Making it big

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An interview with the queen of Saigon's snail service

 
Food at Ho Chi Minh City's premier snail restaurant, Oc Dao

For the past two years, I have watched Oc Dao grow.

At lunchtime, when all of Cong Quynh's crowded offices spill uniformed office workers into the streets, women in crisp shirts, skirts and low heels lock arms and laugh their way into the alley across from Vietweek.

They walk past a large luxury car dealership where nothing seems to get sold and continue past red-faced dog eaters to the citadel of snails.

By sunset, the same alleyway chokes with taxis and motorbikes.

The restaurant currently occupies a former ward police station, an abandoned garment factory and several huge stretches of alleyway and consists of little more than hundreds of plastic tables and chairs.

They come here to di choi (go play)"”to eat, to drink, to flirt. Bosses bring employees here to thank them; salesmen bring clients here to grease them. At night, the tented rows of tables feel like one massive bacchanalian picnic.

But the operation of Oc Dao is nearly martial in its precision. A squad of about 30 uniformed waiters navigates the crowd taking down orders (in triplicate) and handing them off to intent cooks who then execute the orders in a series of flaming woks.

Plenty of people eat snails elsewhere for much cheaper. But something has made Oc Dao the place to eat snails. The place is so beloved, it now has a healthy population of dedicated pooh-poohers"”former loyalists who have turned to griping on Four Square about rising prices and a fabled decline in quality.

At the helm of it all is Vo Thi Dao, an elusive proprietor who has (perhaps unwillingly) become one of the biggest names in the Saigon food world.

"Please don't make it big," she said as she sat down reluctantly at 3 p.m., about an hour after her long midday nap.

The squat Quang Ngai rice farmer moved to Ho Chi Minh City in 1994 and began serving snails from a shoulder pole that she hauled up and down the alleyway. Her freshly washed hair falls over a neck and shoulders that testify to the work.

The large dining area is still relatively empty and my waitress is busy tickling a colleague who has fallen asleep in a hammock by the kitchen. Despite the midday torpor, Dao seems uneasy, as if the place may fall apart during our interview.

Her teenage son, a thin young man who speaks perfect English, watches the lunchtime service from a heavy metal desk with the focused detachment of a Vegas pit boss. She removes her gaze from the boy and reclines, somewhat, in her plastic chair. She looks out at me, tired and cautious.

Vietnamese cooks tend to operate like termites"”toiling without ego in obscurity and anonymity, thinking only of building up a structure that will further the brood.

Dao is no different. She denies that her restaurant has changed snail consumption in the city and deflects questions about just how many snails meet their maker in her woks every day, except to say that the number is "many, many" more than 100 kilograms.

When asked how to select a good snail, she shrugged her shoulders.

"It depends on the vendor," she said. "If they want to keep their customers safe, they'll only sell their products that same day. It depends on people's decency. "

Dao, who continues to make a morning run to a market in Binh Chanh District, does not worry about ever being cheated.

 
Vo Thi Dao, the self-effacing owner of
Oc Dao

The restaurant's blood cockles continue to be harvested in the ocean, but many of her most popular snails are now farmed"”demand is simply too high to rely on wild catches.

She'd rather not remember the days when she harvested them by hand in Quang Ngai.

"We were so poor," she said. "There was no life there."

As a child, Dao's family thought of snails as a pest and a delicious snack, which they would steam and eat with fish sauce. Her favorite was always oc dua, the fingernail-sized, nutty-flavored creature that survives on water coconuts and must be eaten with a safety pin.

"It's fun," she said of the dislodgement process.

Dao came to Saigon in 1994 and developed her menu according to her customers' suggestions, she says.

How she met her husband, shed her shoulder pole and began operating out of a former ward police office, she chose not to explain.

"I don't know how it got so big," she said again with a groan. "Please don't make a big deal out of it. Everyone knows that snails are good for your health. People don't trust pork or fish anymore. Nowadays people think of snails as a main meal."

Today, an evening at Dao's restaurant is a decidedly filling experience. Most everything comes out dusted in salt and chili or swimming in a sweet puddle of margarine and fried pig fat. Baskets of heavy bread are delivered seemingly every hour.

Idle rich and middle-class diners now delight in the labor-intensive practice of prying their meal from hundreds of shells. Some pay as much as $5 a plate for the privilege.

"I like it myself," she said rising from her chair to help her son with the now packed restaurant. "I can eat snails every day."

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