Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal's Raymond Sokolov just wrote up a piece on a great topic: communal dishes. Even though the predominant style of dining>"/>
Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal's Raymond Sokolov just wrote up a piece on a great topic: communal dishes. Even though the predominant style of dining is sharing small plates, Sokolov wrote, there's great pleasure to be had in assembling a group of friends for big, communal platters. Then he botched the idea by featuring Momofuku Ssam Bar's bo ssam, a braised pork butt with lettuce wraps and raw oysters that was critically overexposed by 2006. Really, press-magnet Momofuku was the only restaurant in New York the WSJ's storied food writer could think of? (To be fair, Sokolov mentioned paella and pizza, but practically as afterthoughts.)
Of course, Seatle has paella-for-three too, at restaurants like Taberna del Alabardero and Gaudi. But there's also Korean junggol (stew), bo ssam, and jokbal (braised pork shank) at Sam Oh Jung; DIY hot pots galore; the Northern Chinese lamb pot with pickled cabbage at Jack's Tapas Cafe (get the sesame bread on the side); Cantonese steamed fish and fried crab at places like V Garden and T&T Seafood; Tavolata's extra-large grilled chops and whole fish; Peking duck at O'Asian; and, hell, fondue at the overpriced Melting Pot.
Then there's the giant fried catfish at Ben Thanh. Which I ordered by accident.
Adventure-eater GastroGnome pointed me toward Ben Thanh (2815 South Hanford Street, just off Rainier south of the intersection with MLK Way) a month or so ago, and the two of us met there for bun cha, one of Hanoi's signature dishes. Along with the grilled pork meatballs (which turned out to unremarkable), we ordered another dish, the first item on the Vietnamese-language specials list pasted underneath the glass tabletop. The waitress translated the ca chien don kieu as fried catfish with rice-paper wraps; after 45 minutes she brought out a whole, deep-fried fish the length of my forearm, containing at least 2 pounds of meat and a square yard of bubbly, golden, crackly skin.
We ate as much fish as we could: softening sheets of rice paper in hot water; picking off hunks of meat and skin to place on the center of the rounds; topping the meat with vegetables, herbs, and rice noodles; rolling up our own spring rolls; and dipping them into bowls of sweet-tart nuoc cham. The catfish was tasty. It was ridiculous. Ca chien should really be the centerpiece of a meal for 4-6 people -- as we confirmed when I looked at the check and saw that it cost $38.95. A splurge for 2 diners, a deal for 5, and the makings of a memorable night out with friends.