When we bought a house in Columbia City in the late ’90s, bullets had just weeks before ripped across its backyard. Only one destination restaurant—the great La Medusa—had taken a chance on a stretch of Rainier Avenue perhaps best characterized by Angie’s Tavern, a bar so notorious its dealers and prostitutes didn’t even bother sneaking around.
One juice bar, one designer clothing store, the city’s best bread bakery, more new LEED construction than you can shake an FSC-certified stick at, and about a thousand restaurants that neighbors actually want to visit later—those blocks of Rainier have done a 180. Argue if you will over whether it’s an improvement—many of my acquaintance turn up their noses at the gleaming new PCC down the street, preferring the folksy, undersize original to the underground garage and sparkling new acreage—but this much is not debatable: The neighborhood tastes better.
Take the new Salted Sea Seafood and Raw Bar, which restaurateur Huy Tat opened earlier this summer in the husk of, whaddya know, Angie’s. (Let’s all take a moment and imagine what that renovation unearthed.) Tat grew up in the Rainier Valley, the son of immigrants whose family had owned restaurants in Vietnam and who opened the noodle house Hue Ky Mi Gia on Jackson in 2009. (You may know it as the place with the insane garlic fried chicken wings.) Two more noodle houses would follow, but young Tat had a different dream: namely, to open a place serving the mussels, sea scallops, and fresh oysters he couldn’t find in the South End. Yet.
He began chatting up Allyss Taylor, who came in to Hue Ky Mi Gia all the time for its noodle soup. Taylor was sous chef at the Harvest Vine, where she was honing a craft she’d learned under mentors at places like Mona’s and Elemental. Soon she was consulting for Tat and gave her boss an assignment: Eat in restaurants from the most accessible end of Seattle’s fish house spectrum (Ivar’s, Anthony’s) to the most sophisticated (Westward, the Walrus and the Carpenter)—and decide what you want your restaurant to be. With that Tat made two decisions: to strike a balance between approachable and creative, and to make Taylor chef.
The first thing you notice is that the spirits of Angie’s have been thoroughly exorcised, replaced by a welcoming tableau of rustic dark woods, driftwood appointments, sleek windows, and shiny accents. An oyster bar in back welcomes connoisseurs; two big screens over the bar bar welcome everyone else. The feel is populist, staffed up with the sorts of servers who might call you Hon and will hurry to wedge a piece of cardboard beneath the leg of a wobbly table before you even ask. Night and day the place simmers with South Seattle’s signature gumbo of humanity: solos and couples and families and groups, along the continuum of classes and colors and ages.
That populism shows up on the menu in the form of dishes you’ve seen on countless menus—starters like crispy calamari and curry mussels and crab cakes, mains like crusted king salmon with mashed potatoes, pan-seared sea scallops, and Pacific cod and chips. Tat clearly took good notes at Ivar’s and Anthony’s. But preparations mostly transcend cliche—partly because of their Asian accents, partly thanks to Taylor’s unique vision. Squares of cod for the fish-and-chips are breaded in a novel, thick baguette crumb, and potato wedges stand in for chips, finished in salt and vinegar. Salmon arrives crusted with ground jasmine rice, over potatoes lushly mashed with taro root along with sauteed mustard greens and drizzles of scallion oil. In both cases the fish itself held too little flavor—odd in this house, which pays attention to sourcing—but their supporting players were vivid and intriguing.
Here is where Tat’s second decision, to hire Taylor as chef, reveals its smarts. Even when interpreting old chestnuts she executes them with expertise and translates Tat’s ideas brightly to the plate. Curry mussels arrive in a bath of coconut, green chilies, and cilantro, a lighter touch than one typically sees with this dish. A starter of calamari, fried in a wok with restraint, arrives cloaked in Hue Ky Mi Gia’s fried chicken breading—oops, just set off a rush on Salted Sea—but again it’s a lighter version, forefronting the flavor of the squid and drizzled with a sweet chili-garlic gastrique that’s unnecessary but fun.
And so it goes, across dishes that by Tat’s approachable-versus-creative metric score solidly higher on approachable. A plate of muscovy duck comes in a rich five-spice reduction with a heap of cress and halves of grilled apricot. A sparkling mizuna salad is loaded with smoked trout and slices of striped chioggia beet. (Taylor’s platings are visually lovely.) My favorite was a crab and sweet corn soup featuring chunks of crab and fish sauce–marinated cod. Vegetables, sweet corn, and onion frizzles lent crunch to a concoction brothy in the Vietnamese way, but swaggeringly so—all bold ginger and serrano chili and herbs, married with a confident hand. Brilliant.
There are times Salted Sea seems like it’s being almost intentionally uninteresting—as with a crab cake banh mi at lunch that tasted like a bread sandwich, its pickled vegetables charged with supplying all the flavor and all the texture; or a tedious Full Tilt ice cream sundae for dessert, with too few toppings and chocolate instead of hot fudge—but this is not the rule. It’s simply the predictable pitfall of a place conceived to be a crowd-pleaser.
And a crowd-pleaser is, in the end, what Tat wanted to give Columbia City. Sure, Salted Sea offers elements of highbrow—fresh oysters, ingredient sources credited on a board over the oyster bar (many, tellingly, from the Rainier Valley). And, of course, Taylor’s evident talent. But Tat and Taylor ultimately forego culinary innovation in favor of the broader appeal it takes to unite a neighborhood this diverse, and this evolving.