PAGU in Central Square is finally open!
I have been anticipating this restaurant opening forever. I’ve known Chef-owner Tracy Chang for several years now. She first reached out to me back in 2011 (right after I won Project Food Blog). It was a time when I was just getting serious about food blogging and she was heading off to the Basque region in Spain to train with 3-Michelin starred chef Martin Berasategui.
I got to know her through Guchi’s Midnight Ramen and some of Chef Jason Doo’s amazing pop-up meals. We’ve become friends, sharing a Taiwanese heritage, a love of Totoro, and a keen interest in food (of course!).
Tracy’s creative food direction is largely inspired by her childhood memories and her travels, which have brought her to Spain, France, Japan, and China (among many other destinations).
Tracy grew up around restaurants. Her grandmother owned the restaurant Tokyo in Cambridge (1988-2000), and it shaped many of her early experiences with the restaurant industry. After graduating from Boston College with a degree in finance, Tracy spent two years working at O Ya before heading off to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris to study patisserie.
She then traveled to San Sebastian, Spain to work at three Michelin starred Restaurante Martin Berasategui before returning to America. In Boston, Tracy focused her energy on a variety of local projects, such as the insanely successful pop-up Guchi’s Midnight Ramen, the Harvard Science + Cooking series, and the Alícia Foundation.
PAGU (which is the Japanese word for pug), is located in the Takeda building at 310 Mass Ave right near Central Square, MIT, and many of the area’s biotech and pharma companies. The restaurant focuses on Japanese-Spanish fusion food, a nod to Tracy’s two favorite cuisines.
PAGU operates on a reservation model that is a hybrid of the pure ticket-based systems you see at places like Tasting Counter and Alinea, and the free (for us) reservation systems (like Opentable or Reserve).
You can book the four-course tasting menu and pay in advance ($60 per person), or reserve an a la carte ticket, which requires a $25 deposit per person. This amount is subtracted from your bill when you eat at the restaurant. The ticket is non-refundable, though you can transfer it to someone else if you can’t make it last minute.
The menu consists mostly of smaller plates, priced mostly between $7 – $16 per plate. Most people are encouraged to order two to three plates per person, depending on what you order. I’ve gone several times and have had a chance to taste many things on the menu. Here’s a look!
The Sashimi section showcases Chef Tracy’s creative interpretations of raw seafood. The creations remind me of the type of creative, non-traditional sashimi you’d see at a place like O Ya (where Tracy previously worked) or Uni.
On the left, Sea Scallop ($16) with Meyer lemon and shiro shoyu (white soy sauce). On the right, Kampachi ($16) with aged shoyu (soy sauce), garlic, lime, and Thai chili.
The word “pintxos” literally means “spikes” and refers to small plates typically eaten at bars in the Basque region of Spain. Pintxos often consist of a small piece of bread with toppings held together with a toothpick, thus the word “spike.”
At PAGU, Tracy offers both traditional Spanish pintxos and her own Japanese-inspired variations on this popular snack.
Pan + Avocado + Ikura ($8) tastes just as amazing as it looks. Take one bite and you’ll experience a briny pop of salmon roe, creamy avocados, a touch of cracked black pepper, and perfectly toasted bread. It’s a delicious and brilliant combination of ingredients.
Inspired by one of the best ikura she has ever had (in Los Angeles at Urasawa), Tracy continues to work and re-work her own recipe for marinated ikura to achieve that unforgettable experience.
If you are craving something really traditional, you can order the Pan con Tomate + Boquerones ($7), made with cured anchovy and roasted red bell pepper. Alternatively, you can splurge and indulge in the Pan con Tomate + 5J Jamon Iberico de Bellota ($12).
Speaking of jamon, there are very few places in Boston that even carry Jamon Iberico de Bellota, the prized 36-month aged Spanish ham from a special breed of pigs that feed on acorns.
PAGU’s version of this classic pintxo starts with toast rubbed with garlic, fresh tomatoes, and Arbequina olive oil. This toast is then topped with a couple slices of the deeply, flavorful ham.
If you want to taste pure jamon iberico de Bellota goodness without distraction, you can order a plate of it for $29 (the most expensive item on the menu). This stuff typically costs over $200 per pound in a U.S. market, so there’s a reason why it’s priced so high.
Importantly, the jamon at PAGU is hand-sliced to order. When I visited Spain, I learned that commercial machines are too powerful and destroy the integrity of the jamon. All jamon Iberico I saw in Spain was hand-sliced, even the ones that were sold in packages. The Spanish are serious about the texture of their jamon, and cutting it with a machine is supposedly just wrong.
This is the first restaurant in Boston (of which I am aware) that offers this truly special and authentic Spanish treat on the menu. You can buy it at some specialty stores, but most of them don’t hand-slice it the traditional way.
Wafflatos are waffles + potatoes, and are one of Tracy’s signature dishes. This Smoky Cheese Wafflato is a reinvented “waffle” without the sleepy side effects of carb overload. Instead of refined white flour, Tracy mixes a modified version of a traditional French pastry dough together with Spanish olive oil, roasted baby creamer potatoes, and lots of gooey cheese to create this addictive, savory, wafflato.
The Croqueta is the perfect example of a dish that incorporate both Japanese and Spanish elements. In Spain, croquetas are breaded and deep fried balls typically filled with bacalo (salt cod), jamon (Spanish ham), or queso (cheese). In Japan, korokke is essentially a deep fried mashed potato ball covered with breadcrumbs on the outside and filled with curry, meat, or crab on the inside.
Tracy’s version incorporates the potato element of the Japanese korokke but deep fries it like a Spanish croqueta. She omits bechamel, which is traditionally see in the Spanish version, and instead incorporates various types of fillings ranging from very Japanese (maitake mushrooms with usukuchi soy and black pepper), a Spanish-Japanese mix (salt cod with yuzu kosho; oxtail with shiitake and Spanish red wine), to all over the map, like Thai Peruvian (curry crab with aji amarillo).
Tracy has been experimenting with incorporating more Taiwanese/Chinese ingredients. One example is this new delicious steak tartare, which incorporate yuzu as well as the yolk of a “century egg” (or thousand year old egg).
There aren’t a ton of vegetables on the menu. However, the ones on the menu are solid and worth getting. I am hoping that there will be more vegetable options in the future.
The Shiitake a la Plantxa ($12) consists of shiitake mushrooms that have been grilled with sherry, topped with an egg yolk, and served with PAGU baguette slices. Break open the yolk and it becomes a flavorful sauce that binds together the mushrooms.
Romesco + Friends consists of caramelized carrots, baby potatoes, and alliums served with PAGU’s homemade Romesco sauce, a Spanish “pesto” of sorts made with roasted red peppers and almonds.
I absolutely fell in LOVE with the Spanish tortilla when I visited Spain for the first time. It’s a skillet-cooked omelette filled with potatoes and onions cooked for a long time in olive oil. It is so good, especially when freshly made.
The Tortilla Espanola ($12) at PAGU is made with organic eggs, onions, and arbequina olive oil. It is made to order and it is fantastic. It’s one of the best ones I’ve had, and it definitely beats the ones you find in a typical mercado in Spain (where they are made ahead of time and just reheated). Even one of our Spanish dining companions conceded that this version was much better than the version he personally made at home.
There’s nothing like a beautiful Tortilla Espanola that’s made to order, with the egg still just a bit runny in the middle.
The Braised Pork Belly Bao ($12) is excellent and totally reminds me of a Taiwanese pork belly bun (gua bao) with its use of cilantro and crush peanuts. This fusion version also includes pickled cucumbers and fried shallots.
The Squid Ink Oyster Bao ($12) uses a strikingly black squid ink steamed bun filled with a deep fried Island Creek oyster, quick pickled purple cabbage, and norioli, an aioli (garlic + oil emulsion) mixed with Japanese seaweed. The resulting bite, which also includes a refreshing shiso leaf, is awesome.
My favorite noodle dish by far is Guchi’s Midnight Ramen ($15) with pork belly, 6-minute egg, and umami oil (note, the above photo is just a half portion. you’d get a full portion for $15). The broth is gorgeously flavorful, with both seafood flavors (from dried scallops and the like) and the rich and creamy depth from chicken bones.
It’s all of a sudden become my favorite ramen in Boston. Seriously.
The Braised Oxtail Mazemen ($15) uses traditional French techniques to braise the oxtail with mirepoix and mixes this flavorful, gelatinous meat with Japanese noodles. The result is delicious.
We also tried the Roasted Mushroom Mazemen ($15), which comes with shiitake mushrooms, shallot oil, and a soy egg. The flavors were very nice. However, the noodles suffered a bit in texture this time around (they were a tad too soft), and the sauce was a bit starchier than we would have liked.
Despite the name, Childhood Fried Rice ($15) is not like your mother’s normal Taiwanese fried rice. Yes, the ingredients are similar (there’s Taiwanese sausage, peas, and fried garlic), but the texture is different.
Tracy makes her version with a very special variety of rice that yields a crunchy texture that totally reminds me of socarrat (the flavorful, crispy, “crust” at bottom of paella – my favorite part!). I love the combination of nostalgic flavors from a Taiwanese classic and the awesome textural components of a popular Spanish dish. All in all, it’s excellent.
FROM THE LAND AND THE SEA
Another one of my favorite dishes is the Chicken Katsu. The dish is simple – breaded and deep fried chicken served with a pickled red cabbage slaw, shiso, and a secret PAGU sauce. The PAGU sauce makes the dish – it is very addictive. It sort of reminds me of the sauce one might put on top of an okonomiyaki, but it’s not as strong. I can’t explain it. All I can say is that it adds a lot of flavor and it’s very, very good. I would definitely order this again if I came.
The Miso Black Cod is another excellent dish (one of our servers’ favorites). The black cod itself is super tender, the flavors are spot on, and the presentation – with its glowing embers – is breathtaking.
Desserts are fun and creative. Black Sesame Tofu ($9) comes with hojicha syrup, tofu foam, and a delicate sesame tuile.
Roasted Kabocha Ice Cream ($9) is creamy and intense. The ice cream comes on top of a bed of pan de especias and slices of satsuma orange.
If you want a savory “dessert”, order the Cheese Plate, which includes a variety of Spanish cheeses with honeycomb, candied nuts, fruit, and toast.
General Thoughts – PAGU Cambridge
PAGU Cambridge is killing it so far in Central Square. The menu is exciting, the food is excellent, and the people are really friendly. Tracy has hired an exceptional staff in the kitchen, and the quality of the food has been really good.
Service is decent, though occasionally there were minor hiccups (e.g., during a busy night, we waited a long time for our water glasses to be filled). The workers are earnest and do a decent job. However, they are still learning the ropes – with time service can only get better.
The folks in the neighborhood are so lucky to have access to such an amazing place. As of Tuesday, February 6th, 2017, they are open for lunch as well (woo hoo!). I really look forward to being able to stop by for a casual bite – like maybe a bowl of Guchi’s Midnight Ramen or that Chicken Katsu!
In short, I am loving this place and thrilled that it’s in Cambridge. Kudos to Chef Tracy Chang and her amazing team for how well they have been executing everything so far. It’s not easy to dream up, design, and execute such an ambitious concept. They are doing a great job thus far.
Welcome to the neighborhood PAGU! We can’t wait to see what else you’ve got up your sleeve.
310 Mass Ave
Cambridge, MA 02139