Sunday, June 16, 2024

Spicy knife-cut noodles at Pagu in Cambridgeport near Central Square. (Photo: Carly D. via Yelp)

Before we started this column to help support restaurants struggling during the Covid pandemic and keep readers apprised of what was good, who was open and how to get it, I was preparing to do a piece on James Beard nominees Cafe Sushi, Pagu and Season to Taste. All three are still with us: Cafe Sushi has yet to return to in-person dining, but has a robust takeout biz; Season to Taste closed its wildly popular tasting table but is moving to new digs in the hive of eateries along Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard and Porter squares that includes new entries Dear Annie, Moeca and Barcelona Wine Bar alongside popular hot spots Giulia, The Abbey and Baraka Cuisine. 

During the height of the pandemic, Pagu and Season to Taste made for interesting subjects to chronicle, especially Pagu, where owner-chef Tracy Chang was an early adopter of the restaurant as a marketplace and engaged selflessly in initiatives to feed and support frontline workers and later, aid those struggling with food insecurity, transforming Pagu into an impromptu food-pantry preparation site. Some of those initiatives continue – the online pickup marketplace still stands, and you are required to show proof of vaccination for eat-in dining. Gone are the pre-pandemic lunch hours, but the restaurant is back to the core business of fine Spanish-Asian fusion feeding. I made it to Pagu only once during the pandemic (great bao) but was happy to return for a bowl full of spicy cut noodles, something I was eying as a kit on that marketplace menu to make at home but decided to try in person. I’m glad I did, for the accompanying options and the nuance of knowledgeable preparation (though our indulgence in the bucatini all’amatriciana kit from Giulia proved pretty fool proof). 

Pagu has a neat open kitchen that juts out into the spare and spacious dining area and a cozy bar. The menu, which borrows from Chang’s early training and work in Spain and her Taiwanese roots, has such diverse fare as a suckling pig (in sizes feeding two, four or six), duck confit, tempura fried beans, cod croquettes and Guchi’s Midnight Ramen, the dish that Chang and friends concocted that ultimately launched Pagu.

For my starter, I had the Japanese hamachi sashimi – to me, more like ceviche than sashimi but pleasantly so, as it came in a tangy vinaigrette of lime, garlic, tamari and Thai chili, with the tender yellowtail meat transformed slightly by the citrus to absorb the full flavors of the vinaigrette.

The hamachi sashimi appetizer at Pagu. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The bowl of spicy knife-cut noodles that followed was, for lack of a better analogy, like an Asian, gravylike variation on Bolognese. The noodles are, simply put, silky and sublime. Knife-cut noodles are not like your regular Italian or Asian homemade noodle that are pulled or pressed, but literally made with hand-slicing from a block of pasta. No matter how much artisanal pasta you’ve had, this is a something that needs to be tried. And for the crowning element, you have a choice of mushrooms, shredded pork prepared with sherry vinegar and the restaurant’s Umami XO sauce, or both. I went with a blend, which reminded me some of the mushroom and duck confit vol-au-vent at Colette Wine Bistro with a creamy porcini sauce. It’s a wickedly satiating dish that will make you a repeat offender.

The Black Sesame Tofu dessert at Pagu. (Photo: Tom Meek)

I rounded out the evening with the Black Sesame Tofu, a multilayered treat that looked like (sorry for all the Italian analogies) tiramisù but was far different in texture and taste, savory and sweet with the contrast between the tofu and hojicha tea syrup and sugary whipped tofu foam. All this was washed down with a smart bourbon cocktail called the 86 grapefruit that had cider and citrus accompanying the main ingredient.

For your Christmas and New Year’s holidays, Pagu offers takeout party meals, namely that suckling pig with homemade bao, pickles and hot and romesco sauces; a duck stuffed with sticky rice (who doesn’t love duck, and the rice has Taiwanese sausage and veggies in it); and squid ink paella with Spanish carabineros (scarlet prawns). Don’t want to host New Year’s Eve? You can come to Pagu and pretty much have an all-you-can-eat go at these three classic meals and a midnight champagne celebration.

Pagu (310 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridgeport, Cambridge) 

Cambridge writer Tom Meek’s reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.