Eating Rainier

A report from the field by a self-taught expert.

I LEFT SEATTLE many years ago, and one day, with all the speed and lack of intent of Alice falling down the rabbit hole, I found myself in Asia, the head of a large and sprawling business. I was no Asiaphile, no mandarin; quite the opposite—I knew far more about Latin grammar than the structure of keiretsu. Eventually I learned a paltry handful of phrases in the relevant languages. And after eating out every meal for years, in several cities a week, I became an expert at finding and snap judging restaurants. Things work differently in Asia, I discovered over and over again, as when I wanted to reorganize my office in Singapore. "It's critical," a local friend told me, "that you consult an oracle regarding an auspicious day." So I acquired an oracle, whose advice I dutifully consulted for any important activity, and then usually spurned. Alas, following my own intuition eventually made it painfully clear that he was always right. Like the time he told me I was about to lose a lot of money. Impossible, I thought. It's all safe and sound in company stock; after all, what could be safer than a Nasdaq technology company? Foraging for good restaurants throughout my travels was often just as painful, but with the guidance of masters I learned a few tricks that I now ply sourcing out the best little Asian restaurants in Seattle. In defiance of Western marketing theory, Jumbo Chinese (4208 Rainier S., 760-9200) follows classic patterns of Chinese warfare and Hong Kong dim sum restaurant strategy: Position defensively by using a profile so low as to be virtually invisible. Jumbo sits inside a remarkable Hong Kong-style purveyor of furniture/bridal items/cell phone technology. Persevere, Grasshopper, should you find said furniture unstylish when you enter; surpassing the wasteful distractions of superficial judgment is the first test of your journey. Upon crossing Jumbo's not terribly prepossessing threshold, note the prosperous feng shui qualities of the fish tank, and do not be dissuaded by the disco balls. When you meet the dragon with the glowing red eyes, you have arrived at the gates of dim sum heaven. If your Chinese is lacking, be one with the long line of gweilo customers in the "point and shoot" tradition; in one welcome difference from Hong Kong, the staff is actually nice. Enjoy! And if you spend more than $10 per person, you have forgotten the old Chinese saying: "The first 80 percent of your appetite supports you, the last 20 percent supports your doctor." Don't be scared by Saigon Dynasty's location in a strip mall (6030 Martin Luther King Jr. S., 723-4066), nor by its goofy modern chairs, hideous chandeliers, startling plastic sunflowers, lack of koi, etc., etc., etc. All of its design "challenges" signal a restaurant focused less on what the Hard Rock Cafe (notably defunct hereabouts) calls "the dining- entertainment experience" and rather on one simple thing: good dim sum. Thus the soul is transported effortlessly to Hong Kong, as are the elbows (likely to be jostled by denizens with a more diminutive sense of personal space than customary stateside). Two dine well for under $20. A clean and even stylish facade, ample parking, and a solid stream of guests coming and going give the observant high hopes for Vietnam's Pearl (708 Rainier S., 726-1581), auspiciously located high on Rainier. The Pearl doesn't disappoint—or not completely at least; just be forewarned that once inside things are suddenly less urban-Asian-chic and more good-neighborhood-restaurant. The large interior is lit with unexpected skylights, the down-market decoration is competently synthesized for a pleasant atmosphere, and as for the Vietnamese food, the vegetarian spring rolls are tasty, the main dishes are fast and good, and the price is right. Then there's the service, which offers room for improvement. Keep your expectations low in this regard when Pearl diving, and you'll come up happy. Feeling green? Formerly the swank (or possibly slimy, depending on your point of view) Blue Lagoon, Mi La Cay (718 Rainier S., 322-6840) has left the deep-aquarium-green '70s decor largely unaltered; a guest appearance by legendary private investigator John Shaft seems permanently impending. The Chinese-Vietnamese food is authentic—though if a restaurant can be said to be too much so, Mi La Cay approaches the line. Noodle soups and various seafood and meats served simply with rice take one right back to Asia; the regional drinks are good; the shaved ice and red bean dessert is traditional. But if you've ever pondered the many upstart ethnic restaurants in the Rainier Valley and feared that some may be more of a journey into the foreign than you are willing to take, this is one to save for later; it will cause the white bread to recall the forgotten merits of Applebee's. Nonetheless, Mi La Cay is popular with its mostly young Asian-American crowd. On the sidewalk outside the Vietnamese Huong Binh (1207 S. Jackson, #B104, 720-4907) is a refrigerator cleanly stacked with inscrutable homemade preserves for sale, a promising indicator of the caring and diligent management inside. The lively atmosphere, quick service, and great food easily make up for an undistinguished (except, perhaps, by the "I Love You" poster) interior; and there's a primal, playing-with-your-food joy to mixing up each bite of vermicelli with the tasty fresh herbs, chili pastes, and sweet sauces that come on the side. The mechanically oriented will be still further satisfied by the "Thai" coffee, which comes to the table with a pleasing drip apparatus. The appetizer spring rolls are super, and for omnivores it's hard to beat menu item no. 9, rice vermicelli with skewered meats. (A single veggie dish sits at the end of the menu like an afterthought—sayonara, vegans, take your social justice elsewhere!) It's hard to go wrong when the owners of the restaurant can be found happily working the floor. The jolly matrons at the Sichuanese Cuisine Restaurant (1048 S. Jackson, 720-1690) are always friendly, and the food is pleasantly spicy in the tradition of this region of China, which is renowned for its hot peppers and fiery, independent tempers. There's no fusion here, just great home-cooked Chinese food, oil and all. Homemade wontons are available in frozen bags to take home. The garlic eggplant and kung pao shrimp are favorites, and most portions are large and inexpensive—one dish might serve two people. And despite the lackluster decor, the crowds of happy guests make for a warm, fuzzy feeling. "The best Chinese food in the city," was overheard recently here; that is certainly excessive praise. But then again, there's nothing like coming home.

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