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Loan Hua had a huge challenge in front of her when she recently took over a humble billiards hall set at the back of a nondescript strip mall in Rainier Valley: how to turn a space filled with pool tables into a nice, sit-down establishment.

Hua, who lives nearby, wanted the kind of restaurant she and her husband might pick for a casual dinner out in the hood, someplace inexpensive yet high quality that also honors her Southeast Asian heritage, and that’s what Watercress delivers.

The menu:
Broken up into sections devoted to pho, rice dishes, vermicelli noodle dishes with chicken, pork, beef, prawns or tofu, vegetarian entrees and specialties, along with a large selection of appetizers, the menu is overwhelming in a good way.

The citrusy-green flavor of lemon grass figures in many dishes, such as the stir-fried, chili-lemon grass beef with rice ($9.50), sweet-and-tangy, grilled lemon grass tofu mixed with noodles ($9) and fried rice with lemon grass, mint, shrimp paste and bacon bits ($10).

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At the other end of the taste spectrum are clay-pot dishes with either meat or seafood, and sometimes both, such as prawns and braised pork cooked in a clay pot ($12). This cooking technique produces the sort of deep, caramelized flavors that make you want to lick the pot clean.

What to write home about: The clay-pot dish consisting of braised pork and long, thick slices of coconut meat that have been browned with sugar, garlic, pepper and funky fish sauce is delightfully pungent, sweet, spicy, nutty and filling.

The setting: With comfortable booths, lots of mirrors and lounged mood lighting in the spacious dining room, Watercress is a stylish oasis in a business strip that’s ethnically eclectic yet easy to miss from the road.

Summing up: Veggie rolls ($5.50), chili-lemon grass tofu ($9) and braised pork and coconut in a clay pot with steamed rice on the side ($11) came to $25.50 plus tax and tip.

Tyrone Beason:

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