Spain may have its tapas bars and Japan its izakayas, but in Vietnam, there are quán ôcs. Literal translation: snail eateries. Quán ôcs are often informal street-side stalls with nothing more than plastic chairs and cooks slaving over propane-fueled woks. You go to a quán ôc to drink lots of beer and eat clams, snails and crabs—pretty much anything that comes in a shell. But just as yakitori is to most izakayas, it's the snails that get top billing. Harvested from rice paddies, rivers and the ocean, there's often a taxonomy's worth of snails to choose from. Grilled, boiled in soups, stir-fried with flavorful sauces, snails were popular in Vietnam even before French colonizers came around with their escargot.
These days, eating snails in a quán ôc is to Vietnam what pub culture is to the Western World. The point is to take your time, drink, unwind with friends over platefuls of invertebrates as you might a basket of hot wings. Use your fingers, maybe even a toothpick to pry, dig, crack, prod and navigate your way to the chewy, soft, sometimes-slimy center of your meal. Napkins will be soiled, shirts stained, the table a mess—all aftermath of a night well-spent.
The new Oc N Lau Restaurant in Garden Grove isn't the first eatery in Little Saigon to offer Vietnamese snails, clams and crabs, but it just may be OC's first real quán ôc, even as it has yet to obtain a license to serve beer. Looking at the menu, you'll realize it's also one of the first non-Cajun-crawfish Vietnamese seafood restaurants you've seen in a while.
Oc N Lau deep-fries one of the meatiest tilapias you'll encounter, dusted with flour before a hot oil bath so that every golden inch crackles. If only to drown out the sometimes lamentably muddy flavor of the fish, slather each piece you peel off the upright carcass with spoonfuls of a sweet, sour and spicy chile sauce, then chase it with a couple of spears of tart green mango. You can also order smelt here, which the menu describes quite accurately as “fried eggful fish” because each is pregnant with roe and excellent to eat whole, head and all.
But come for the snails. The garlic-butter-spotted escargot arrives sizzling on a cast-iron skillet, sprinkled with fistfuls of herbs. Use the wooden skewers supplied to coax the meat out of the shell. Successfully extracted, the curlicue flesh will look rather alien, as though it just burst out from the chest of an astronaut. It has two textures: rubbery in parts, pasty and soft in others. You might contemplate Fibonacci as you move on to the ôc len xào dùa, mud creeper sea snails simmered in a coconut-cream-based sauce that tastes akin to a very mild Thai green curry. Suck out these fingertip-sized mollusks one-by-one with your mouth.
There are other options for wimps, of course. One of the best dishes is the grilled scallops, about a half-dozen of them barely cooked in their own shells, garnished with crushed peanuts and drizzled with the same butter-and-garlic treatment as the escargot. If you want clams, opt for the most traditional: boiled in nothing more than water flavored with lemongrass, ginger and the bivalves' own juices.
A lot of customers also order the hot pots that constitute the “lau” part of the restaurant's name. A huge vat of broth will be brought out with raw seafood arranged on a plate—plus a butane-powered burner to keep it all simmering. One comes supplied with a whole lobster, while the crab variant has the dome of the shellfish nearly eclipsing the width of the vessel. To eat, you douse noodles called bún with the broth, repeating the process until the plate of noodles are spent or the pot runs dry, whichever comes first. For a less labor-intensive version, ask for a bowl of lau instead. The bún comes already submerged in the same broth to become a noodle soup that's populated with hunks of fish, shrimp and an eggplant slathered with fish paste.
The wait time is brutal right now—at least an hour, mostly because of the length of time it takes to complete a meal here and the inexperience of the kitchen and staff during the restaurant's first month. Getting the food might take an additional half-hour or more. And after the staff deliver your dishes, they might forget about you the rest of the night. Asking for water will take a few tries. But it's worth it: At the end of the night, your table will have turned into a major disaster area of spent shells, wadded-up napkins and spilled sauce, which is actually about right for a night spent at a quán ôc.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.