It’s safe to assume the people who work at Vua Oc aren’t expecting anyone who’s not Vietnamese to walk through the door. Not only is it located in one of those Little Saigon strip malls that doesn’t feel as if it’s in America, but the restaurant also doesn’t have any outside signage with the word pho or anything else that might give a non-Vietnamese a hint as to what’s served here.
What Vua Oc specializes in is oc, which translates to “snails” in English. It’s the latest in an explosion of these kinds of eateries in the area. If you’ve never heard of such a thing, it’s because, unlike the Cajun crawfish craze of a few years ago, these snail restaurants have not yet crossed over to the mainstream; they’ve predominantly stayed inside the Vietnamese enclave.
Little Saigon’s handful of quan ocs, as they are officially called, are enjoyed almost exclusively by people who know it from the old country as a place to eat clams, sea snails, scallops—pretty much anything that comes in a shell. Key to the experience is beer because quan ocs such as Vua Oc are essentially Vietnam’s versions of neighborhood pubs. But in OC, they are also the most economical way to eat seafood, especially if you like mollusks and bivalves.
Vua Oc’s dense, six-page menu can be pretty daunting. Unless you hold a Ph.D. in marine biology, you face the task of not only understanding the taxonomic differences between what you’re ordering, but also how each item is prepared. The list includes geoducks, razor clams, Canadian whelks, pomaceas, Cherrystone clams, hairy clams, blood clams, oysters and mussels. And each one has, on average, three different ways in which it’s cooked or sauced.
The easiest thing to do is to order the dac biet. As at all Vietnamese restaurants, doing so means you’re getting the house specialty. Vua Oc actually has three “dac biet” dishes, so I went for the first one. But the owner—who realized by then I wasn’t Vietnamese—steered me away from it in favor of the Lau Vua Oc Sate. “That first dish is really for families with kids, and it’s not as flavorful as this second one,” she explained.
Almost immediately, a vat of lemongrass-scented tomato broth appeared at my table on top of a camp stove. This was followed by a small mountain of vermicelli noodles, an array of colorful dipping sauces that resembled tempera paints, and, finally, the main event, a hubcap-sized platter containing at least seven kinds of clams and sea snails, most of them already disrobed of their shells.
A little at a time, I threw the proteins into the pot, fished them out once they heated, then ate them with the noodles I moistened with a ladle of soup. Because of the seven varieties of clams and snails, the flavors ranged from briny to sweet to fishy to iron-rich. And then there were the contrasts in texture, from marshmallow-soft to rubbery to audibly crunchy. The steamed house meatballs—made with what I assume is pork and sea snail—was the best of all, possessing the bounce properties of a Super Ball toy.
As the afternoon progressed, the tomato broth got richer and more intense. Its acidity and sweetness paired naturally with the clams the same way it does in a bowl of Manhattan clam chowder or a can of Clamato.
But it wasn’t the only component that made the meal. Also indispensable were the dipping sauces, into which I dabbed the sea snails after coaxing them out of their shells with toothpicks. The garlicky red-chile sauce was potent; the chile-spiked nuoc mam was pungent, and the lemon-juice slurry with pepper and salt was an electric jolt to the tongue. But the green one made of cilantro and chiles trumped them all. It was so good it could make even a Taco Bell taco great.
The only problem with these hot pots is that you need to bring a friend with whom to share it. It’s too much food for one person. But you could come alone and order the incredible hau nuong chen, an oyster sampler that will actually be hard to split with anyone else. It has a half-dozen of the shucked oyster flesh in single-shot saucers, each lump gently cooked and slathered with various toppings such as Japanese mayo, nuoc cham and garlic soy sauce. If you’re looking for something fried, the very first appetizer you see listed is the golden fried fish balls, whose teardrop shape hides a rich filling of fish roe that spurts out as you bite into it.
Whatever you do, go and explore Vua Oc’s menu—or just let the dac biet be both your password and passport to the wonderful world of quan ocs.
Vua Oc, 10212 Westminster Ave., Ste. 111, Garden Grove, (714) 591-5482; vua-oc.business.site. Open Sun.-Tues. & Thurs., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-midnight. Dishes, $4.99-$29.99. Beer only.
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.