I come from a family of chronic over orderers. If you've ever been to a Filipino family party, or just a Tuesday night dinner at a Filipino household, you understand. My husband likes to tell the story of the first time he went to dinner at my parents' house. There were four of us, and my mom and dad served a dinner of salad, pancit, baked salmon, and white rice. Oh, and two racks of smoked pork ribs.
At restaurants, our usual formula for ordering is one dish for every member of the party, plus an extra one just to be sure we don't starve. A few months ago, on the day before New Year's Eve, five members of my family—me, my husband, our 1-year-old daughter, my mother, and my father—found ourselves at Rainier Restaurant and BBQ (which, to be clear, is neither on Rainier Avenue nor a barbecue restaurant) in Rainier Valley. The address is 6400 Martin Luther King Jr. Way South. The restaurant has a loyal following for its great Vietnamese food. It also has the distinction of being one of the places Anthony Bourdain featured in the Seattle episode of his 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 Vietnamese restaurant suspects: bowls of dependably delicious pho, as well as dishes of bún (chewy rice vermicelli) and com tam (steamed broken rice), the last two topped with assorted grilled meats. Like Chiang's Gourmet on Lake City Way, 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, all those choices can seem incredibly overwhelming.
Everyone in our group 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 bo lá lot. My mom had a hankering for fried fish, so we tacked on the only fried fish option available: a whole deep-fried catfish. That might seem like a lot of food, but honestly we were proud of our restraint.
Most of the food came out quickly. Ten minutes after we ordered, as we were plowing our way through chewy pieces of squid and slurping noodles out of little bowls, a man came out of the kitchen to talk to us about our catfish.
"Small is okay?" he asked.
When we said yes, he told us that the smallest available fish weighed five pounds. That didn't sound that small to me. There was a moment of hesitant silence as we all tried to assess just how big this fish would be. My father, taking charge, declared simply, "Well, Mom wants it. And it's almost New Year's."
Thirty-five minutes later, long after we had finished all the other food and my daughter had started to get fidgety and fussy, the catfish made its grand entrance. As it came out of the kitchen, we gasped. It was at least a foot and a half long, hanging over the edges of the platter it was served on. Its body was curved as though it was still swimming, preserved in a perpetual state of motion. When it landed on the table, it sizzled and hissed. It appeared to have wings—its crispy fins sticking out. A bubble on the side of its face, just above one of its whiskers, burst open as we looked at it. My daughter's eyes grew wide, and the simple exclamation of a 1-year-old summarized everyone's feelings: "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 chunks of the fish in lettuce leaves with fresh herbs and pickled carrots. We dunked them into a spicy, pungent anchovy-pineapple sauce.
We proceeded to eat in reverential silence, entering a trancelike state, 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 out loud that the catfish reminded me of lechon, the Filipino whole roasted pig that's often served at parties. But my family agreed. Like lechon, the skin of the catfish 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 us to keep picking away at it, even after we knew it wasn't a good idea to do so. The fish's very presence made an ordinary meal feel like a special occasion.
Months later, remembering how we passed my baby girl amid four sets of loving arms so we could all eat and marvel together, I realize that it was.