You've seen the likes of KOC Crawfish Beer Club & Restaurant before. With its neon signage, blink-and-you-miss-it strip-mall location, and cartoon mascot of a sea creature you're about to consume in a whirlwind of cayenne-garlic butter and lemons, KOC is obviously the latest entry in the growing genre of Vietnamese-owned Cajun seafood houses.
If there's one place that spurred the proliferation of this kind of eatery, it's the Boiling Crab. Although the now-ubiquitous chain didn't invent the concept, it's the Ray Kroc of the genre, sans the megalomania. The Boiling Crab figured out what customers really wanted in a seafood restaurant–reasonable prices, cold beer, an addictive sauce–and created an empire.
Its success blazed the trail for the rest, including Claws, the Kickin' Crab and now KOC.
As with the others, KOC borrows freely from the Boiling Crab's formula: Prices hover at about $12 per pound for the shrimp, and the sauce offered inside plastic bags of shellfish (shrimp, crawfish, mussels, clams or crabs) comes in the same spectrum: lemon pepper, Cajun, Louisiana, garlic butter, or all of it mixed together.
No customer at KOC Crawfish (or the Boiling Crab, for that matter) opts for anything except the latter. It should be common knowledge that asking for mild will make you sweat through your shirt; ordering it "extra spicy" will melt the flesh off your face as though you're an Indiana Jones villain. And when you taste KOC's blend, you'll notice that other than the copious amounts of raw chopped garlic, there's very little difference from the Boiling Crab's.
Yet KOC isn't just another knockoff: It's also a full-fledged quán ôc, a distinctly Vietnamese eating establishment focusing on snail dishes you share with a table of friends, washing them down with beer.
The union of the two genres is actually inevitable. Whether crawfish joint or quán ôc, you're going to spend the night prying meat from shells with your fingers–and having a grand ol' time doing it. Even the Kickin' Crab–which is the Burger King to the Boiling Crab's McDonald's–started offering fingernail-sized mud creeper snails with a coconut curry in a common quán ôc dish called oc len xào dua. KOC offers the dish, too, as well as four other species of mollusks in various stir-fries, most of them involving butter, garlic and onions. The best of these may be the razor clams grilled in their long half-shells, brushed with a spicy sauce, then sprinkled with oil-wilted scallions and crushed peanuts.
But as good as KOC is as both a quán ôc and crawfish joint, it fills in the rest of the menu with oddities that don't fit into either category. If the stir-fried fetal duck egg in tamarind sauce sounds too Andrew Zimmern for you, there's a wimpier (but still delicious) version with quail eggs. Or take the house specialty, a frog-leg congee that's actually two dishes: a clay pot of plain rice porridge, and a second vessel in which the stringy amphibian limbs swim in a thick, black-as-crude-oil stew that tastes vaguely of oyster sauce. (Curious as to what else was it in, I asked the waiter, who shrugged and said it's the owner's secret family recipe.) An even better dish is the stir-fry of filet mignon and Chinese watercress served atop instant ramen noodles–a combo I've seen nowhere else.
KOC also does a very traditional crab vermicelli that comes garnished with two whole snow crab legs and the paraphernalia with which to crack them. The bungee bounce of the jelly-clear noodles is compelling enough, though. The darkness and sweetness of the sauce is completely absorbed into each strand. Also wonderful: an appetizer of deep-fried sticky rice patties topped with dried shredded pork and Chinese sausage that tastes as though fast-food breakfast hash browns were crossbred with something from the dim-sum cart.
Of course, there's also beer, which goes with everything. The preferred way to consume it is in a beer tower–a comically tall acrylic vessel that resembles either an oversized bong or a test tube in which genetic mutants are grown. Even more frivolous are the different ways to drink soju. It can be squirted from a syringe, tossed back as though a shot from glasses embedded in a skull, or dispensed from a scale replica of an old-timey gasoline pump.
Whatever alcohol avenue you decide, try to time it so your beer tower or soju runs dry only after the last of your shrimp or snail has been eaten. And when you finally survey the table, you should see the familiar scene common to good quán ôcs and Cajun crawfish houses alike: emptied shells, soiled napkins, spilled beer–artifacts from an evening well-spent.
KOC Crawfish Beer Club & Restaurant, 13289 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 868-3143; www.facebook.com/Koccrawfishbeerclubandrestaurant. Open Mon.-Fri., 2-11 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., noon-11 p.m. Dinner for two, $15-$40, food only. Beer and soju.