On the rare occasion that my family gets together and goes out to eat, we invariably end up at Restaurant Nhu Y Ca 8 Mon in Fountain Valley, CA. I believe the name translates to something like “8 courses of fish,” meaning that once you set foot in this fine establishment, you can expect to eat some kind of seafood–and lots of it, in lots of different ways. The best way, in my family’s opinion, is to order a whole catfish (sizes range from extra small to quadruple extra large, depending on how hungry/gluttonous you’re feeling), which is then baked to a golden crisp and served on a bed of greens and covered with roasted peanuts. Also note the two maraschino cherries over the eyes, which is a welcome alternative to picking at the fish while trying to avoid staring guiltily into the poor bastard’s blank, milky eyes. (Or perhaps in the piscine afterlife, Charon charges the dearly departed two cherries instead of gold coins to cross the River Styx? But then why couldn’t a fish just swim across the river and save itself the trouble of riding in a boat? Do fish even have an afterlife? Well. I digress.)
Along with the fish come a variety of accoutrements: fresh greens, including mint, cucumber slices, lettuce and some unidentifiable Vietnamese vegetation; picked carrots and daikon; bean sprouts, white rice noodles; rice wrappers and two sweet and sour dipping sauces, one with tamarind, one without. Once everything’s brought out, the labor-intensive fun begins:
1) Cut catfish up into chunks. Fight with family members over the biggest, juiciest-looking morsel.
2) Soak a rigid rice wrapper in a bowl of warm water, provided by the restaurant, and lay it out on your plate.
3) Place fish in the middle of the wrapper, then add some noodles, greens, pickled veggies and roasted peanuts.
4) Clumsily wrap everything into a cohesive parcel that resembles something like a fresh spring roll.
5) Give up trying to make it look pretty, and mash everything together and hope for the best.
5) Dip roll into one of two sauces.
6) Stuff into mouth.
7) Swallow and repeat.
With all this seafoody goodness, you’d think it would be easy to forget your surroundings and focus on the food. Not the case at Restaurant Nhu Y Ca 8 Mon. There’s nothing subtle about this place–from the moment you enter the eatery’s main dining room, your senses are assaulted by the cacophony of karaoke emanating from the adjacent lounge, the smell of roasted fish, and the blindingly bright neon signs and Christmas lights. Even your aesthetic sensibilities get bitch-slapped across the face, with plaster recreations of Venus de Milo and Michaelangelo’s David; a canopy of fake grapes and grape leaves adorning the ceiling; ugly stone fountains; gigantic potted plants and flowers, both artificial and real; paper butterflies; assorted gumball machines; and its crowning glory, a giant stag head wearing a red bow tie.
The lack of pretentiousness (any restaurant with taste for honkin’ huge, bow-tied taxidermy can’t take itself too seriously) and just all-around awesomeness of this restaurant can’t be captured in mere words. You’ll have to experience the magic for yourself.
What: Restaurant Nhu Y Ca 8 Mon
Where: 10830 Warner Ave., Fountain Valley, CA