PAGU Paws Toward Central Square

paguTracy Chang's pug, Phoebe, sniffs out a plate of squid ink oyster bao. (PAGU is Japanese for pug.)

Some chefs bring their favorite knives with them wherever they go. Others travel armed with an arsenal of spices, or recipes they can prepare with their eyes closed.

Tracy Chang’s traveling toolkit has always included a dish she calls childhood fried rice—the first meal she learned to cook as a kid. “I wasn’t tall enough to reach the stove, but I had a little chair that I stood on,” she laughs.

Chang’s parents worked a lot, and she and her two older brothers would play in the neighborhood all day before sitting down for family dinner. On Sundays before Chinese school, they would cook lunch together, a meal that often meant leftover rice from the day before fried with eggs, caramelized shallots and Taiwanese sausage. It’s the dish that first helped her hone her skills; Chang grew up just five minutes from most of her extended family, and throughout her youth she’d compete in friendly fried rice cooking competitions against her aunts and uncles in which her cousins served as judges. There may have been a few misses over the years—she’s pretty sure she made one somewhat regrettable version with canned tuna fish—but that wasn’t the important part. “It brought us all together,” she says. “Everyone was a winner, because we all got to eat fried rice.”

That meal has since followed her around the globe; when she lived in Spain, she’d prepare it with baby squid and jamón—a slight upgrade from canned tuna. And when she opens to doors to her first restaurant, PAGU, in Central Square this fall, you can bet that childhood fried rice will be on the menu.

“A lot of the menu [at PAGU] is based off of nostalgia,” Chang reflects. She grew up in her grandmother’s Japanese restaurant, and the rice is one of many dishes that she’s been cooking for years—decades, even. “It’s more of a narrative of my personal experiences.”

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Chang’s childhood fried rice. Photo by Matt Li.

Chang loved growing up in her grandmother’s restaurant and actually wrote an autobiography as a kid about how she wanted to someday take over the eatery. It had a way of bringing people together, of encouraging collaboration, which she says is the heart and soul of what she wants to do at PAGU. Because while food is her passion, surprisingly enough, it’s her friends who aren’t “food people” who she says inspire her most to think creatively and try new things.

“I find that having these friends that are very talented in their other industries—nonprofits, or universities, or in the arts or sciences—is great,” Chang explains. “What keeps me excited, and what makes me think of the space beyond ‘this is just muscle memory’ is that there’s always potential to collaborate with these friends, to do something that stems from a food and drink experience.”

What does that look like? It could mean a lesson in quantum mechanics, or a talk about antiquated form of document security called letterlocking, in which a piece of parchment is folded up to act as its own envelope. She wants guests to learn about other fields of study through food, making PAGU’s location at 310 Mass. Ave.—a stone’s throw from universities like Harvard and MIT and innovation hubs like IDEO—the perfect spot.

The name, PAGU, is Japanese for pug, and that, too ties into Chang’s childhood. As a kid, she and her brothers begged their parents for a dog, and after extensive research by one of her brothers, they settled on a pug. She’s only ever had black pugs since; Phoebe, pictured above, is her third, a “curly-tailed and curious” pup who embodies the spirit of PAGU. “They have very interesting personalities—they’re very playful, they’re very whimsical,” says Chang, who actually spent three years trying to come up with a name that suited the restaurant before she was inspired by Phoebe. (“I’m looking at my pug, who’s tilting her head at me, and I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s it. PAGU.'”)

The restaurant, the name, the dishes on the menu—all are deeply personal to Chang. People have already been asking her what comes next, and her answer is that she isn’t sure. “I’ve never opened a restaurant,” she jokes. “Let’s see how this one goes.” She knows she doesn’t plan to just open one restaurant, and then another, and another—doesn’t plan to follow that typical chef trajectory. She might not even want to do a second restaurant after this.

What she does want is to combine her thoughts and experiences into one space, and to welcome people from all walks of life to learn from one another over food and drinks.

“These flavors transport me to a time and a place, and I hope we can recreate that nostalgic experience for people at PAGU—that when they taste these dishes for the first time, either they evoke emotions and memories from other people’s experiences … or perhaps solidify new ones that are rooted in PAGU.”

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