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.
A reader emailed a hot tip that sent us to Pachanga (1802 Fifth St., Eureka) for jalapeño poppers ($9.50). Aren't they all kind of the same? Push away all those unhappy memories of TGI Friday's and its frozen and fried heartburn bullets.
Pachanga's arrive four-to-a-plate and looking like stunted corn dogs. The thick cornmeal batter is savory and crunchy outside and soft and moist inside, like a quality hush puppy. Cozied within are fresh chilies, fat and deep green, roasted daily for a whiff of smoky charring while maintaining their crispness. There's a bite, of course, but it's mellowed by the roasting, and the ribs and seeds are completely removed and replaced by stretchy, white queso blanco. Be not afraid. Feel not ripped off, either, as one order of these little wonders is substantial enough to share, and the accompanying cheese sauce with peppers and tomatoes will not go to waste.
Some people can't even look at food after Thanksgiving. But you're better than that. There is a lot to distract you at Shamus T Bones (1911 Truesdale St., Eureka), what with the sparking Tesla coil, the judgmental taxidermy and the controversially boiled ribs.
Take the advice of another Journal tipster and focus your attention instead on a plate of Walla Walla onion rings ($7.99). The world's most honest waiter informed us these rings, unlike the frozen ones you get as a side, are freshly beer battered and fried. The Walla Walla is one of those large, sweet onions, the flavor of which comes through since the batter has little salt. Sprinkle if you must, or better yet dip your piping hot rings in a little ranch or the house barbecue sauce. But the crust is just as it should be, brown and crunchy and plenty of it, a nice contrast to the tender onion underneath. And it's meatless, so that mounted buck can drop the pissy stare, thank you.
Toni's Thai truck is no more. Its cook has returned to Thailand, leaving us bereft of green curry and jasmine rice on wheels. The shiny red truck has been transformed into the Redwood Local, parked at Seventh and I Street in Arcata. Embrace the change and the meta-weirdness of truck stop fare from a truck. The fried chicken and waffles are solid, despite not being from scratch ($7.59, $2 for country sausage gravy). The joy is in being able to get hot waffles curbside. That's how they do it in Belgium, which the International Human Rights Indicator Rankings put at eighth in the world, right up there with those Nordic countries full of safe cars, high-design furniture and smoked salmon. Street waffles: sign of a just society.
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Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
Potato thins with bacon: the love child of nachos and potato skins.
But the show-stopper is a paper tray of potato thins ($4.99). Not as thin as potato chips, the slim slices of spud are deep-fried until soft with a crisp edge of brown skin here and there, and topped with sour cream and scallions. For $1.99, you can add a handful of chopped bacon. Do not live a life of regret. Add the bacon. They are like the love child of potato skins and nachos. They are best hot, so have your own little tailgate at one of the picnic tables. Even if we are all the way down at 18 on those human rights rankings, this is the taste of America.
Nothing ever got worse because somebody spooned mascarpone cheese on it. It's like the missing link between whipped cream and cream cheese. Thanks, Italy. Case in point: the French toast at Benbow Inn ($14; 445 Lake Benbow Drive, Garberville). If the weather's nice, order it on the veranda overlooking the bridge. Just nibble at the biscuits and scones that come out with your coffee and have a moment of silence for your Paleo friends, because their sacrifice is real. Thick slabs of Texas toast (oh, Texas, I can't stay mad at you), already crisp and buttery outside, hot and custardy inside, are topped with a hefty scoop of mascarpone blended into whipped cream, balancing the tartness of fresh raspberries. The fluffy dollop glides meltingly down the ramp of bread, threatening to mingle with the applewood-smoked bacon and making you forget all about that little cup of syrup to the side of your plate.