I thought a party of seven on a Wednesday night would be the gorilla in the room. But I'd never been to the back end of V Garden Seafood Restaurant in the ID, where none of the round tables have fewer than eight seats. Turned out we had the clout of a Chihuahua. While I was waiting for the rest of my friends to arrive, I was asked to change tables not once but twice. As I picked up my teacup and decamped a second time, the waiter explained, "We have a big party arriving."When the group of 16 sat down (maybe more—it was hard to count running 4-year-olds), they took up the last seat in the place. V Garden's back room is tricked out to party, wood paneling giving way to vivid yellow walls, octagonal lights with painted scenes and red tassels, even a mirror ball that had tiny girls twirling underneath it to admire their reflections. Around us the tables were heaped with food: dented metal bowls bubbling away over Sterno fires, grandpas ferrying spoonfuls of greens onto their rice bowls, young women plucking pieces of duck from a platter and folding plum-sauce-smeared steamed buns around the meat.On the outside, V Garden gives no sign that it's such a popular destination for big families. In the ground floor of a low-income apartment building across Jackson Street from Union Station, with the word "RESTAURANT" spelled out in letters of different sizes, it doesn't have the most elegant of facades. But a couple months ago, a friend of mine reported that her family had eaten the most amazing king crab and steamed fish at the restaurant. "I found out the V stands for Vietnamese," she added. Many businesses in the International District are run by ethnically Chinese Vietnamese who emigrated to the states after the fall of Saigon, explained Kim Pham, editor of the Northwest Vietnamese News. Their food reflects both their southern Chinese heritage and their lives in Vietnam.I made a daytime foray a few weeks before my party of seven descended. I didn't see the back room, only a slightly tatty front dining room, with a few groups of lunchers, most of them taking advantage of the daytime specials. I ate a pleasant plate of "three treasures" (shrimp, fish, and squid) sauteed with vegetables in a clear sauce seasoned just with a little garlic, as well as dismally bland "Thai-style" fried rice noodles. Meh.However, I did spy one piece of evidence to back up my friend's claim—a bank of tanks near the register. And rule #1 of eating Cantonese seafood is to make sure the tanks are clean and all the creatures in them are crawling or at least fluttering their gills. V Garden passes both tests. In fact, the place stocks 10-pound ling cod and sturgeon, along with the normal Dungeness, scowling king crabs, bored lobsters, docile tilapia, and, in the prawn aquarium, a writhing mass of pink legs and antennae. The inventory was clearly moving.Judging by their tables, a number of the groups around me had ordered one of V Garden's three set menus. While there's no way in hell I'd order the two most expensive of those, which include shark's fin—an industry so repellent it makes caged-veal producers look like PETA supporters—the $168 menu was worth considering. It had lobster and steamed fish, both fresh from the tank, as well as the chef's special squab, Peking duck, greens, and honey-walnut prawns. But ordering Peking duck at a Cantonese restaurant is like ordering a crown roast at a trattoria—it's a generic party piece, not part of the cuisine. I figured I could do better on my own.So how do you do better when faced with an unfamiliar 200-item menu? Take calculated risks.American diners think linearly; we're trained to compose our meals of individual appetizers, entrées, and desserts, and tend to think of each course as complete in itself. Chinese diners, by contrast, think horizontally, ordering an entire table's worth of food at once: Something sweet alongside something sharp and spicy. A cold plate, followed by hot soup. Something braised, something fried, something steamed. Always at least one crunchy vegetable dish. Servers act almost like sommeliers, helping the alpha diners (at our table, me) compose a well-balanced meal.Our waitress, who was working the room like a bridezilla-hounded wedding planner, wasn't quite ready to play that role for us. To her credit, she never once suggested we stick to American favorites like General Tso's chicken and orange beef, and she did advise me that if I ordered the steamed fish with ginger and green onion, I'd want the crab cooked "salt-and-pepper" style to complement it. (The menu lists four or five choices for the live crab and lobster, such as "steamed with black bean sauce" and "spicy chili.") On the con side, she didn't always steer me true: For instance, when I tried to order a plate of simply stir-fried seasonal greens, she urged me to get instead a wall special that she translated as "three mushrooms with greens." While I liked the dish—a stir-fry of meaty black mushrooms, crunchy wood ear, and creminis—it was more expensive and contained only four snow peas. As a result, the table lacked vegetables.As my friend had promised, the live seafood was the meal's highlight. The cooks dusted Dungeness crab ($12.99 a pound, two pounds or so) in a little rice flour and fried it with seasonings, so when I cracked a leg with my teeth to suck the tender, sweet meat out of the shell, I picked up all the salt from the coating on the exterior, and snacked between bites on deep-fried garlic, green chiles, and green onions. Farmed tilapia is not the world's most exciting fish, but the cooks steamed it nicely, so that we were able to peel the skin away from the meat with our chopsticks and pick out chunks of delicate, cottony white flesh, along with scallion and ginger threads and the sweetened soy sauce bathing the fish.To balance the spicy fried crab and the mild steamed fish, I added something meaty (crispy chicken), something sweet and fried (honey-coated walnut prawns, glooped over in mayonnaise), and something braised. The braised dish, served bubbling over a flame, was another highlight. How could I not love it? It was "preserved vegetable with pork hot pot," aka slices of pork belly—simmered until the lean meat was almost falling apart and the remaining stripes of fat were a soft, unctuous presence in the mouth—in a rich, soy-seasoned broth with sweet flecks of dried turnips and, underneath them, pale green strands of cabbage.I was taught that every Cantonese meal should start with soup—the soup bowl then becomes your rice bowl—and so I decided to test the kitchen's Vietnamese skills with a classic Vietnamese sour fish soup. But as with the Thai noodles, V Garden's southeast Asian flavors were like Natalie Merchant's cover of "Because the Night": The restaurant turned a complex, herbaceous, lively soup into a lightly tangy broth with a couple slices of fish, loads of bean sprouts, and a few canned pineapple chunks. Nix to the V in V Garden.Yet all that food—plus one round of drinks, tax, and a 20 percent tip—cost seven people $21 a person. There's clearly a reason you need a reservation to get into V Garden's back room. Just don't show up with a party of three.Price Check
V Garden Seafood Restaurant 310 Fourth Ave. S., 622-2686. INTERNATIONAL DISTRICT. Open for lunch, dinner, and late night seven days a week.
Sour fish fillet soup $8.95
Live crab $12.99/pound
Preserved vegetable with pork $9.95
Walnut prawns $11.95
Three mushrooms with greens $12.95 firstname.lastname@example.org