Much ado is made about Heston Blumenthal's snail porridge, served at The Fat Duck, his three-star Michelin restaurant in Bray, Berkshire. But if you, like me, do not foresee yourself shelling out £130 for his tasting menu, fret not. Snails are a lot more accessible than you think.
Long before the French started dipping escargots in garlic butter, the Vietnamese would gather snails from the fields and sauté them in garlic and salt. These sweet morsels star in Saigon Seafood's rendition of Bún Ốc (Escargot Tomato Soup with Rice Noodles). In a tangy tomato broth redolent with herbs (coriander and spring onions) and a good kick of ginger, the snails have a pleasantly firm bite. This stands out against the silkiness of the rice vermicelli, which are cooked perfectly - just tender enough to slide down your throat, but with no hint of mushiness. A quivery block of coagulated pig's blood comes bobbing atop the noodles. For those who are squeamish, pig's blood is a lot less intimidating than it sounds (truly—think of a slightly grainy silken tofu with a hint of iron), and is perfect if you're battling anemia.
As the restaurant's name suggests, Saigon Seafood is predominantly a seafood joint. I've heard good things about their Thịt Dể Nướng (#4 Sizzling Goat Meat) but my friends and I find it difficult to stray from their extensive seafood offerings. One of the best things we've ordered is their whole steamed fish - a special on the night we visited. An entire striped bass is steamed and served in a simple but fragrant marinade of soy sauce, sesame oil, and spring onions. The beauty of it is how perfectly timed the fish is - not a second overcooked and boasting wonderfully sweet, tender flesh.
Another remarkable dish is their Lẩu Đồ Biển Thái Lan (#170 Seafood Sour Soup in Fire Pot), which arrives bubbling at your table atop a portable stove. Once again, the seafood (a combination of scallops, mussels, shrimp, and fish) is spot-on. An unexpected bonus are the unripe jackfruit swimming about in the tart, tamarind-based, lemongrass and galangal-accented broth. The jackfruit had soaked up the broth's complex mix of flavors, yet retained their meaty texture - delicious! Less delicious was the Gỏi Mít Tôm Thit (#9 Pork, Prawns, and Jackfruit Salad), served with a sweet-salty-tart fish sauce dressing and crisp, sesame crackers to scoop everything up with. Here, the jackfruit is strangely limp and almost indistinguishable from canned artichoke hearts (a personal dislike).
On a separate visit, my friends and I ordered the Nghêu XàoTãu Xì (#133 Clams with Black Bean Sauce), which we found to be good value at $6.95 for a dinner plate-full. These were fresh, briney, and boasted a scintillating smokiness or "wok's breath" from the chef's masterful use of high heat. The Gỏi Sữa Tôm Thit (#12 Pork, Prawns, and Jellyfish Salad) was also a leg up above the #9 (jackfruit version), with crisp, crunchy pig ears contrasting delighfully with chewy jellyfish.
The crowd at Saigon Seafood on weekends can get intimidatingly boisterous - it seems to be a favorite for large family gatherings. Go on a weeknight, bring friends, order lots, be adventurous—create your own tasting menu for much less than The Fat Duck's £130. Have fun!
The damage: About $12 per person (we were a group of six), including tip.
740 Story Road #1, San Jose CA 95122 (map) 408-298-8488 Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays