We're a city known for our Vietnamese cuisine – have been since the 1980s – and our tourist boards use that culinary nugget to the fullest when marketing Orlando as a city of diverse eats. Remember the calls by some to anoint pho – pho! – as the city's signature dish? So it came as a bit of a surprise to learn that we've never been treated to the joys of a Vietnamese snail restaurant.
What's that, now? A "Vietnamese snail restaurant," you say? Indeed I do. They're ubiquitous in Vietnam, these quán ốc, and now we've finally got one of our very own. It's called Mama Lẩu và Ốc, which (Google) translates to "Mama Hot Pot and Snails." And, yes, they also serve hot pot, otherwise it'd be a little strange – like that time I walked into Uncle Tony's Donut Shoppe looking for crullers and finding nothing but vinyl records (though I did score a copy of Planet Rock, so, win!).
But a snail by any other name would taste as snaily, and we came to this Westside Crossing restaurant to indulge in gastropods and all the other available mollusks on MLVO's lengthy bill of fare. Oh sure, we could've started with balut eggs roasted with tamarind ($7.99), and Lord knows those deep-fried Cajun chicken feet ($11.99) beckoned, but a salad of escargots with banana blossoms ($14.99) was a bonanza of textures – chewy and crunchy, fleshy and flaky – a dish both bracing and sweet. Snails, however, didn't play much of a starring role, so a simple plate of snails – sea snails from Atlantic Canada cooked with garlic and butter ($11.99 for four) – seemed in order. Coaxing them out of their shells with a snail fork required a bit of digital dexterity, and the splurts of hot juice singeing your hands might smart, but I can't say the pain wasn't displaced by pleasure.
More molluscular mirth: grilled razor clams ($11.99 for four), also from Canada, were just as good as the ones I recently enjoyed in PEI, only these razors were sharpened with the flavors of tamarind, fried onions and peanuts. We downed mildly sweet Cherrystone clams ($11.99 for four) with buttered scallions, fried onions and fried garlic, but the grilled scallops ($11.99 for four) are what really shelled our palates with an unexpected bomb of flavor. I'm not talking about the spicy-sweet sauce in the shell, or the dollop of fish roe, or the ever-present fried onions. No, these scallops came with the coral (that is, the ovary) attached, and biting into the sweet, briny, egg-filled sac drew comparisons to foie. Better than uni? I'd say so.
We took a moment to swish down fresh sugarcane juice ($3.99) and artichoke tea ($3.99) as we waited for our sturgeon hot pot ($49.99) to come to a proper bubble. Thai basil, sawleaf, enoki mushrooms and taro stems went into the gorgeous sweet-and-sour broth spiked with red-hots along with rice noodles and morsels of the firm fish, which held up nicely in that gurgling stock. It colored us red and, when all was said and done, impressed.
You'll note dishes here aren't exactly cheap, especially when compared to the Viet snail joints in California (hot pots, for example, are about $20 more). Hey, it's not like they have any competition (yet), plus you'll spend more time here savoring and relishing, not hurrying over the dishes, so there is that. My advice: Be patient, and eat at a snail's pace.
This story is from the Aug. 14, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.