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As I’ve written about before, a night of snails, shellfish, and beer is a national pastime in Vietnam. Saigon, in particular, is obsessed with it: there are thousands of quán ốc (snail restaurants) in the city, where diners of all ages feast into the night. Like all Saigonese, I have my favourites: recently a friend of mine introduced me to Ốc Cẩm in District 10, and it immediately took its place among them.
REVIEW: QUÁN ỐC CẨM, SAIGON
Address: 162 Tran Nhan Ton Street, District 10, Ho Chi Minh City [MAP]
Price: 50,000-100,000vnd per dish | Open: 4pm-11pm daily
On Tran Nhan Ton Street in District 10 (a few minutes east of downtown Saigon), Ốc Cẩm is located in a foodie neighbourhood: very close to the excellent street food stalls along Su Van Hanh Street. After only 3 years of operation, Ốc Cẩm has expanded from its original location to include a two-storey dining area in a distinctive-looking townhouse across the street (301-303 Tran Nhan Ton Street). It’s not difficult to find: the signage is easy to spot, and there’s always a cluster of merry diners in a Dionysian haze of food, alcohol, and banter on the open-sided ground floor.
View in a LARGER MAP
Like all of the best quán ốc, the non-fussy, fairly crusty exterior belies the quality and sophistication of the food served inside. This is typical of many of Saigon’s (or, indeed, Vietnam’s) best eateries. However, in many ways Ốc Cẩm has made the most of its space, especially the ‘new wing’. The open-sided ground floor is a stark, echoey chamber where men (and it is mostly men on the ground floor) indulge in a night of serious nhậu (the Vietnamese word for eating, drinking, and being merry). Upstairs, the walls are freshly painted and it’s a bright, relatively quiet dining area with low metallic tables and plastic chairs. This is where families and couples tend to eat their snails and shellfish, leaving the more rowdy crowd to themselves downstairs. A barred floor-to-ceiling window lets the night air in and keeps the space nicely ventilated. The view outside is typical of urban-Saigon: a street lamp doubling as an electricity pylon, overgrown with a tangled nest of power lines, behind which is a jumbled terrace of houses, all in juxtaposing architectural styles.
On street-level, some of the fresh seafood is displayed in trays and baskets: snails of all shapes and sizes, shellfish – some familiar, some unrecognizable – and crustaceans, such as shrimp and crab. The menu offers a list of all varieties of snails and shellfish cooked in different ways with different sauces. It’s all in Vietnamese, but don’t worry: if you can’t decipher the items, take a look at my menu decoder and guide to ordering here. Dishes are perhaps a little pricier than the average quán ốc, but, because the quality and quantity is also above average, the prices represent value for money. 60,000-90,000vnd ($3-$4) is the average cost per dish. Plenty of regional beers and soft drinks are available and cheap. As an example, a meal for two people consisting of 5 dishes and a couple of drinks cost under 400,000vnd ($17).
When I came to Ốc Cẩm, the first thing I noticed about the food was the colour, freshness, and size. The portions are larger than most other quán ốc, the sauces are livelier, tastier, richer, thicker (and, yes, sweeter) than elsewhere, and the shells themselves are bigger. There are also some interesting variations on the traditional sauces: trứng muối (salted duck egg sauce), and muối tắc (calamansi sauce). These are both sauces that are not commonly used with snails and shellfish. They sound strange (lots of good food in Vietnam does) but they work well – be warned, they are very rich. Don’t forget to order some bánh mì (baguettes) to soak up all the delicious sauces.
Dining at Ốc Cẩm is a glorious feast of shells. There are dozens of varieties to choose from. Personally, I recommend trying at least some of the following dishes: ốc len xào dừa (Mud Creeper sea snails in a mild coconut and condensed milk sauce), ốc hương rang muối tắc (pretty Areola Babylon sea snails is calamansi sauce), sò huyết xào me (giant blood cockles in tamarind sauce), ốc mỡ rang trứng muối (sea winkles is salted duck egg and butter sauce), sò lông nướng mỡ hành (long clams grilled with spring onion and peanuts), and hào sống mù tạt (raw oysters with wasabi and lime). For anyone unfamiliar with how to eat snails and shellfish, take a look at my guide to eating them here.
Eating snails and shellfish in Vietnam is all about fun, food, and beer. Leave your preconceived ‘manners’ at home and get down and dirty with the shells and sauces: use your hands as much as possible – they should be covered in sauce within a few minutes of starting – drink plenty of beer over ice, talk excitedly among your friends, throw your empty shells and beer cans on the floor (unless, of course, there are bins provided by your table); order plenty of dishes and eat ‘family-style’ – this encourages conviviality, which is central to the Vietnamese dining experience – and don’t leave until your clothes are flecked with sauce and your mouth smeared with tamarind, coconut, lime, and chilli. Enjoy it to the fullest, because everyone else around you will be.
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