Deep-sea blue aquariums filled with live seafood gurgle along one wall below the words "Fresh! Fresh!!" But on virtually every table in the brightly lit, chaotic mess of Tram Chim Fresh Seafood's dining room, the remnants of those same creatures lay in piles: discarded shells of clams, scallops, shrimp, lobster and crab, all scraped clean. Puddles of spilled broth from the hot pots, scattered bamboo sticks on which whole shrimp were once threaded and roasted. It's all evidence of grand sea feasts ordered and eaten. And at the end of our meal, our party's table would look no different.
We were a big group. There were 12 of us seated at a long table made by pushing together smaller ones end-to-end. But we weren't even the largest party there. More than half of Tram Chim's customers were in groups as large or larger than ours. Eating here seems to require inviting as many family members and friends as possible to share in the consumption of large quantities of shellfish.
To start, we ordered the restaurant's most popular drink: pitchers of the strawberry lemonade, which we passed around and poured into Styrofoam cups. The dishes came quickly: Grilled Manila clams arrived atop a sizzling-hot plate garnished with leafy stems of rau ram herb. Onto the meat of each open shell, the kitchen staff spooned a sauce made of garlic and chiles sautéed in butter. And then there were the pristine white morsels of scallop cooked on their own saucer-like shells and topped with nothing but oil-wilted green onions and a crowning dollop of masago.
For big spenders, there was a giant scallop version of the dish that costs $5 more at $14.99. But it comes with only three instead of the seven, so it didn't make sense for our group. Instead, we asked for an extra order of the regular scallops, plus two orders of the grilled shrimp, which came in eight sticks, each prawn stretched ramrod straight, its thin skin freckled with char.
Soon, even more shellfish came, including the siput sedut snails, tiny things only slightly bigger than prescription pills, simmered in a spicy coconut gravy so tasty it rivals Thai green curry. As we sucked them out of their shells, the green mango salad with cuttlefish arrived. And it was a big salad, massive enough to be passed down our table so everyone could grab some thick strips of calamari, mango, herbs, ground peanuts and peppers.
The fried rice—with slivers of salted fish and slicked with just enough oil to be decadent but not greasy—was a bit overpriced at $9.99, but it was the kind of filler dish we needed and the perfect accompaniment to the water spinach the kitchen simply wok-tossed in garlic, which was also overpriced at $9.99. In fact, $9.99 seems to be the de facto rate for almost every dish on the menu. You pay $9.99 for everything from the egg rolls to the deep-fried chicken wings soaked in fish sauce to the classic wok-seared filet mignon cubes called bo luc lac. It's also $9.99 for the com chay lap xuong, an appetizer of crispy rice topped with Chinese sausage and shredded dried pork floss—a dish that, in my opinion, needs to be ordered no matter where you see it in Little Saigon, no matter the price.
A few big-ticket items sold for $14.99 or at market rates. Since the restaurant opened about three months ago, the lobster has stayed a constant $14.99 per pound. Still, you're going to need at least a 3-pounder for the house special preparation, wherein the critter is chopped into pieces, deep-fried, then wok-tossed in a garlic-and-pepper-festooned sauce. When ours arrived, it was nearly gone by the time it reached the far end of the table.
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Apart from the lobster and crab, the most expensive thing you can order is the hot pot at $19.99. Order one, as we did, and you get a big stew pot filled to nearly the brim with a spicy broth akin to Thai tom yum boiling on a portable stove. With it came two big plates: one with an Amazon of vegetables and herbs, and another with raw shrimp, mussels, cuttlefish, white fish, clams and quail eggs that you drop into the roiling brew and have everyone fish out with chopsticks.
It must be noted that service can be absent-minded and aloof. Also, the restaurant charges for water. Yet the tropical-fruit dessert plate complete with pricy rambutan and jackfruit is, for some reason, free. But the seafood feast that left such a mess but every member of my family happy and full? That's priceless.
Tram Chim Fresh Seafood, 9455 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 418-9551. Open daily, 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Dishes, $9.99 and up. Beer and wine.