This far northwest, Southern cooking is exotic. Slice of Humboldt Pie (Redwood Acres, 3750 Harris St., Eureka), in its rotating menu of sweets and savories, features a pair of dueling southerners. First there is the Kentucky Derby pie ($20), which is essentially a walnut pie that got drunk on Bourbon at the track. The crust (part butter, part shortening) is flaky and buttery, holding up at the edges but shattering at the press of a fork — perfect. The filling is similar to pecan pie, but with the touch of walnut bitterness and a scattering of dark chocolate chips at the bottom to offset the sticky sweetness. And it's as boozy as a hug from your Uncle Charlie at the tail end of a wedding.
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Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
Peanut butter chess pie is a dessert fit for the King.
The more Elvis offering is the peanut butter chess pie ($18). Chess pie is that Southern dessert that embraces sweetness to the point of a diabetic dare. The filling is the gooey goodness between the nuts of a pecan pie without the nuts. Peanut butter mixed into the filling and a layer of chocolate ganache give the pie more substance and flavor. But the scratch-made crust and filling elevate it beyond the standard Woman's Day candy bar pie that makes your teeth ache at a church bazaar. Right now you have to place an order 24 hours in advance for a pie, but by this summer you will be slave to your impulses when Bittersweet, the walk-in establishment the bakers will share with the Local Cider Bar, opens in Arcata. You are warned.
If you are comfortable enough with your identity and tastes and can say loud and proud that you enjoy some fried Spam, congratulations on stepping into the light. (And you may want to hit up the Spamley Cup competition this weekend.) If not, stop lying to yourself. Take the first steps toward self-acceptance at the Alibi (744 Ninth St., Arcata). On "Trailer Park Mondays," as noted on the laminated specials menu, a Spam burger can be yours for $6. Two thick, round-edged slabs of the pink stuff arrive with cartoon grill marks on a grilled whole wheat bun. Whole wheat. (Tosses head back, spins in chair, cackling.) Do you want the lettuce, pickles and raw onion on the side? Maybe. The mayo in the little, white cup? Likely. The meat is soft and salty, the fat enlivened by grilling, all of which is nicely matched by the sweetness of the bun. Sure, the iconic canned lunch meat is full of iffy chemicals and so processed that we need a new word for processed. But in that rare moment when home-pickled organic beets just won't satisfy that 1950s bomb-shelter cuisine itch, the Spam burger is the way to scratch.
The standard sub at Z & J Asian Subs (2336 Third St., Eureka) isn't so much a Vietnamese bánh mì as an American barbecue sandwich that spent a semester abroad and came back with pickled carrots, cucumbers, cilantro and sriracha sauce. Call it inauthentic, make fun of its souvenir beaded necklace, but you can't fight it — the thing is delicious. And when you've fallen down a Target hole, wandering the aisles of storage tubs and owl-shaped cookie jars well past lunchtime, it will save you from hunger and consumer despair.
But if you need to hear the majestic screams of bald eagles over your lunch, order the Southern pulled pork sandwich ($6.99). The trucker-handful of pork is smoked for 12 hours before it's shredded, tossed with barbecue sauce and scooped along with some red wine vinegar coleslaw onto a toasted brioche bun swiped with lime and chipotle mayonnaise. The brioche (OK, that's a little French, but so is a lot of the South) holds the mess together, but tuck a napkin in your shirt just in case.
Tomato-basil, spinach-feta and apple strudel pretzels.
Ever sit at your desk with a rumbling stomach wishing your office had sandwich delivery like in old movies? Or that some kind of lunch fairy could bring you food? Turns out that is a thing that can happen, but with a twist. Well, a lot of twists. As in pretzels. No, not the gangly ropes of dry bread you gnaw at a ballgame. These are plump knots of soft, warm dough that stretch apart in a way that reminds you why you haven't given up gluten. Get an order of 10 or so together and Royal Bavarian Brezen (476-3920) will show up in the form of Alexandra Hierhager, the lederhosen-clad, basket wielding woman who wakes at 4 a.m. to bake her mother's recipe from (surprise) Bavaria — a magical land of mellifluous German and bountiful pastries.
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Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
Frau Hierhager mit ihrem Brezeln.
The basic salt pretzel ($3.50) satisfies like a bagel, but the other varieties are legion. The basket overflows (that woman is stronger than she looks) with savory and sweet options from jalapeño to chocolate and peanut butter ($4.50 or three for $10). Both the tomato, mozzarella and basil pretzel and the spinach, feta and Monterey jack one are generously topped and as satisfying as sandwiches. The apple strudel pretzel is full of cinnamon and fruit, but with a bagel's chewiness and vanilla frosting. Eating a pretzel lunch is the team building exercise your office has been waiting for.
Not every business lunch calls for the classic steak and Martinis, and not all of us can return to work after that sort of thing. Choosing where to break bread and make deals can be high pressure. Don't sweat it — you'll ruin your suit. (Kidding, Humboldt. Work hoodie, whatever.)
The duck B.L.T.A. at Plaza Grill (780 Seventh St., Arcata) says, "I'm refined but down-to-earth," and, "I'm not broke/desperate, but I won't spend your money like a Kardashian with a champagne buzz, either" ($13). It's not duck bacon exactly, but smoked duck in thick, hammy slices on soft, toasty sourdough with avocado, lettuce, tomato, caramelized onions and garlic aioli. It's smoky and gamey and not a bit dry — everything you love about an old-fashioned BLT plus the luxurious gaminess of duck, which is kind of having a moment right now.
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Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
Not the sad tuna sandwich you had at your desk yesterday.
For a while among the power elite, seared tuna was the new steak. (It was the fat-free '90s; eating red meat in front of people was akin to shooting up in a restaurant.) The seared Ahi tuna sandwich is bringing it back, but it won't wave any red flags on your expenses ($13). A ciabatta roll swiped with sriracha mayonnaise is piled with chunks of grilled tuna — sushi-pink in the center and crusted with sesame outside — and topped with a light Asian slaw. Pro tip: You might want to order your slaw on the side if you want to eat at a leisurely pace without a soggy bun. And if your lunch partner wisely swaps in the sweet potato fries, keep it professional and don't pick off his or her plate. Some people hate that.
In the same way that pumpkin spiced everything shows up in the fall, in winter legions of crab specialties hit our county like Attack of the Crab Monsters, which maybe you caught during the Crab Festival. The overwhelm — not to mention the underwhelm — is enough to send you straight back to cracking your own. Retreating into reactionary crab fundamentalism is safe enough (when has the boiled or steamed dungie ever let you down?), but you'd be missing out on the possibilities.
Take a chance on the fettuccine with crab ($29.95, $24.95 a la carte) at Sea Grill (316 E St., Eureka). Firm pasta is tossed in a seriously creamy Alfredo sauce and fresh crab meat. The sauce is rich with cream, not gluey, but neither it nor the sprinkle of Parmesan overpowers the crab's sweetness. It will, however, seize up a bit if you let it go cool, so pause your conversation and eat. A dining companion declared this decadent hybrid the best way to eat crab besides plain. Purists who refuse to eat seafood with cheese may find themselves lured by the aroma into joining the Philistines. We welcome you.
The Bering Strait, scientists speculate, could have once been a land bridge between Asia and North America. Just a hop, skip and a jump across some glaciers, and yet we've had to wait thousands of years for that hybrid of Asian and Mexican cuisine, the Korean taco. It's a schlepp to to the Creamery District parking spot of the Taco Faktory truck on L street between Ninth and 10th streets in Arcata (tacos also show up at Richard's Goat Tavern & Tea Room on occasion), but not when you consider that hike across the Bering Strait.
Or when you get your $4 pair of Korean barbecue beef and pork tacos. (There are whispers about Thai burrito, but it only shows up on Wednesdays.) The warm corn tortillas are heaped with pyramids of smoky-sweet, juicy meat seasoned with deep-red Korean chili paste and topped with cilantro, lettuce and onion. Instead of brooding impatiently over a table-top grill and pretending to follow conversation with your Los Angeles friends while you wait for your next bite of meat to cook, get instant gratification. A squeeze of lime and you're there. You're not the boss of me, changing sea levels and shifting land masses. Mere geography cannot stop destiny. Or the Korean taco.
What could be more American than apple pie? Easy. Deep fried apple pie. And you needn't wait until summer for some carnie at the fair to snuff out a menthol and drop a wedge of frozen pie into bubbling grease. Aim higher.
Slice of Humboldt Pie (3750 Harris St.) makes fried apple pies you can hold in one hand that are stuffed with firm, tart and tender chunks of spiced fruit. The crust is flaky and buttery, not leaden, the kind of ribbon-hogging texture that takes years to develop what they call "a hand for." The rest of us will just focus on the hand holding the pie. If you are a planner, you can call up and have such pies made to order. If, on the other hand, you are at the mercy of impulse, you can pick one up at Old Town Coffee & Chocolates for $5.
It's always a gamble, an act of guts. You look at the words "fried chicken" on the menu and you just don't know. Because what you want is so specific: the crunch, the salt-and-pepper simplicity, the juiciness. You lock eyes with the server, making everybody a little uncomfortable, and ask, "How is the fried chicken?" with the same intensity with which Liam Neeson might ask, "Where is my daughter?"
First off, the waiter at Five Eleven (511 Second St.) is not rattled by interrogation and his intel on the Georgia fried chicken is solid ($21.95). A thigh, a leg and a breast arrive with a slope of smooth mashed potatoes, light rosemary gravy and kale with bacon fat. The free-range chicken is served truly hot, and the peppery crust delivers an audible crunch. If you are not careful, someone in your party who has chosen a salad or some kind of small plate will hear it. If he or she swoops in on your drumstick, don't despair. Even the breast is juicy and flavorful beneath its dark coating. Totally worth the gamble.
There are some who swear by a greasy breakfast for a hangover. But what if it's already past the dreaded 11:00 a.m. cutoff by the time you roll out? No worries — you can still catch the sunrise at Surfside Burger Shack (445 Fifth St., Eureka). The Sunrise burger, that is ($7.95). Humboldt grassfed with a fistful of bacon, pepper jack cheese and a fried egg. And maple syrup. The bacon is substantial (no skimpy slice, this portion could fill a BLT) and the pepper-speckled egg is cooked but still runny enough to basically act as a sauce — a rich boost to the grilled flavor of the meat. Get the syrup on the side and just try it on a bite. Really. It's like when the your breakfast sausage rolls into a pool of syrup and you're sitting there at the table secretly happy inside, telling no one.
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Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
Somewhere in there is a burger.
Another $3 gets fries or rings or "frings," the half and half option. A voice, a reasonable voice, is telling you not to do this. But the fries are hand-cut (fresh, unfrozen potatoes!) with the skins on and the rings are dipped in homemade batter whipped up daily. All are fried to a caramel brown because this is not a delicate zucchini blossom — this is a plate of fries and rings piled like a collapsed mine on top of a burger that would give a cardiologist the sweats. Also the mind-expanding discovery of a fry (or a ring!) dipped in syrup — hot and cold, sweet and salty, crisp and sticky — is something you have to experience, especially if you are a person who sometimes accidentally drops a fry into your milkshake.