This week marks the one-year blog anniversary for Ginger and Scotch and I thought I’d celebrate by writing a post about…
One of the great things about having friends and family living in a place you’ve never visited is the insight they provide on the best places to eat – more often than not, places that are off the tourist map.
Although Õc Ðào restaurant (Õc means snails) may not be off the tourist map anymore, it is a place my mom and I would never have found it on our own.
“Do you like snails?” my mom’s friend inquired.
With an enthusiastic nod from me in response, the deal was sealed. We ventured into the tortuous back alleys somewhere off of Nguyen Trãi and Cong Quynh streets (in District 1) with the goal of introducing me to more varieties of sea snails than I could imagine.
Our cab pulled up in front of the main storefront (pictured above) – which actually seats very little – so we headed over to the larger seating area just across the road.
But first I strayed behind to gawk and salivate over all the different baskets of snails and other mollusks - from what I could see, there were also clams, scallops, large shrimp, and mussels. A mollusk lover’s dream!
We arrived at the end of the lunch rush which meant that we didn’t have to queue for a table.
Apparently, this place is so popular that even with the large amount of seating they have, it still gets jammed packed!
We settled ourselves on red plastic chairs and low tables that were more appropriate for the size of Wee Scotch and his little friends than five grown adults.
I arched my neck to stare at the selection of snails from the table next to ours – I couldn’t wait to start ordering! I was so excited, I forgot about sitting al fresco and sweating in the sweltering heat.
The menu was all in Vietnamese so didn’t make one iota of sense to me but my mom’s friends did all the ordering so I just sat back and waited for the food to arrive.
Look at the choices! There are about 27 varieties of shellfish on the menu and we barely made it through one-third.
We began our snail fest by first ordering two things that I have grown to love since traveling to Vietnam: young coconut and bread.
Not being a big fan of coconut (whether in milk, cream, or shredded forms – the smell sometimes makes me sick), I’m constantly amazed at how much young coconut juice tastes nothing like it’s mature form. In fact, by the end of my month-long trip in Vietnam, I was ordering a young coconut at almost every meal so that I could drink its clear, thirst-quenching liquid. And a chilled coconut yielded much better tasting liquid than one at room temperature.
We also ordered some lovely bread which I could go on and on about but it really deserves a post on its own. For now, let’s just say that the bread plays a wonderful role in mopping up all the saucy goodness from the snail dishes.
As the snail orders began to arrive, we were provided with tiny two-prong forks to assist in prying out the snail meat, and two different dipping sauces: Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam cham) and freshly squeezed lemon juice with finely crushed white pepper (my fave dipping sauce for bringing out the flavors of seafood such as lobster and crab – no clarified butter for me).
* * * * *
And here is what we ordered…
1) Õc Len. These were served in a mild Thai yellow curry-like sauce.
To taste the meat of these snails, I had to learn and perfect a sucking action as the tiny forks could not reach into the openings. The first 2 I tried weren’t very succesful but by my third I got the hang of it.
2) Õc Mõ’. Served stir-fried in sweet and sour sauce.
3) Sò Ðiêp. Grilled scallops sprinkled with scallions and peanuts.
4) Õc toi. Large snails with a lovely smokey flavor from the grill. When I thought I had pried all the meat out, my mom could always find a few more pieces.
5) Nghêu. Clams in a very spicy lemongrass broth.
The broth was so packed with flavor that I started to use my small sauce spoon to slurp up its yummy goodness but then gave up on these tiny efforts in favor of my drinking straw.
6) Sò Huyê‘t. Small clams that were all closed and necessitated the use of one’s fingernails to pry them open. Defies the belief that closed clams should be discarded.
I had been so focused on eating the snails and other shellfish that it wasn’t until this dish that I noticed the little bits of fried pork fat in the sauces. There are few things better than a well-fried piece of pork fat (and on that note, crackling too!).
With each bite, there was some crunch and there was some tenderness. These tiny morsels were insanely addictively good. I could not stop eating all of it. Okay, I did eat ALL OF IT.
Hey, I was on vacation. Screw the calories and possible artery clogging properties. Nothing was going to stop me from eating ALL OF IT. Mmmm…pork fat, come to mama!
Allow me to zoom in on more of the fried pork fat heaven.
7) Õc huong . Snails flavored with dry chilli.
8 ) Chem Chép. Mussels that were more tender, less chewy, than the New Zealand variety. The meat was soft and plump with a briny oyster-like flavor.
9) Õc Ðo. Possibly the largest snails on the menu. The meat was tough and chewy – grilled with a sweet and spicy sauce.
Our table was one big mess by the end of our meal as the dishes weren’t cleared in order to tally up the plates for the bill. Amazingly, with all this shellfish around, we were only annoyed by two flies (yes, I counted). In Dubai, even when the weather is nice to sit outside, Scotch usually opts for indoor seating as we are often besieged with flies often even before the food arrives. Perhaps we landed at Õc Ðào at the right time of day or year.
Oh, the bill came to a whopping 790,000 VND.
Sounds like a lot but it equates to $38 for 5 of us. A bargain at less than $8 per person. Crazy cheap in my books for all that food.
Unlike Americans, I’ve noticed that the Vietnamese and Chinese are very stingy about their napkins. But moist towelettes seem to be ubiquitous at all the restaurants – though you are charged for how ever many you use. However, I still prefer a nice large DRY napkin and tend to bring my own.
But one advantage of the moist towelettes is that they are printed with the names and addresses of the restaurants so I took pictures of them as a way to record the places we ate at.
Õc Ðào Restaurant: 212B/C79 Nguyen Trãi, P: Nguyen Cu Trinh, District 1, Saigon. Phone: +84 0909.437033.
I *think* this was where we were. I can’t believe I left my iPhone at home that day and thus couldn’t google map it. But my mom’s friends say that the taxi drivers should be able to take you there.
View Õc Ðào Restaurant – Saigon in a larger map