Dong Khanh is not a quiet place. I brought my kid and she alternately slept and complained throughout dinner; I didn't notice, between the distracting symphony of a restaurant in full swing and the arrival of the plates of food we'd ordered off the 123-item menu. Sometimes noise works like tea or wine with a meal, enhances the flavor, smoothes out potential jagged edges of faltering conversation. This particular evening, the noisiness of this busy and successful Vietnamese joint was a relief. I'd been pent up in my apartment with an eye infection, unable to read, squirting eye drops at my puffy, pussy eyes resembling two small pissholes in the snow. I was trying to cull some bit of character-building "What I Learned When I Couldn't See" essay out of the experience, but nothing was coming to me except for repeated paranoid proclamations about corneal lesions, glaucoma, and cataracts via the phone to my lover, mother, and anyone else who would listen.
Having functional vision wrested from me did bring about an aural meal. Snapping nearsightedly with my chopsticks, submitting to the fuzzy swirl of color and light, the auditory machinations of the place eased into the foreground of my senses. Dong Khanh filled me with its voice.
And then our food came. Plate by plate, an incredible range of texture and flavor appeared, starting with charbroiled pork skewers and egg rolls over rice vermicelli noodles (called "bun," $5), layering basil, sprouts, cucumbers. Standard Vietnamese fare, but lordy that pork, sweet and lemongrassy, perfect carnivorous beauty set against light, cool vegetables and noodles--such a superior idea and execution.
Cold shrimp and pork with sweet, comfortingly chewy deep-fried jellyfish salad ($8.95) appeared next, heaped with spicy basil and cilantro, shredded green papaya, carrot, and cucumber, bound tenuously with a thin, fishy vinaigrette, a masterful warp and woof of culinary architecture for the tongue to climb around on (although at times the voluminous cilantro smacked back with a soapy tang). The vast Crab Meat and White Asparagus Soup ($8.50) followed, steaming and sweetly bland. I turned to the handy tray of condiments, which by sheer abundance gave me that all-you-can-eat salad bar feeling.
Then came the Frog Legs ($5.95). Served simply with sweet onions over rice in a spicy peanut coconut sauce, the 10 or so legs disappeared upon the plate's contact with our tabletop. This was my first taste of the heavily loaded delicacy that The Muppet Movie, a pivotal film in my youth, protests. Although Kermit's small green voice quavered out, "Why are there so many songs about rainbows?" as my teeth penetrated the amphibious muscle that flaked like crab or lobster meat but tasted light like chicken with a little butter, I managed to savor the little guys in my dim, sightless world.
Kermit the Frog is a puppet and Dong Khanh's frog legs are a genuine delight. While I jostled my baby around, trying to entertain her with the fish tank, the chef approached. His determined hand reached in and grabbed a fish, which vigorously splashed panic. I was close enough to see him bring the other hand up, spearing the fish with a grisly two-pronged fork on which it wriggled as he walked back to the kitchen. Life cycle, life cycle, I repeated to myself. The kid was impressed, and flapped her hands and crowed, "Whoo! Whoo!" like an owl on amphetamines. I do not care to use the two-pronged fork myself, but I will return for Dong Khanh's fish. Having deconstructed the layers of sound from underneath the pop music, I will hear the plop and swash of my dinner's death, and it will ring its Pavlovian bell of satisfied feeling--and I will wash down the white flesh and tiny bones with the full-bodied orchestral machinations swirling round my auditory passages.
Dong Khanh Restaurant
5300 Rainier Ave S, 722-5466. Open 8 am-10 pm every day. $$
Price Scale (per entrée)
$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-$20; $$$ = $20 and up.