Photos by: Katie Fieldhouse
Chef Tracy Chang’s new restaurant, PAGU, located in Cambridge’s Central Square, promises “food, community, and collaboration.” By mixing together Spanish and Japanese cuisine to create an awesome, eclectic menu, it delivers on that promise.
We arrived at PAGU for dinner on a windy Thursday evening. The dining room was dimly lit and buzzing with chatter from its patrons who were enjoying an array of food and expertly crafted cocktails from the bar. The interior is composed of dark woods and black seats to counteract the light walls. Shining brightly through the sleek ambiance stands the open kitchen. Seated at the cherry wood chef’s counter that wraps around the kitchen, we had a front row seat to the action. Throughout our meal, we sat mesmerized as chefs grilled, sauteed, and masterly used chopsticks (to our amazement, as Amanda has yet to master the use of this utensil) to compose beautiful dishes. To our surprise and extreme pleasure, we got to see the mastermind behind PAGU, Chef Chang, at work alongside her team- expediting the dishes emerging from the kitchen.
Upon reading the menu, we had a lot of trouble making decisions; everything sounded delicious. We also were a little dubious about the mix of cultures- could a restaurant really mesh together both Japanese and Spanish cuisines when the two countries are so different? Our first two dishes answered that question with a soaring “yes.”
Both small plates featured pan (little slices of toast) but differed in their takes on toppings. From the “pintxos” section of the menu, we ordered “pan + avocado + ikura,” which was avocado toast topped with salmon roe and black pepper. The avocado was perfectly creamy and the salmon roe offered a great complement as it provided an explosion of flavor giving the avo the necessary seasoning. From the “5 J’s jamón” section of the menu, we got “pan con tomate + jamón ibérico de bellota,” which featured jamón, tomato, arbequina, and garlic. This dish was textbook Spanish tapas. It transported Jordan and Amanda back to the streets of Seville where jamón could be seen left and right. The only complaint was that there wasn’t more of it after we cleared the plate.
Other than jamón, the food we ate most often in Spain was definitely croquettes. PAGU had their own take on this classic Spanish dish, in a special “croquetas” section of the menu. We chose the “oxtail shiitake” croquetas. The outside of the croquettes was crunchy, but the inside was soft and the oxtail melted in your mouth. Although Amanda thoroughly enjoyed this dish, it was Jordan’s least favorite of the evening.
One of the most unique items on the PAGU menu is its cheesy wafflato. Upon spotting the words “smoky mozzarella” on the menu, we instantly ordered it- a decision hailed as perhaps the best of the evening. PAGU’s wafflato featured not only all the best features of a good waffle- a soft, fluffy inside and crunchy outside- but also a unique twist of savory flavor. It’s definitely a can’t-miss dish.
Perhaps the most interactive dish of the evening was the “shiitake a la plancha.” An exquisite golden yolk was placed at the center of a bed of asian-seasoned shiitake mushrooms. After mixing the contents of the yolk in with the mushrooms, we piled the combination onto a piece of PAGU baguette to create a scrumptious bite.
We first spotted PAGU’s beautiful baos when our neighbors ordered one, and instantly, we knew we had to copy them. We ordered the “squid ink oyster bao,” which had panko fried oyster, squid ink bao, rice wine pickled purple cabbage, and norioli. This dish is every food-stagrammer’s dream- the black squid ink bao contrasts with the lightly fried oysters and purple cabbage to create a striking, bold color palette and a truly beautiful meal. Our tastebuds agreed- though it had a bit of a kick (enough to make Amanda’s extremely low spice tolerance bao out), the oysters were fried perfectly and the bao itself was delicious.
As the bao proved, Chef Chang definitely knows what she’s doing when it comes to seafood. On the recommendation of our friendly server, we ordered the “cedar campfire black cod,” which came with seaweed salad and bone broth. The cod was cooked perfectly and the pairing of the salad and broth really rounded it out. Not one to usually order fish, Jordan appreciated how flaky this fish was. Always one to order fish, Amanda appreciated how delicious this cod’s crispy skin was.
There is always room for dessert, so we also sampled several items from the “something sweet” menu, including: “milk + matcha and hojicha cookies,” “chocolate cake with buckwheat ice cream,” and “roasted kabocha ice cream.” The star of the trio of desserts was definitely the kabocha ice cream. Dubious about how a Japanese squash could make a good dessert and due to Amanda’s inexplicable dislike of the vegetable, we did not order the dish. However, to Jordan’s extreme delight, it was delivered to us compliments of the chef. In the language of a teenage girl: it was ah-maaaazing. Paired with page mandarin, it gave the light ice cream an added hint of sweetness. If Jordan were to go back for one dish, it would definitely be this one.
The highlights of dessert were definitely visits from Chef Tracy Chang herself, who was kind and passionate. At the end of the meal, she delivered a small pug plate with non-alcoholic cider caramels and filled us in about the meaning of the restuarant’s name. PAGU is Japanese for pug. Both Amanda and Jordan love dogs- in particular Amanda has a special love for corgis and Jordan has a special love for golden retrievers- so they had no problem understanding what Chef Chang meant when she professed her love for the pug breed. She described how happy pugs made her feel and expressed her desire to make sure her first solo restaurant conveyed those same feelings of happiness. Leaving PAGU, we definitely felt the soul of the restaurant through our dining experience and Chef Chang’s delicious creations.
**Our amazing meal was generously provided courtesy of PAGU, but this article only contains the honest and true opinions of the TasteBUds writers.**
310 MASSACHUSETTS AVENUE
CAMBRIDGE, MA 02139