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Ngõ Nooks: At Ốc Cô Nhung, an Affordable Five-Course Banquet of Snails and Snacks

If there is a restaurant in Hanoi that embodies the proverb “good wine needs no bush,” it’s Ốc cô Nhung. Though in this case, instead of wine, it is snails.

This eatery has neither a sign nor a menu; it doesn’t even have a name. I only call it Ốc cô Nhung because I have to call it something. And yet they have been in business for two generations, with Nhung inheriting the place from her mother.

I know of Ốc cô Nhung because my wife brought me here, and she knows of the place because her mother brought her here when she was a kid. My wife and I have moved around in Hanoi a few times, but we always come back to this ốc place.

One day, after another successful excursion to Ốc cô Nhung, we sat down and talked about what makes this place so popular, and came to an agreement that it's because their fare is authentic and even though they only have a few dishes, but they are good at what they do.

A platter of afternoon snacks.

The two staple foods that Nhung serves are snails and mussel congee, in addition to bánh bột lọc, a tapioca dumpling. “It is the best congee around here. If the mussel is cut too big then it will be chewy. So they cut their mussels into tiny pieces, and the ratio of mussels and congee is very good,” my wife explains. She's been enjoying Nhung's cooking for decades now, so I have complete trust in her assessment.

Cô Nhung's mussel congee.

As for the snails, they must be fresh and served seething hot. “The snails are boiled with lemongrass and lime leaves,” she continues, “When they are brought out you can burn your hand touching one, and when you eat, the last one will still need to be hot. That’s how you eat snails! But the special thing here is the sauce. In all of Hanoi there is no other place with a sauce like that.”

Boiled ốc bươu dipped in cô Nhung's special sauce.

I remembered seeing the sauce station at Nhung’s. Next to the big bowl of liquid were many ingredients like lemongrass and kumquat; all were components of every small bowl of sauce. The result was an explosion of taste. “Eating snails with that sauce is the best,” she raves, “no need for sautée-ing with garlic butter or anything like that. People eat snails because of that sauce. Afterwards, you can mix the sauce and the snail broth and drink it.”

The aromatic sauce station.

I was surprised to learn that slurping this snail broth is a common practice here. If the ancient Vietnamese proverb "nhạt như nước ốc" (As tasteless as snail broth) is any indication, this shouldn't be as delicious as claimed.

“That’s why you mix the sauce in! You drink it to avoid a 'cold stomach,' or at least that’s what my parents taught me,” she recalls. “Because snails are naturally 'cold,' and all the ingredients that make up the sauce, like fish sauce and lemongrass, are 'hot.' So they counterbalance each other.” The notion that food is either "hot" or "cold" is rooted in ancient Chinese culture and has seeped into Vietnamese folk beliefs as well.

Though feeling skeptical, I couldn’t deny that the sauce is very nicely balanced and Nhung’s customers love it. The sauce even inspires a secret dish that only those who know it can order: quẩy, a crispy doughnut commonly eaten with congee. Dipping the chewy quẩy into that sauce makes quite a tasty snack. But only the early birds get that particular worm, because Nhung usually runs out of quẩy quickly and has to save the remaining few for the congee.

Quẩy is an airy and crispy doughnut used to soak up soup or broth, or in this case, a tangy-and-spicy sauce.

With just around VND70,000, you can sample all the dishes at Nhung’s. But, according to my wife, you have to be strategic about the order: “You must start with the ốc first, it won’t be good otherwise. If you start with the congee, then the whole thing fails because you won’t want to eat anything else after that. So you start with the snails, then some quẩy and quail eggs, they go well with the sauce, too. Then some bánh bột lọc. And finally a bowl of congee. Then crawl home because your stomach would be bursting.”

A bowl of bánh bột lọc.

A five-course meal at that price is a steal in this economy. Maybe that is why this place is still thriving after all these years: offering great food at a bargain. Whatever the reason, I know for a fact that once my kid is old enough, I’m taking them to see cô Nhung and continue the tradition.

Ốc cô Nhung is open from 2pm to 5pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5
Price: 5/5
Atmosphere: 4/5
Friendliness: 5/5
Location: 3/5

Linh likes to test his wife’s patience by always needing to find the perfect seat in a restaurant.

Ốc cô Nhung

54 Đồng Cổ, Bưởi, Tây Hồ District, Hanoi.

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