Spanish and Japanese food aren’t such strange bedfellows. Well, that is if you're PAGU founder and chef Tracy Chang. Both cuisines celebrate technique with a focus on freshness and simplicity, and both also utilize jamón, or ham, Spain’s main claim to fame.
“In Japan, you go into a cocktail bar and you’ll see a ham there,” said Chang. “Japan is into jamón. There’s a lot of overlap, a lot of cross-cultural similarities. The cuisines go together very well.”
That’s great news for tapas lovers who also dabble in ramen—Central Square’s PAGU takes everything you ever thought you knew about fusion cuisine and drops a 6-minute egg on it. How about a plate of Spanish cheeses after a sashimi course? Or a little pan con tomate, Spain’s eponymous and simple breakfast of tomato-rubbed toast and olive oil, with a side of squid ink oyster bao?
Taiwanese-American Chang grew up eating Japanese food in her grandmother’s Cambridge restaurant, heeding warnings to avoid the restaurant industry. So naturally she gravitated toward it, working at the acclaimed O Ya before studying pastry in France and then making her way south, to Basque country, where she took up residency in Chef Martín Berasategui’s Michelin three-star restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain.
While food is Chang’s passion, her muse is, of all things, her dog. PAGU means “pug” in Japanese.
Best late night meal?
Steak tartare and a glass of wine at Eastern Standard. It’s comforting to be taken care of by industry friends at the end of a long shift. 528 Commonwealth Ave., easternstandardboston.com
Best meal under $5?
Felipe’s Taqueria in Harvard Square, especially now after the renovation. They have a lovely and lively roof deck. The quesadillas remind me of high school lunch breaks we’d drive out for, just to get a killer quesadilla or guac and chips. What can I say, I’m still a kid at heart. 21 Brattle St., Cambridge, harvardsq.felipestaqueria.com
Best hidden foodie gem?
While opening PAGU, I had a friend recommend the Malaysian menu at Royal East, just a few blocks from PAGU, across the street from Craigie on Main. It’s been there forever, but I don’t think people know just how good the Malaysian menu is. I love the steamed Hainanese Chicken, the Beef Rendang, and Malaysian Curry Chicken. 792 Main St., Cambridge, royaleast.com
Best place to dine alone?
Ever since they opened, I’ve always loved going to Coppa. I usually go with a friend or two, but it’s great to cozy up to the bar if I’m flying solo. They have half portions of housemade pasta, and I’m always in the mood for pesto or a homey red sauce. The pizza is my favorite in town; I even remember when they were just opening and Jamie Bissonnette would be there making the dough every day, working and reworking the recipe. 253 Shawmut Ave., coppaboston.com
Go-to date spot?
Café Sushi. No question. The omakase (chef’s choice), at the sushi bar. Brothers Seizi and Kenshi Imura are making the best sushi in town, with slight twists on classics, with pristine product. 1105 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, cafesushicambridge.com
Best place to catch up with friends?
Branchline in Watertown. We can play bocce, share a bottle or two or Corsican wine, and admire Charlie’s ankles/sock game. 321 Arsenal St., branchlinearsenal.com
Most Instagrammable meal in town?
Is it a faux pas to say PAGU? Not without reason—we spent a lot of time thinking about the details in lighting, design, materials (from wall color to wood table choice, to handmade ceramics). We have natural lighting from the plethora of windows, which allow us to photograph people, food and drink effortlessly. 310 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, gopagu.com
Spot you recommend for out-of-towners?
SRV. Love the quail, housemade pastas and inventive desserts. They are true leaders in service and hospitality, and their playlist is hip and hoppin’! 569 Columbus Ave., srvboston.com