It's impossible for me to write about Salted Sea, the new seafood restaurant in Columbia City, without first talking about the business that it replaced, Angie's Tavern. Angie's was my favorite dive bar in town, a welcoming and comfortable place where I could reliably drink cheap beer (pitchers of Bud for $5.50) and cheap booze, and scarf down the occasional bowl of instant ramen with friends, many of whom have long since moved away. The music was good and loud and, as far as I could tell, the volume level was never so high as when there was a basketball or football game on.
But Angie's also had its share of trouble, and it closed in 2011 after 26 years when the state liquor board refused to renew its license. Eventually, the single-story building that housed Angie's, built in 1905, was torn down and replaced by a mixed-use structure, where Salted Sea now operates on the first floor.
Angie's was a mostly black bar, in what was at the time a mostly black neighborhood. But the identity of Columbia City has shifted since then. While the neighborhood has gotten wealthier and whiter, it's still an affordable place for immigrant-owned businesses. These days, there are less late-night bars like Angie's, but there are African restaurants serving Ethiopian, Senegalese, and Kenyan cuisine. You can also get Thai and Japanese food. And now you can have terrific (and sustainably harvested) seafood—confidently imbued with a mix of flavors from China, Vietnam, and the Philippines—at Salted Sea.
A good way to start a meal is with a few freshly shucked local oysters from the raw bar. Normally I don't want anything but a squeeze of lemon on my oysters, but I appreciated the distinct sauces chef Allyss Taylor has paired with the different varieties on offer, which add complementary flavors without overwhelming the delicate sea creatures.
A cilantro-lime mignonette gave a boost of brightness to mild Minter Sweet Select oysters, while a charred jalapeño mignonette imbued smoke and mild heat to creamy Sea Cows. But it was an unexpected and earthy mushroom-Worcestershire sauce dressed on deep-cupped, meaty Shigokus that brought an entirely new depth of flavor to the oysters.
A special entrée of grilled octopus ($14) was also a welcome surprise. Two tentacles were braised first, finished on the grill, and then draped atop stewed green mung beans—homely legumes that, while a staple of many Asian diets, rarely make it onto menus in America. They were earthy, sweet, soft, and creamy, with just the right amount of firmness. Small wedges of fresh lime brought sharpness.
An entrée of pan-seared black cod felt very small for the price ($23). Instead of getting a crisp sear in a hot pan, the fish, already oily by nature, soaked up the cooking oil. It was served with lovely accompaniments—confit chanterelle mushrooms, made silken after a long, slow bath in oil, and a deeply savory quenelle of diced, meaty oyster mushrooms—though my mouth felt unpleasantly awash in fat afterward.
It was a treat to see shrimp toast ($6), a dish you'll find at every restaurant serving food from Hong Kong and many dim sum joints but nowhere else, on the shared plates menu. Salted Sea's version is rich and wonderful—minced sweet shrimp blended with ginger and pepper and then spread generously on slices of toasted, buttery baguette. A few moments under a broiler gave them a few caramelized brown spots that were especially flavorful.
While the shrimp toast was great, I'd skip the potted shrimp ($10) and crostini. The buttery shrimp mixture is served cold, complete with an unappetizing thick layer of congealed fat on the bottom, as well as big blobs of the stuff scattered throughout.
The green curry mussels ($12) were better—plump and moist, and served in a deep bowl of coconut broth. Despite the presence of the coconut, the dish is remarkably light, with bright notes of citrus and cilantro, and just a bit of spicy heat. A generous topping of crispy fried shallots added sweetness and a bit of crunch.
Both the shrimp toast and mussels appear on the restaurant's dinner menu, which is served seven nights a week, and lunch menus, served Monday through Friday.
For lunch, the cod and chips ($12) are fine but not memorable. More interesting is the fried oyster bánh mì ($12), which, along with crispy oysters, features house-made cha lua—a soft, peppery Vietnamese pork sausage. The creamy pork perfectly complements the oysters, which are lightly fried so you can savor their cool, briny liquid when you bite through the crunchy exterior. The bread-to-filling ratio was a bit off (there were many bites of just baguette), but the whole thing was so tasty that it didn't matter.
Owner Huy Tat, a South Seattle native who also owns the noodle shop Hue Ky Mi Gia in the International District, said he opened Salted Sea because he wanted to give the area the restaurant he felt it was missing: a place where people can enjoy fresh seafood. With Salted Sea, Tat succeeds in delicately balancing the many needs of a diverse, changing neighborhood interested in distinct flavors, high standards of sourcing, and approachable food.
Approachability is Tat and Taylor's biggest victory. So many people could walk into Salted Sea and feel welcome—and based on who I saw during my three visits, they do. There's a palpable sense of inclusivity here—brown, black, and white people of all ages share meals together. I felt truly at home, which made everything—even the less-successful dishes—taste better.
On Sundays, Salted Sea opens its doors at 9:30 a.m., and when there's a Seahawks game, it's screened on the large televisions in the bar (which, by the way, has a nice selection of beers on tap and an even better selection of cocktails and good-quality booze). Along with the usual brunch menu, there are game-day specials of $1 oysters and garlic chicken wings.
I often wonder where the folks I used to see at Angie's hang out now, where they have gone. Peering through the windows of Salted Sea on a recent Sunday afternoon, I got the feeling that they would be welcome here.