When I think back to a trip to Vietnam five years ago, two meals come to mind. One was at a street stall in Hanoi famous for its green papaya salad. There, I managed to break a foot-high plastic stool in two by lowering myself too quickly onto it. Merriment was had by all, and the salad was fantastic. With a bit more fondness I recall the other meal, at a simple waterfront restaurant next to a pearl farm north of Da Nang. We ate grilled oysters, which were served on the flame-blackened half shell and dressed with peanuts, fried shallots, and scallion oil. There was a squeeze bottle of Chin-Su hot sauce for a finishing touch. It was love at first slurp.

Ocean Grill & Bar serves an idealized version of this dish, nuong mo hanh. Fist-size Pacific oysters arrive sizzling on an iron plate, lashed with crunchy toppings, and served with a cup of housemade hot sauce that is a study in sweet, bright, and delayed-action kapow. It is the highlight among dozens of seafood options, including Dungeness crabs, shell-on scallops, razor clams, escargots, and crayfish, served in a variety of preparations.

Platters of shellfish crowd nearly every table at this gem of a restaurant, which hides in plain sight in the Chinatown-Pilsen borderlands. Those dishes alone would be enough for me to encourage you to eat here. Yet there’s so much more going on, including a contender for the best pho in the city and a number of iconic Vietnamese dishes you won’t find elsewhere.

Chef and co-owner Ricky Dinh, a veteran cook, worked up and down Argyle’s Asian corridor before opening his first restaurant, Little Vietnam, a decade ago in Edgewater. It is the kind of solid neighborhood spot that keeps folks coming back for spring rolls and noodle bowls. Yet he kept thinking about the Vietnamese seafood houses he visited in Orange County, California — places with a direct line to fish importers and fresh noodle shops. With a small team of operator-investors, he quietly debuted Ocean Grill last October amid a jumble of boxy factories, wholesale markets, and single-family homes that have so far escaped the wrecking ball.

It is a pleasant jolt finding this lonely spot and then entering such a hub of activity, filled with families, big groups, and the happy sounds of clacking dishes. Industrious servers prowl through the crowd, point-of-sale devices at the ready. The room is decorated with fishermen’s baskets and a forest of plastic plants and trees. A central service bar beckons with a variety of crisp bottled lagers, flavored soju, and upmarket spirits such as Rémy Martin VSOP cognac.

Summer rolls and snails with garlic butter
Summer rolls and snails with garlic butter

I have a glass of fresh sugarcane juice while making a plan of attack for the menu of nearly 70 dishes. The move is to order appetizers and shellfish for the table, then noodle dishes you can split awkwardly or eat solo, with leftovers in mind.

Those oysters are hard to pass up but also hard to share. The giant “queen clams” sport the same frizzly cap of fried shallot, peanut, and scallion oil and are pre-snipped so you can dig out morsels and dip them in that same elixir of hot sauce. The walnut-size sea snails come with a toothpick you use to extract them. Get them with the garlic butter sauce — it’s so lush you’ll want to drink it. Dinh sources most of his seafood from a California wholesaler, but the oysters and a few other items come daily from the nearby FreshMart.

Somewhere amid this bounty, you’ll need to make space for bo bia, summer rolls I’ve long loved and have never found in Chicago. Slivers of sweet Chinese sausage, omelet, jicama, dried shrimp, and greens arrive bundled in taut, translucent rice paper and ready to dunk in a complex peanut sauce. It does that thing that you only get from Vietnamese food: It feels so raw and fresh at first, but then there’s a gentle wave of funk and umami.

I also have to applaud the table condiment game here. Among the jars and bottles, you’ll find a pot of chopped red chiles marinating in fish sauce, a couple of drops of which make any dish sing. I could come here and just order pork belly skewers, charred and crispy, dab this sauce on it, and call it keto perfection.

Beef pho
Beef pho

I love carbs too much for a keto diet, so I get to try Ocean Grill’s paradigm-shifting pho. The broth is so layered and meaty, it’s as if the flavors of cinnamon and star anise are stacked within it, and the garnish plate contains herbs you won’t find elsewhere, like the menthol-minty ngo om. Pay the $1.50 upcharge for supple, fresh rice noodles that Dinh imports from California. Also, if you like rare steak, you’re in for a treat: He uses tenderloin instead of eye of round.

I’ve already sent you out for two meals’ worth of dishes, but bear with me: You also need to know about the glass noodles stir-fried with ample chunks of fresh lobster. They’re gently but cannily seasoned: I liked it from the first bites but was obsessing about it by the final ones. If you’ve been wanting to try bun cha Hanoi, this is an excellent place to do so. Try the Northern-style dipping platter with pork patties, rice vermicelli, salad, and spring rolls, plus a bowl of green papaya fish sauce broth that you hold to dunk each mouthful.

There was a dud or three. Raw Kumamoto oysters tasted washed out. The Saigon-style bun noodle bowl wasn’t as refreshing as others in town because Dinh serves the noodles hot. Steamed clams didn’t pick up much flavor from the sweet, watery lemongrass broth. Yet, on the whole, the food was so impressive that I asked to meet with Dinh after my third meal there. I found him to be friendly, modest, obsessive about freshness, and an absolute food geek. Just get him talking about his pho broth and you’ll see what I mean.

While he didn’t divulge the recipe for his hot sauce, other than to say it includes Chin-Su, he did give me some advice to live by: The next time I’m lucky enough to go to Vietnam, I need to stack up two stools before sitting down. “People break them all the time,” he assured me.