Friday evening, returning from Redding, we pulled off Interstate 5 just south of Woodland and suddenly found ourselves at the roadhouse of a Louisiana bayou.
Harleys were parked out front. Trailers loaded with tomatoes were lined up in the neighboring field. Cooks were struggling to keep up with orders during the weekly fish fry. And the crowd was mostly drinking beer, except for the guy in the canary-yellow suit, wearing more bling than Public Enemy, who took his icy martini outside. That's where Marshal Wilkerson's blues band Smoked Sugar was performing on a platform, the stagelight overhead dangling from the extended ladder of a 1941 fire truck, one of several vintage rigs scattered about the yard.
The Elkhorn Station Roadside Bar and Grill has been reborn, it's latest incarnation more tidy but no less popular and lively than ever. Business partners John Turner and Jason Fernandez reopened it five months ago following a two-year restoration. The small farmhouse, which has stood on the property since 1908, at one time as a depot for a commuter train that ran between Woodland and Sacramento, had been closed for about four years.
We ordered a couple of beers and dug into a pound and a half of hot and thick-crusted Alaskan pollock, a stack of fries and a plastic-foam cup of fresh and sweet coleslaw ($13). The Friday fish fry at Elkhorn Station is an old tradition. I looked around for one of the roadhouse's old baseball caps - "Elkhorn Station, Home of the Fish Fry" - but this was a relatively young crowd, and Fernandez said later in a phone interview that he and Turner have yet to revive the hat custom. (Of higher priority is digging a new well. In a letter taped to the front window, Yolo County public-health officials say the cafe's water is contaminated and warn against drinking it. As a consequence, Turner and Fernandez serve only bottled water and bagged ice, so refreshing, as a matter of fact, that other restaurants might want to consider doing the same.)
In addition to a daily blue-plate special - short ribs on Tuesdays, cioppino on Wednesdays, chicken on Sundays - Elkhorn Station offers a manageable but far-ranging classic roadhouse menu, provided the roadhouse is in California: Chinese chicken salad ($10), Portuguese beans ($3 the cup, $5 the bowl), hamburger ($9), barbecued pork sandwich ($9), shrimp Louie ($10) and rib-eye steak ($17), to name a few selections.
Elkhorn Station is 10 miles north of West Sacramento along Old River Road. That's the scenic route. You also can get to it by driving north on I-5 past Sacramento International Airport. Just after crossing the Vietnam Veterans Bridge exit to the north, loop around to the south, passing under the span. Elkhorn Station will be on the right within a couple hundred yards. It's open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily, with brunch served 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; (916) 371-1389.