Fish story

Maybe you know the feeling: You walk into a Chinese restaurant and open the menu. If it’s rich with favorites from the homeland — rather than the bastardized, “let’s not scare off the locals” cream cheese wontons and such — what do you order? You make a stab, but somehow, the dishes flowing to nearby tables of Asian families look a lot more enticing than the chicken stir-fry warming your plate.

From its spot on Eat Street, back before that stretch of Nicollet became a trendy dining destination, Rainbow Café has been serving dishes that native-born Chinese crave. But for those of us who cannot boast palates formed across the ocean, the battle of winnowing the options is enough to bring on post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Here’s a cure: Order the walleye.

The tender fish, served whole, has been the star of Rainbow’s menu for more than 20 years. At first, only its Asian customers got the message, but the secret was too scrumptious to simmer untold for long. “My family, and the Chinese I know, like to go out to eat in groups and order a steamed fish,” Tammy Wong explains its original popularity — “and we like it whole; fillets,” she says, “are more boring.”

Walleye was her instant choice for preparing the delicacy, for practical as well as gustatory reasons. “In Minnesota, people weren’t used to eating fish [20 years ago], but they’re familiar with walleye.”

Wong orders this freshwater fish in two-to-three-pound sizes — these days, from Canada, where the supply is more consistent — then gently steams it. The secret lies, she says, in “perfect timing — [it’s] not overcooked nor undercooked.” Then it’s drained and carefully arranged atop a serving platter. Next, a spritz of soy sauce hits the skin to awaken its delicate flavor, followed by a topknot of julienned green onion, fresh ginger and cilantro. That dainty garnish is another standard by which you can judge the finesse of a Chinese kitchen, she instructs: “Not too much. And to do it right, you have to cut the pieces very, very slender or it looks sloppy.”

Next, oil that has been heated in a wok until that perfect moment when it’s “really, really hot but not burning” is scooped on top — “so when you eat it, you taste the wok’s smoke: That’s what I look for,” explains this perfectionist.

And that’s exactly why picky, picky Chinese customers flock here from outlying communities. “If I’m out of walleye, they walk back out the door,” she says. However, both Rainbow’s Vietnamese and Laotian clientele come in with different preferences. They savor their whole fish fried and flavored with a savory black bean sauce. “That’s what they like best, and it’s such a project to prepare at home that they’d rather come here,” Wong reports.

Her Caucasian customers, when offered a whole fish — from head to tail — fall into two camps of diners — “either they’re fascinated or horrified.” (To the latter, I’d suggest, “Get over it.”) Wong suggests that the fish will feed a party of four, augmented by the rice accompanying it and a side order of vegetables and maybe another dish or two. No leftovers, guaranteed.

Rainbow Chinese
2739 Nicollet Ave.