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In 2011, Trinh Le gave up his dream to become a Placer County firefighter to partner with his wife, Minnie, in opening Firehouse Crawfish Cajun Seafood restaurant in south Sacramento (“Pick your seafood, your flavor and your heat level”). The couple’s second restaurant, Station 16, opened two months ago, with a menu that’s less heat-centric but does show some sparks.
“I’ve always had a passion for spicy seafood, but ours is not hot, it’s flavorful,” Minnie Le said. “All the recipes are mine.”
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Korean influences are on the menu, though the Les are Vietnamese American. “I was born and raised in Sacramento, and it’s very diverse here,” Minnie Le said. “This is the stuff we grew up eating.”
Menu: Lunch debuted Wednesday, with the addition of several Vietnamese-influenced items such as pho, banh mi and spring rolls. Also, look for weekend brunch to start in the fall.
We visited before the new lunch menu was available, but the menus we did see were extensive, the seafood supplemented with a few land-locked surprises. A recurring theme is Cajun seasoning and sides of spicy aioli.
The 18 choices on the “sharable/small plates” menu ($8 to $16) embrace clam chowder, grilled and baked oysters, steamed clams and mussels, scallops and calamari, and that dish from the 1960s that just won’t go away – chilled shrimp cocktail. Also: loaded tots (cheddar, bacon, sour cream, spicy aioli), grilled short ribs, wings and Cajun garlic fries. Seasoned prawns are the heart of the shrimp roll. There’s also a roll filled with chilled lobster salad, “Maine style,” as it’s known to purists, vs. “Connecticut-style,” which is warm lobster meat drenched in butter.
In Korean cuisine, “galbi” indicates a grilled dish of beef or pork, usually marinated in ganjang, a distinct soy sauce made from fermented soybeans. The galbi fries on the small-plates menu come with short rib, kimchi, spicy aioli and a fried egg.
The entree menu includes cioppino, lobster mac ’n’ cheese, blackened salmon, linguine and clams, and fried cod. Add a rib-eye steak, Cajun pasta and Cajun fried chicken.
The third segment of the menu stars iron seafood skillets in two flavors: roasted garlic butter and “the works” (hot). Choose from prawns, mussels, clams, and a trio of crab (snow, Dungeness and king), from $39. Mix and match.
Price point: Seafood is costly anywhere you find it. A blackboard by the entrance lists per-pound market prices, with mussels $13, prawns $18, snow crab $26, king crab $33 and Dungeness crab $42. If those prices are shocking, battered cod with corn on the cob and fries seems reasonable at $14, as does cioppino at $24. The happy hour is where the bargains reside, such as the excellent Chef’s Creek and Hood Canal raw oysters, $2 each.
Ambiance: Ultra-spacious, sleek and handsome, with high ceilings, exposed duct work, abundant natural light, thoughtfully positioned red banquettes and elements of glass and metal. One wall is artfully disguised to look like a vertical sheet of cement; we had to touch it to tell the difference.
“I designed the restaurant, and my husband helped me find the right people to do the job,” said Minnie Le.
Drinks: More than 20 taps pouring the likes of Lagunitas and Track 7 IPAs, Heretic Evil Ale and Sudwerk Zen, along with Coors Light (why?) and Stella Artois. The compact wine list is diverse, with some surprises – Scott Harvey barbera from Amador County and Orogeny Vineyards chardonnay from Napa Valley. Also: three draft cocktails and two sangrias.
Perhaps of more interest is the well-imagined cocktail list, with El Bombero (tequila, Thai chili, lime and spiced grapefruit syrup), Code Blue (lemon-infused rum, blue Curacao, triple sec, pineapple and lime) and more.
Service: Informed, friendly and conscientious.
First impressions: Station 16 is far more sophisticated than its sister restaurant, Firehouse Crawfish Cajun Seafood, and other similarly themed places where customers wear paper bibs, such as Boiling Crab, Crab City, Asian ’n’ Cajun and Chason’s Crab Stadium.
The best dish on our table was deep-fried oysters, the plump, fresh delicacies thinly coated in Cajun-seasoned flour and perfectly cooked, with lemon aioli for dipping. Two thick crab cakes didn’t offer a lot of flavor, but grilled Korean short ribs delivered plenty of taste and texture.
Now that lunch is a go, Station 16 is destined to become a star player in a neighborhood that’s a dining destination (try to find parking) – Simon’s (where old-school brandy-fried chicken is king), the new Coconut’s Fish Cafe (who else has grilled ono and fried mahi-mahi?), Pronto (the meatball panino is tops), Petra (the lamb chops are worth the wait in line) and Firestone Public House (choose from 60 taps to go with the Sriracha candied-bacon grilled cheese or soft-shell crab tacos).
Try it if: You love seafood, especially with a dash of spice, or you “collect” new restaurants.
Forget it if: You think tartar sauce is one-size-fits-all, or you find oysters “yucky.”
Where: 1118 16th St., Sacramento
Hours: Lunch is 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays; dinner is 3 to 10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays and 3 p.m. to midnight Fridays-Saturdays. Happy hour is 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Brunch is on the horizon.
Information: 916-228-4042, www.sacstation16.com