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Columbia City: A Southern revival — complete with red beans and rice
Special to the Seattle Times
Just looking is a new series about shopping, dining and wandering in Northwest neighborhoods.
It's funny how things work out. I never would have stumbled upon Seattle's historic Columbia City neighborhood if I had not first spent two weeks along Mississippi's Gulf Coast working on Hurricane Katrina relief.
Down South, I inhaled the local food and fell in love with Flora's red beans and rice, which she brought to the office one day in a big ol' pot. Flora works in Pascagoula, at the county's emergency services office, a good place for her since she's all brisk no-nonsense, covering her hair with a bandana tied in a knot above her forehead. When she gave me a bowl of plump red beans, savory rice and smoky Andouille sausage, I exclaimed, excessively, over the flavor until she raised an eyebrow at me. "Mmm-hmm," said Flora. "You are welcome, but red beans and rice is all it is." She fixed me with a gaze. "Where y'all from again?"
So far north you can't believe it, Flora, and as soon as I return to Seattle, I'll put the word out: Where can I find real red beans and rice?
Word came back: Columbia City.
Columbia City Bakery. 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays (closed Mondays and Tuesdays). 4865 Rainier Ave. S.; 206-723-6023.
Columbia City Gallery. Noon-8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; noon-4 p.m. Sundays (closed Mondays and Tuesdays). 4864 Rainier Ave. S.; 206-760-9843 or www.columbiacitygallery.com.
Jones Barbeque. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays; noon-10 p.m. Saturdays; 1-8 p.m. Sundays. 3810 S. Ferdinand St.; 206-722-4414 or www.jonesbarbeque.net.
Roy's BBQ. 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays; 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; closed Sundays. 4903 ˝ Rainier Ave. S.; 206-723-7697 or www.royscolumbiacity.com.
The Wellington restaurant. 5-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 5- 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays (jazz nights); 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays (closed Mondays). 4869 Rainier Ave. S.; 206-722-8571 or www.thewellington.biz.
Columbia City Cinema. Showtimes: 3:30 p.m., 7:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; noon, 3:30 p.m., 7:15 p.m., Saturdays-Mondays. General admission $8; children (12 and younger) and seniors (62 and older) $6; matinees before 6 p.m., $6 for everyone. 4816 Rainier Ave. S.; 206-721-3156 or www.columbiacitycinema.com.
Pilgrimage made, I discovered a little town within a city that offers lots to do, and lots to eat within a space about five blocks long and four blocks wide.
A comeback with character
Columbia City — once a true municipality but annexed in 1907 — is a Historical Landmark District, with Rainier Avenue South running right through the heart of it. A booming mill town in the early 1900s given over to urban decay in the '70s and '80s, it's now undergoing a breathtaking comeback. Thankfully, the revival leaves its character intact, nothing plowed under for McCondos. Incoming, upscale shops feel unpretentious, approachable. There's a robust farmers market starting up again in May, and "BeatWalk" — different bands in different venues the first Friday of each month. A pedestrian's dream, Columbia City has a bookstore, coffee shops, a bakery, its long-standing meat store, plus enormously popular restaurants like Tutta Bella, now expanded to Wallingford.
"Columbia City is one of the most diverse ZIP codes in the nation," says Pat Chemnick, economic development manager of SEED (SouthEast Effective Development). Having lived nearby for more than 30 years, she knows. "This area is traditionally settled by the latest wave of immigrants — Italians, Vietnamese, East Africans and Eastern Europeans. It's always changing."
One newcomer, the Columbia City Cinema, opened almost two years ago in a pretty 1921 white stucco building that once housed a Masonic Temple. Locals have embraced their neighborhood movie house; it plays first-run films and costs less than the multiplex. Owner Paul Doyle had the high walls painted an exuberant rose color and hung gilt-edged mirrors and paintings. A grand room filled with couches offers a community-gathering place before the show. Also appealing: the concession stand, where popcorn is stuffed into plain brown bags and is actually affordable. A large popcorn and large soda goes for six bucks.
Eating is a major pastime in this neighborhood. Take Jones Barbeque, a Seattle institution, but pity the vegetarian who accidentally wanders in. The air is thick with simmering and succulence. For carnivores, though, bring it on — ribs, hotlinks, sauces.
Good eats and arts
My particular focus continues to be red beans and rice, available at Roy's BBQ, literally a hole in the wall. Located in a long, narrow space between two other stores, Roy's décor is Americana, from Prince Albert in the Can to indeterminate, mounted animal horns. Order down-home grub from hand-lettered signs. Water with a dash of lemon cuts through the lingering heat of spices.
Down the street is the Wellington, known for weekend jazz and authentic soul food. I arrived during Sunday brunch, dismayed to find no red beans and rice on the menu. But they were kind and rustled up a plateful for me. Not Flora's, but very good. Who knew there would be so much variety in this humble dish?
Less than six months old, the Columbia City Bakery invites visitors to watch bakers rolling the dough, patting out wonders. Specialties include Danishes and their own Columbia City chocolate-chip cookie.
For a non-fattening treat, head across the street to the Columbia City Gallery, which highlights the work of local talent. The nonprofit SEED organization bought and renovated the gallery's new location, an airy building from the early 1900s. Their new show runs through March 12. Called "Retro Crush: kitsch memories from the past," it's perfect for this retro-loving neighborhood.
And if you stop for coffee anywhere, bring your laptop for free Wi-Fi. The City of Seattle wired Columbia City as an experiment to help local business.
I'm experimenting, too: catfish, highly recommended by Flora and, wouldn't you know, available in Columbia City.
Connie McDougall, a Seattle-based freelance writer, is a regular contributor to Northwest Weekend.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company