Vietnamese Seafood & Snails in West Orlando
I dither. At times, I feel like I am the sum of my choices. That I’m steering the wheel. If I turn left, I go left. I am a left hand turner. At other times, I feel like I’m being pinballed between life’s little bumpers – shot out of the plunger, guided by metaphysical flippers, prone to bad metaphors. Putty in the hands of the Bally table king.
I’ve found the latter state of mind a far more pleasant way to while away my mortal days. To let life take me where it may, delighting in each new discovery it reveals. Because discovery? It’s where it’s at – it’s why we’re here. We’re wired to crush on the shiny, new and different, to shoot phalluses into space, indulge in hallucinogenics or drive to Orlo Vista. Orlo Vista? Yes, Orlo Vista.
For those living on planet myopia, the universe dangles a pretty convincing lie of choice. But when eyes open wide they see we’re all being carried downstream by the same gentle flow. Only the river knows where I’m going and – of late – it’s been carrying me west of town.
The less sexy side of Colonial Drive seems to be where the most genuinely exciting culinary finds are happening. As in classic ‘dive’ finds. It’s far from the glittery marketing machines of Orlando’s conspicuously branded ‘hoods; those dancing to an incessant social drumbeat, drip dropping insta-pabulum to influencers and “food critics” – discoveries that long cease to be discoverable by the time they open their doors. I’m talking about real-deal mom and pop places that wouldn’t know an insta from a whatsit.
The delicious gravity of who-cares-about-the-Internet Taste of Chengdu was the first to pull us west. Add newly opened Mama Lẩu va Ốc in the Chinatown Shopping Center on Colonial to our growing list of restos siren-songing us from the far side of the I-4 divide. Mama Lẩu va Ốc has even managed to outdo Taste of Chengdu in its avoidance of even the basest forms of marketing, making it a truly hard to find find. The sign outside the restaurant reads Ốc & Lẩu Cali, but a quick phone call did confirm that the name is indeed Mama Lẩu va Ốc.
Two of the most adventurous eaters in our Orlando Eats orbit are Vietnamese-American. One dined at Mama Lẩu va Ốc just before us and shared notes. The other joined us on a recent visit and proved not only delightful company and a built-in excuse to over indulge but served wonderfully as an unpaid cultural attaché and translator.
Snails are a menu staple in many parts of Vietnam – you’re never far from a Quán Ốc, or snail restaurant, in places like Ho Chi Minh City. Ốc & lẩu translates to snail and hot pot and both occupy a good amount of menu real estate at Mama Lẩu va Ốc. If you’re into eating things that live in shells, this is dingy-strip-mall paradise: Cockles, clams, oysters, razor clams, shrimp. Hand cramp. Escargot, scallops, crabs. Shit, man. Mussels, wrinkle snails. Whew.
We arrived at 7:45PM and the place was crickets (not on the menu); our party of four, the owners, an eerily quiet baby, and a Fortune Cat quietly waving from a countertop. We weren’t sure if it was saying hello or shooing us away. The menu brought quick comfort. Lots of words we like. The confident ease of the owners also helped reassure that we weren’t about to waste coin.
The first plates to the table were salads; Escargot with banana blossom ($11.99) and shredded lotus stem with shrimp and pork ($10.99). If you’re into Vietnamese food, you know it revels in variety and harmony of textures and flavors. Both salads were wonderlands of fragrant herbs, of crunch and chew, of savory, sweet, sour, and spicy. Our friends commented on the authenticity (the intensity) of the flavors and I commented on the yummy-yummy yumness.
Stir fried razor clams with tamarind ($9.99) and steamed clams with lemongrass and chili ($9.99) were both clean, meaty and received a tableful of full-mouth thumbs ups. The razors played well with the tamarind, and the bowl of broth in which the steamed clams were submerged was particularly good. We were also treated to several plates of snails, some of the best being grilled “Canada” escargot in onions and butter ($9.99).
More, more, more. Two grilled scallops ($9.99 per) were served in the shell with roe and assorted odds and ends (fried shallots and whatnot), and grilled head-on shrimp ($9.99) arrived topped with rau răm (Vietnamese coriander) and cooked in garlic, butter and what the menu described as a Cajun sauce. The scallops were delicious but slightly overly fussed and the shrimp, although equally tasty, were let down by a somewhat mushy texture. I’m confident that if they were a bit firmer they would have been absolute tops. I’m also confident that whatever Cajun sauce is tastes good.
All of the above was just a heavily-proteined prime for the pump – we were here for lẩu (hot pots, all $44.99 – ample for four with starters).
Think of Vietnamese cuisine as a dance of fives – a ballet of balance; of five fundamental tastes (spicy, sour, bitter, salty and sweet), five colors (red, green, yellow, white, and black), and five different ways to appeal to the senses (color, texture, aroma, touch, and taste). There’s at least one other five out there – something about ‘ingredients’ – powders and minerals – Buddha’s involved – but we’ll stick with the basics for now.
This dance was orchestrated wonderfully in the hot pot we ordered. We opted for blue crab, baby octopus, and tofu, the co-stars being tomatoes, basil, lotus stem, okra, rice noodles with fried shallots. The broth was set center table atop a burner with the various ingredients plated adjacently. The first thing to hit us was the depth of the broth. Many Vietnamese hot pot broths lean toward light, and although light, the hot pot broth at Mama Lẩu va Ốc also manages to be deeply rich without being richly rich.
Worth noting that the broth was canh chua, a hot and sour style very common in Vietnamese home cooking (think ‘Merican chicken noodle soup). It’s typically sweetened and soured with tamarind and damn near perfect for seafood, making it a fave along the Mekong. Repeated sips prompted repeated insinuations that it might even be better than a certain Vietnamese mom’s.
A note on the freshness of the seafood. The blue crab was so perky that it wiggled when dropped into the pot. Giddy or guilty? I think we were a bit of both. We also learned that timing matters. The ‘hot’ in hot pot is appropriately descriptive. Baby octopus should be eaten fairly soon after being dropped into the broth (before it toughens up), and crabs are best shortly after (before the meat gets mushy). Leave the veg and tofu to hang out a bit – they don’t suffer much from a longer cook and make wonderful friends with the rice noodles and chili after you’ve eaten the expensive bits.
By the time we finished slurping, it was 9PM and the place had begun to fill up. Other tables seemed to be going the sea nibbles and snails to hot pot route as well. There were several pots on the menu (and other tables) with sturgeon and sea bass that we already have our eyes on for the next go around.
Some final notes: If you’re going to make the trek to Mama Lẩu va Ốc, go with an appreciation for stripped down dining. It’s a seafood and snails joint in a strip mall. There are TV’s on, generic wall murals, low drop ceilings, and floor tile that looks like it could be easily hosed down. There’s also quite a bit of quality, value and attentive service. A quick word on price and portioning. We found the prices fairly in-line with other local Vietnamese eateries (for quick comparison’s sake, a large seafood hot pot at Saigon Noodle & Grill is $39.95, its lotus salad with shrimp and pork $14.95). Overall, we were happy with the price-to-portion ratio.
What else? Ah, drinks. Beyond eats, Mama Lẩu va Ốc has interesting liquids aplenty, from preserved plum and kumquat soda ($3.99) to artichoke tea with “magic” boba ($3.99). Unfortunately, the luxury of variety doesn’t extend to booze. Heineken, Bud Light, or Corona? Not a life choice you ever want to have to make. But…hear me out…you could do as we did. Just go with the flow and knock back a cold Heiney or two.
Go with the flow. Good segue for returning to my river metaphor nonsense and appropriate for this meandering, stream of consciousness food ramble. A wise man once told me that life is like a river. There’ll be rapids, slowdowns and shallows, but we’re all drifting downstream whether we like it or not. You can choose to fight the current – to strain against the inevitable – or you can enjoy the ride – you’ll be surprised at the places it might take you. Places like Mama Lẩu va Ốc.