Rainier Restaurant & BBQ (which, to be clear, is neither on Rainier Avenue nor a barbecue restaurant) already has a loyal following for its great Vietnamese food. The restaurant also has the distinction of being one of the places Anthony Boudain featured in the Seattle episode of his show Travel Channel show The Layover, where it stood out among the other "classic Seattle" spots visited, including Canlis and the Walrus and the Carpenter.
Rainier has the usual suspects: solid bowls of phở, as well as dishes of bún (chewy rice vermicelli) and cơm tấm (steamed broken rice), the last two topped with assorted grilled meats. Like Chiang's Gourmet on Lake City, Rainier also has more than one menu: a regular one with dishes familiar to most diners, as well as a "secret" one that includes meats such as python and alligator. When you're very hungry, which my family and I were last Wednesday when we stopped in for dinner after a day of airplane travel, all those choices can seem incredibly overwhelming.
Everyone in our group—me, my husband, our daughter, and my parents—was right on the edge of hangry, so we ordered a few things right off the bat: shrimp-and-pork fresh rolls, squid with black bean sauce, duck noodle soup, and bỏ lá lốt. (I come from a family of chronic over-orderers, the usual formula being one dish for every member of the party, plus one just to be sure we don't starve, so this felt pretty restrained.) My mom had a hankering for fried fish, so we tacked on the only fried fish option available: a whole, deep-fried catfish.
A few minutes later, as we were plowing through our other dishes, a man came out of the kitchen to ask us what size catfish we would like. "Small is okay?," he asked.
When we said yes, he told us that the smallest available fish weighed five pounds. There was a moment of hesitant silence before my my father delared, "Well, Mom wants it. And it's almost New Year's."
Thirty-five minutes later, long after we had finished all the other food, the catfish made its grand entrance. We gasped. This thing is a show-stopper. As it landed on the table, it sizzled and hissed. It appeared to have wings. A bubble on the side of its face, just above one of its whiskers, burst open. My one-year-old yelled, "Whoa."
Though just moments before all the adults had declared ourselves "probably too full to eat anything else," we set to work. We took turns chiseling away at its crunchy, golden-brown exterior to get our fingers on the minerally and extraordinarily moist flesh underneath. We didn't bother dipping the sheets of rice paper into hot water to make fresh rolls (too much work), opting instead to simply wrap them in lettuce leaves and herbs and dunk them in the addictive, spicy, sweet, and funky anchovy-pineapple sauce. We proceeded to do this in reverential silence, save for a few "mmmmmms," until we had eaten an entire side of the fish. We were exhausted and ecstatic, awash in a strange sort of triumph.
I was surprised when I found myself saying aloud that the catfish reminded me of lechon, Filipino whole roasted pig that's often served at parties. But my family agreed. Like lechon, the skin of the catfish (which I don't think I've ever eaten before) had the most wonderfully crackly texture, which made it a joy to eat on its own. Underneath, the meat was oily, sweet, and abundant, beckoning me to keep picking away at it, even after I knew it wasn't a good idea to do so. The fish's very presence made an ordinary meal feel like a special occasion.
Less than a week later, recalling how we passed a baby amid four sets of loving arms so we could all eat and marvel together, I realize that it was.