ONE RECENT FRIDAY night a tall, urbane friend and I bore through rush hour traffic to Rainier Restaurant & BBQ which, upon arrival, we found to be a noisy and spacious room in full festive throttle. This Vietnamese-Chinese dining spot, at the busy intersection of Rainier and MLK, is set up with large round and rectangular tables, and the effect of the light blue vinyl and Formica tabletops is airy and cool.

Sitting with friends, we for some reason dove into a tense conversation about neurotic family dynamics, family treacheries, and other mayhem. This, while all around us there were great, cheerful, celebratory gusts of Friday-end-of-the-work-week noise; large parties of drinking men, toasting the weekend with bottles of Bud.

Our discussion slowed once we got curious about the menus. One, briefer than the other, is a "beer drinkers" menu of savory platters designed to accompany and support drinking, and includes such straightforward snacks as Chopped Cobra with Lemongrass ($12.95), Deer on Fire Plate ($15.95), Alligator with Garlic Extract ($12.95), and Stir-Fry Goat with Curry & Chili ($9.95). The regular dinner menu chiefly features Vietnamese dishes, with some basic Chinese fare such as chow mein, chow fun, and won ton soup.

The three servers, probably high school girls, did not divide the room into sections; instead, they ran around to all tables in a disorganized and charming pattern, so that during our first half hour at the place, a server appeared before us inquiringly about every five minutes. This tapered off once we received our food. Still we were rather fussily talking about families, saying we longed to have them, but would prefer families other than the ones we already had. While participating fully in this conversation, even I thought it was tedious, and was glad that it paused with the arrival of the broth.

The Barbecue Duck and Scallion Soup ($8.95) was densely savory and gamey tasting, though the scallions were long and tough. My tall friend, who is also a professional nutritionist, decided that this would be a terrific tonic to drink if you had the flu. Tofu Sour Soup ($6.95) was a standout, a real treasure trove of shiitake mushrooms, fried tofu, okra, tomato, pineapple, and the light, spongy, tuberous Asian vegetable bac ha, all jumbled together appetizingly and covered by a gleaming, addictively sweet and sour broth. This huge bowl was topped with chopped fragrant herbs.

The Ginger Chicken ($5.00) was certainly a bargain, with its wonderful detail of long, narrow, fresh ginger root strips amid the softly breaded chicken and barely cooked scallions (although some of the ginger strips were unpeeled). Still, the dish had a good and spicy bite. Cai Lan (Chinese broccoli) with Squid ($6.95) was terrific too, the cai lan soothingly bright green, crisp, and unstringy, garnished with tiny crescent-shaped slivers of fried onions.

It was hard to stop eating the Com Hen Xa Ot ($6.95), which had no precise English translation on the menu but was a kind of spicy "hash" of baby clams, ground peanuts, chopped cilantro, and cayenne, finely minced and served over lettuce. The nutritionist proclaimed this dish to be a true comfort food with its delicate, chewy texture, moderate heat, and the cooling, balancing factor of the cilantro. The dish looked, unfortunately, like a shapeless pile of stuff, but was compellingly delicious, if a bit oily.

The Shrimp and Squid Chow Fun ($6.50) was abundantly oily too, and its ingredients didn't stand out in the distinct way they did in the ginger chicken. But the chow fun's shrimp, barely breaded and flash-cooked, were super tasty and wonderfully tense with salty moisture.

Slowly chowing through this array of food, we noticed with surprise that we were eating from Fiestaware plates, then moved on to dessert. The menu features the standard list of Vietnamese dessert ice-drinks, and we chose an outstanding red bean coconut one. Tiny, irregular pellets of ice broke up the dessert's intense flavor and sweetness. Outside, it began to rain, and at last there was little talk at all; our worries had been suppressed by good food, and we would save them like whispers for our watery dreams.

The huge goldfish tank glowed against the rainy night. On the way out, waiting to pay, we leaned full and sleepy at the restaurant's take-out counter, which serves extremely cheap to-go lunch boxes in the form of barbecued duck, chicken, pork, or sausage, all priced between $3.00 and $4.50. Rainier Restaurant is a nice place to go on a cool afternoon or evening for generous portions and great atmosphere; and though the food sports more grease than it needs to, it is interesting, well-made fare.

Rainier Restaurant & BBQ

2919 Rainier Ave S, 723-6671

Mon-Thurs: 9 am-11 pm

Fri-Sat: 9 am-midnight

Vietnamese Frat House

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