What he’s having: The bao at Pagu
A weekly notebook about food during the Covid-19 shutdown. Remember, if you’re dining out, doing takeout or getting delivery, the people serving up the food are part of the front line; keep it in mind when tipping.
Eat outside: Pagu
Not long ago I was preparing to write about Pagu owner Tracy Chang’s then recent James Beard Award nomination, her newborn and her road to culinary accomplishment. Covid-19 changed all that. Chang shut Pagu down and jumped in head first on project Off Their Plate, a volunteer effort to feed frontline hospital staffers; opening her eatery to the public again began with selling produce, like other eateries that have pivoted, though it now includes the beloved restaurant itself. Outside dining only, mind you, but that’s not a bad thing as Pagu, in the Takeda building at the crossroads of Central and Kendall squares, has a ready terrace space off to the side that’s extra-isolated from Massachusetts Avenue by a bike lane and wall of parked cars. It makes for a nice, open spot, spartan, airy yet cozy and intimate as the sun goes down. The menu is a little different from your old Pagu, with pizzas a new addition, but Chang’s spins on ramen and the no-broth mazemen are there, as well as bulk menu items for the table or a backyard pig-out (tomahawk steak, sticky rice hen and suckling pig).
And then there’s the bao – Asian steamed buns, sliced, stuffed with goodness and served taco style. The pork bao is basic, with notably lean yet juicy meat. The bao that made me say “wow” was the squid ink oyster. The bun is black (that ink), the oysters are lightly fried in a panko crust and adorned with shiso (mint family leaf), pickled purple cabbage and norioli (Chang’s Spanish-Asian blend of nori and aioli). It’s simple, yet complex and totally bao, bao, ohh ohh yum. Another win on the evening’s dining selections was the teriyaki salmon, a healthy portion grilled just right – well cooked on the outside, moist and tinged with pink inside – with a light, tangy ginger sesame glaze.
As far as that James Beard nomination goes, the foundation, because of Covid-19 and the decimation of the restaurant business (as many as 17 restaurants may have closed in Cambridge last month), has decided this year to not name the winners it normally would in September. It will instead “shine a spotlight” on all nominees – Chang among them.