good friend of mine, her husband, and I embarked on a monthly "totally foreign food" outing, seeking out cuisines and dishes we'd never tried before. In our meanderings, we tried Cambodian, Taiwanese hot pot, Afghan, Ethiopian… and if it wasn't for ~PAGOLAC'S~ Bò 7 Mon ("Seven Flavors of Beef" dinner, a meal that is typically for special occasions), I probably wouldn't have discovered this gem of a restaurant in the "Little Saigon" stretch of Larkin in the TL.
It's been years since I've actually had Pagolac's Bò 7 Mon, which everyone should try at least once, special occasion or not—and it's not as heavy as it sounds. For $15 or so, you'll feast on beef salad, beef skewers, and have fun cooking thin slices of yes, beef, at your table in a little pot and on a grill, wrapping up the tender morsels in rice paper with an array of vegetables, and then dunking your self-made mini-Vietnamese burrito into a bowl of nuoc mam cham, the traditional dunking sauce of fish sauce, lemon, and pickled carrot.
I remember my preferred dish of the seven was the ground beef bundles wrapped in smoky wild pepper leaves and then grilled on a skewer. Lucky for all of us, you can order just the beef rolls: banh hoi bo la lot ($8), and eight plump little bundles resting on small piles of delicate vermicelli noodles will appear, topped with a scattering of scallion and ground peanuts, plus the classic accompanying plate piled high with lettuce, cucumber, mint, bean sprouts, daikon, carrot, and my favorite, rau rum (Vietnamese coriander). Plus there's no bottle of "the rooster" on the table—Pagolac makes their own house-style of sriracha. It is spicy, babies. Hubba.
Granted, a number of honkies (myself included) have caught on to Pagolac, so you'll see more than a few tables of folks making the messiest rice paper bundles ever. I am sure my technique is pretty abysmal as well, but here's what I've learned: first briefly dip one sheet of round rice paper into the bowl of warm water (once your water cools off, they'll replace it with more hot water). Just place a small amount of veggies and meat and noodles in the middle (don't forget the hot sauce), and then you can wrap it up nicely on all four sides. When wrapping up your bundle, don't treat the rice paper like a taco, treat it like a burrito. (I am sure you've seen one wrapped before.) You can then wrap it further with a piece of lettuce, and then dunk it into the bowl of nuoc mam cham, and then go chomp chomp. Or you can forgo the rice wrapper and just wrap the goodies up in the lettuce leaves, almost Korean-style. Or rice wrapper and no lettuce. Whatever, it's your food—go wild. I even made some vegetarian rolls at the table. Kuh-razy!
Speaking of crazy, I swear, I just get all nut-bar for Vietnamese food. I love it long time. So fresh, so flavorful. And you get stinky fingers that you'll forget about until later on in the evening when you go to rub your nose or brush your teeth and you'll be like "huh wah?" "Oh, yeah. Fish sauce." And just in case beef is not your thing, the shrimp balls with sugarcane are another winning filling. ($8.95) You can thank me later.
It's easy to get sidetracked with the multitude of items on the menu—my favorite cheap dinner is the bun cha gio ($5.95), crispy imperial rolls served over a bowl of vermicelli noodles with chopped lettuce, cucumber, sprouts, mint, Vietnamese coriander, and the nuoc cham mam. So refreshing—it's such a delightfully simple dinner. Or you can also bust out and get a combo of imperial rolls plus BBQ pork, or chicken, or beef, or shrimp, for only $6.25. I could eat this dish four nights a week, I swear. Pork on Tuesday, chicken on Wednesday… you get the idea.
My dinner on this past balmy Sunday evening was divine: I was eating an early supper, sitting by the front door catching the beginnings of the evening breeze, with mellow downtempo playing in the background. The servers are the nicest people ever—they will totally charm you. Not only is it great service, but they have a real sense of hospitality.
Not too long ago, Pagolac was suddenly closed for a while. I freaked out—I was like, what the hell, don't leave me! I was having serious abandonment issues. But the reason behind the closure is quite sad: it ends up the sweet mother who I'd see making spring rolls in the kitchen was in a tragic accident, and passed on. So her children and their cousins closed up shop for a while, and then decided to remodel the place a bit (it's been open since 1991) and keep the business going.
When Pagolac reopened, it had a whole new look, updated with cinnabar Chinese-style wooden chairs, glass-topped wood tables, two-tone walls, and bamboo touches. Since the sons already have day jobs, they are only open for dinner—it's totally a family affair. So while I miss the restaurant being open during the day, I'm just grateful they're keeping the family business going. There are a few other Vietnamese places I'm really into on Larkin, but this one definitely has heart.
655 Larkin St.
Cross: Ellis St.
San Francisco, CA 94109