- Last Updated on Friday, 07 October 2016 11:46
- Published on Friday, 07 October 2016 11:46
- Written by Dana Filek-Gibson. Photos by Brandon Coleman.
Going to dinner at Au Pagolac is like going to dinner with family. That is, of course, provided your family spans several generations and also serves its meals in crisp, white button-ups and the occasional clip-on bow tie.
Located in the courtyard of a grand white house, Au Pagolac is officially the oldest bò 7 món restaurant in Vietnam – check the framed award in the dining room for proof – and provides a unique combination of Vietnamese street cuisine and the slightly upscale surroundings of a beautiful old house.
Before the original restaurant opened in Tien Giang in 1930, Huynh Thanh Son watched his parents sell bình dân-style beef dishes outside the local circus. Each dish was served on a particular day, spacing out the seven-course meal for which Au Pagolac is now famous.
So successful were the couple's efforts that loyal customers couldn’t wait a full week in between helpings of each beef dish, and so the restaurant was born. In its original location, Au Pagolac stood between a pagoda and a lake, hence its name.
Son later took over the restaurant during the more uncertain decades of the 20th century. When he graduated in 1960, Son became the only one of his 13 siblings to follow in their parents’ footsteps. History, however, had other plans, and in 1978, Son immigrated to Paris. There, he briefly opened a Parisian branch of Au Pagolac in the city’s fourth arrondisement, but the tastes of the French were not the same and Au Pagolac never quite caught on. The Parisian Au Pagolac soon closed down and Son turned instead to another well-known brand: McDonald’s.
During his management days with the golden arches, Son took great pride in his work but dreamed of returning to Vietnam to revive his family’s restaurant. His management certificate from the French McDonald’s where he worked still sits behind the reception desk at Au Pagolac. Finally, in 1988, opportunity knocked and Son was able to return to Vietnam. Two years later, Au Pagolac was back in business.
Which brings us to the restaurant’s signature dish. At Au Pagolac, a seven-course feast of succulent beef includes bò nhúng dấm, bò lá lốt, bò mỡ chài, bò bít tết, bò sa tê, chả đùm and cháo bò. The bò nhúng dấm arrives first, its platter of raw beef accompanied by an egg-filled hotpot and an array of fixings, from bean sprouts to cucumbers, fresh greens, bánh hỏi, daikon, rice paper and, of course, fish sauce.
A few rolls into the first dish, several of the others arrive: bò lá lốt, bò mỡ chài, bò sa tê and chả đùm, a kind of rice-and-beef pate. Make use of the accompanying rice cracker when snacking on the chả đùm, but for the rest you’re free to either enjoy these morsels of beef alone or within the confines of a spring roll.
Our stomachs really started to hit a wall around the time the bò bít tết arrived but it was worth persevering to the end; not only were these slices of beef juicy and tender but the cháo bò – a soup of minced beef and star-shaped rice noodles – made for a nice finish to the generous meal.
While you’re busy enjoying the many courses that make up bò 7 món, it’s also wise to order the chả giò Au Pagolac. Even spring roll skeptics can appreciate the crispy goodness of these deep-fried little morsels.
Today, the restaurant is staffed by generations of Tien Giang families, whose parents and grandparents are former employees of Son’s parents. From middle-aged cooks to young, fresh-faced servers, everyone calls the owner ông cố, or great-grandfather. In their small hometown, Son’s family is highly regarded, not only for their long-standing community connection but also for the construction of a handful of schools and temples; a ceremony is held in their honor each year.
Son, a jovial, bespectacled man, still manages the restaurant but his youngest son, Bao Adams, is being groomed to take over.
“It’s a legacy. It has to keep going,” Adams tells Saigoneer. Now 22, he has grown up in the restaurant and knows each and every employee by name. There are photos, he tells me, of Au Pagolac employees at his birth. The middle-aged waiter who handled our table, for instance, started work at Au Pagolac when he was 14.
To hear Adams talk about his family’s restaurant, there is a sense of duty that comes with taking over the business.
“It’s part of Saigon,” he says. “People don’t realize how bò 7 món has been here for so long.”
Even though Adams has attempted a few improvements, such as an electronic ordering system, the staff prefers to stick to the old ways, writing up paper tickets for each order. There's a sense of old-school service, too, that comes from the place. No matter; if the employees are happy, then Adams is content to keep things running as they are. You know that saying: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
To sum up:
Dana is 70% caffeine, 50% fish sauce and hasn't taken a math class since 2004.
978 Tran Hung Dao, Ward 7, D5