.Hotpot Hotspot

Phoget about soup and set the hotpot to boil 

Happiness is a hotpot filled with vegetables simmering in a bubbly broth. East Bay diners out for Vietnamese food are probably more familiar with bowls of phở. But at their new Alameda restaurant, Bacogai, Emily Le, Kayla Bui and Khanh Tran are introducing the hotpot to a wider audience. Bacogai, the trio told me, means “three ladies”—an Americanization of three Vietnamese words merged into one. Le, Bui and Tran have been friends and co-workers for years, but this is their first partnership as co-owners of a restaurant.

Le’s in charge of admin and finance. Bui makes the hotpots. And Tran’s behind the appetizers and grill plates. Bui explained that the idea for Bacogai came to them one night while they were out to dinner together. They all grew up eating hotpots and loved the shared experience a hotpot provides. Both Bui and Tran had experience working at different locations of Burma Superstar, but Le was the one with real estate experience who urged them to open their own restaurant. 

“You have to go all the way to San Jose to get Vietnamese hotpots because there aren’t any [hotpot restaurants] in the East Bay,” Bui said. “And people aren’t really familiar with them.” From her chef’s point of view, she said that every dish is very intentional. “The herbs and vegetables are specifically meant to complement the taste of the dish,” she explained. 

During the soft opening phase, Bacogai’s menu features four versions of lẩu (hotpot). Each one has its own broth: seafood, oxtail, pork bone marrow or a vegan one with mushrooms. The specific list of ingredients can be augmented by supplementary add-ons: vegetables, noodles and rice, or soybeans. Since I’d ventured out with a semi-vegetarian, we tried the mushroom hotpot ($22) with a side order of bok choy ($4). 

First, the server drops off a trio of condiments—fermented bean curd, fish sauce turned green with cilantro and a bird’s eye chili sauce. Next comes a platter of fresh vegetables and herbs that’s soon followed by a pot of broth bubbling under a glass lid fogged up from steam. How one assembles the soup-stew is entirely up to the individual. I added a heaping spoonful of bird’s eye chili to my bowl and suddenly experienced liftoff into the stratosphere. Our server asked how we were doing, noticed my red face and delivered a wise aphorism, “When you bite into a bird’s eye chili, it bites you back!” 

Le, Bui and Tran all asked what hotpot I’d tried. After a collective sigh of disappointment, they strongly suggested that next time I should try the oxtail and the seafood ones. Bui is proud of those two in particular. “If you had ordered those, you would have seen the veggies that go into that pot,” she explained. “It’s something you’re not going to find at regular supermarkets. We have to order them from different vendors.”

The average diner might not be able to tell the difference between a phở broth and one in a hotpot. But Bui noted that the key difference between the two dishes is the communal aspect of hotpot dining. “We tend to do a hotpot every time we have a gathering with friends and family,” she said. “A hotpot is definitely a crowd pleaser.” Bringing family-style dining to the East Bay was important for all three co-owners. They felt it wasn’t as common an experience as it is in the South Bay, where more people from the Vietnamese diaspora live.

In case one is on one’s own, or feeling wary of communal gatherings, Tran’s appetizers are equally splendid. I recommend that diners not skip the banh hoi, woven vermicelli noodles with beef ($25) or pork ($23). Tran transforms a reliable chicken and coleslaw salad by substituting duck ($17). “It’s very common in Southern Vietnam to have a salad prepared with either chicken breast or thigh, with shredded cabbage and onion,” she said. “But I wanted to create a version with more color, so it looks a lot more appetizing.” Tran also wanted to introduce duck to East Bay diners. “We do use a lot of duck in our Vietnamese cuisine, so I wanted to use that in my recipe.” 

Bacogai, open for lunch Mon to Sat 11:30am–3pm and dinner Sun to Thurs 5–9pm, Fri to Sat 5–10pm. 2651 Blanding Ave. E, Alameda. 510.239.4060. bacogai.com.

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