It's easy to wax philosophical and talk of the ephemeral pleasures of the world, watching waves wash away our footprints and blossoms wither like it's no big deal. And yet, for some of us, the here-today-gone-tomorrow specials at a restaurant can spike panic as we listen to the server rattle them off. What if they never do the short ribs again?
So the chalkboard menu at La Trattoria (30 Sunny Brae Center, Arcata) is a Fear of Missing Out trigger, every single menu item changing daily based on local availability, right down to the potatoes for the gnocchi. On a recent rainy evening, written over the powdery ghosts of the previous day's dishes was a homemade potato pasta with puttanesca sauce ($19). And when are you going to see that again?
Puttanesca, a sauce that famously takes its name from prostitutes, makes as strong a case as any against slut-shaming with the tang of tomatoes, capers and olives, and a little red pepper bite. In La Trattoria's version, firm manzanillas from Henry's Olives steal the show from under a blanket of Parmesan shavings. You'll be asked if you want anchovies and you should say yes and not cheat yourself out the smoky umami that grounds the tartness. The gnocchi are, at last, as they should be: soft little dumplings instead of the usual chewy eraser nubs. And if they are a little at sea in the sauce, their tenderness saves them and turns the puttanesca into comfort food — like a hooker with a heart of gold.
But will it be on the menu? Hard truth: maybe not. The gnocchi likely will, at least until potatoes are done, and the puttanesca will be back, too, made as it is from pantry staples. You'll just have to cruise by and see.
There are dark moments when American food appears to be slouching into strip-mall homogeneity, forcibly cheered on by the shrill strains of waitstaff marching a birthday dessert to a table at TGI Friday's. This dystopian malaise can be shaken off a number of ways. You can hit up a mom-and-pop joint, revel in the cuisine of one of our immigrant communities, try something a little experimental from a creative chef or dig into regional American cooking.
Barbecue remains, blissfully, a contentious business. Say the word "boiled" to an Oklahoman with a pair of tongs and see what happens. From Alabama's white sauce to Texan brisket to Hawaiian kalua pig, across the country our pits and grills contain multitudes. In California, birthplace of the Santa Maria grill, trip-tip is king. It's a cut I never encountered back east. Turns out the sirloin bottom cut is not some muscle cows don't develop that side of the Rockies — it's just often ground for hamburger instead. And to be honest, I didn't get it at first, as lean and potentially tough as the meat is.
But marinated, rubbed, smoked and sliced, trip-tip won me over. (Respect, Humboldt Del Norte Cattlemen's Association dinner.) But why has it taken so long for pulled trip-tip to show up? Relative newcomer 101 Barbecue Steakhouse (1134 Fifth St., Eureka) has stepped up with a saucy pulled tri-tip sandwich on ciabatta bread ($14.99). The meat, cooked low and slow over 10 hours, has enough deep beef flavor to stand up to the sweet honey-Bourbon barbecue sauce that is the house staple, as well as the melted Swiss cheese. Yes, Swiss cheese. This is California and all bets are off. The grilled onions are firm and translucent, the bite only just cooked out of them. The toasted and airy ciabatta has a sheen of oil and (sorry, purists) holds together better than a traditional white bun, giving you a little more time to savor before it all goes sideways.
If you drive through downtown Eureka during morning rush hour, you've likely seen his moves. As drivers steady their steering wheels heading past E Street on U.S. Highway 101/Fifth Street and crane their necks to the left, Adam Brazil is breaking. It. Down. Brazil dips and swerves behind a sign for the Black Lightning Motorcycle Cafe, which sits at the other end of the block.
A car honks and Brazil answers with a, "Whoo!" and twists his way into the street, just out of traffic. It's 40 F on the corner but his forehead is dripping and the back of his lime green T-shirt, itself an ad for his ACAB Delivery business, bears a dark oval of sweat. Asked why he thows down so hard when most sign bearers stick to a modest 30-degree waggle, Brazil says, "Because that's what makes people look."
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
Dancing up a storm on a cold morning.
The cafe is one of the businesses he delivers for on his bicycle (another fairly sweaty job). He rattles off a list of clients, shouting, "not Starbuck's, though," across the intersection, and says this is just one of his services. Brazil steps it up when a trio of women stop on the corner to watch him do his thing. "They have German pancakes," he says, breathing hard, still shimmying and hopping. "They're like fluffy baby pancake muffins!" Work it, man.
Take a quick peek at his style here (something to practice before that office holiday party).
The French have certainly, as they say, foutent dans la merde, or screwed up hard,over the years (colonization, Polanski, etc.). But when it comes to making the best of tough times, the home of La Résistance is a solid role model. And so French is a fine choice for dinner with a heartbroken friend. In particular, France knows when to throw butter at a problem.
Humboldt Bay Bistro (1436 Second St.), which has taken over the bay views and corner nooks of the former Casa Blanca, is turning out some Gallic standards to cut through a pre-winter chill. There are little cauldrons of French onion soup bubbled over with gruyere ($6) and escargot ($9) to help you comfort eat more like an attractively teary Catherine Deneuve than you would at home in your sweats. Unlike the draggingly relentless snails that ravage your garden, escargot is hard to find in Humboldt. Here the tender, dark curls of meat arrive with neither shells nor tongs (whether this is a relief or disappointment to you may be related to whether you're wearing a dry clean-only shirt), swimming in compound butter. Just as the horn section blaring "La Marseillaise" drowns out the singing Nazis in the film Casablanca, so, too, do the little baths of herbed butter, white wine, shallots and garlic push back the chill of a day gone dark too early. Dip the grilled baguette slices in the remaining broth and other clouds hanging over you may recede enough for you to gather your strength and remember that the lights finally came back on in Paris, after all.
The famed Carnegie Deli in New York City has announced it will close its doors at the end of 2016, never again to stun tourists and enable regulars with its mountainous signature sandwiches, dizzying stratified cliff faces of corned beef and pastrami. Take a moment to pour out some pickle juice on the ground.
How to properly move through the stages of grief from so far away? Luckily Humboldt Smokehouse (310 Fifth St., Eureka) has added to its menu the pastrami the owners have been tinkering with since opening. It's smoked for 24 hours but add in the spicing and curing and you're looking at a 12-day process that yields a deep red, briney, peppery meat that breaks apart with the slightest pull.
The Reuben ($11.99) is technically a Rachel, the spicier pastrami-filled sibling of the traditional hot corned beef sandwich on rye with Russian dressing, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese. Instead of the infinite layering of thin slices, 1/4-inch thick slabs are fanned out on seedy, crusty rye bread with the kraut and cold-smoked Swiss cheese. And technically the relish in the side of dressing takes us into Thousand Island rather than Russian waters, but let's not kvetch when there's a nice hit of horseradish to balance the creamy tang. Worry about having enough napkins.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
Like little fatty, salty, spicy, sweet rubies.
And if you can stand at the counter waiting for your sandwich without ordering a little paper boat of Sriracha and brown sugar bacon (3.99), you're stronger than we are. But less happy. Unlike the hardened brown sugar crusted bacon you want to love but can't because it's lost its warm, fatty charm, these jewel-like chunks of cured pork are equal parts tender and chewy with buttery fat and exactly the right heat to balance the sweetness. And if there's any left by the time your sandwich comes, well, that's a kind of victory, too.
Can we get back to that campaign promise/threat? It sounds fantastic. It beats a "chicken in every pot," which leaves you to come up with side dishes. No, life with tacos always in honking distance sounds far better.
El Pueblo Market (3600 Broadway, Eureka) has recently extended its empire of pan dulce and chicharones, rolling a slick, chili pepper-mustachioed taco truck into its parking lot. Taco truck romantics — those who wax poetic over weather-worn beaters parked in seedy alleys — may be disoriented by the gleam of stainless steel, the minimalist-chic menu and the shining hubcaps. Take a steadying breath. Smell the meat.
For $2.95 each, the tacos are generous mounds of meat topped with requisite onion and cilantro on thick corn tortillas. The lengua comes in soft cubes, but is outshone by the salty char of juicy asada chunks and the buttery curls of tripe. All are splashed with smoky, red salsa and further improved with a tip of the accompanying cup of green salsa. Burritos are available, but the companion who ordered one on the day we visited made quick work of it before photos or samples could be taken. The tight metallic cylinder remains, to the rest of us, a mystery. That, really, is the strongest of recommendations.
There is nothing like the crushing disappointment of sharing intel on a favorite hole-in-the-wall — the labyrinthian directions! the semi-sketchy location! the limited hours! — only to find your confidante has already eaten there.
Sniff out whether or not members of your carnivorous inner circle have hit up BullDoggies hot dogs yet (1125 Summer St., Eureka). For obscurity, you can't beat it. It's not even a food truck yet — it's a tent-covered cart parked in front of a commercial kitchen behind the Clark Street Post Office.
Huddled in a tent with layers guarding against the chilly air and a platoon of condiments and relishes, the proprietors serve half a dozen variations of the beef dog on standard white bun. A standout among these is the Bourbon-maple bacon jam dog ($5.50) heaped with caramelized onions. This is not a dog with a snappy casing, if that's important to you, but it meets all smoky-sweet-bacon needs with the "jam," which is not so much of a preserve as a warm, loose topping.
As you chew, your mind may start racing with other applications for the bacon jam, which apparently started out as something to spoon over a pork loin. Prepare to experiment, as little jars are sometimes available for $5.
Stop looking at the menu and order the carne asada burrito.
Now and then, you may see a faraway look in the eyes of those of us without Frumboldt stickers on our cars, who hail from elsewhere but were lured here by Humboldt's verdant charms (or perhaps the charms of a Humboldter). We long for the food of our homelands. You may wave a hand in our faces but we are far away, spirited back by memory to remembered barbecue shacks, deli counters, dim sum joints and pubs, ordering our usual.
Your San Diegan friend is likely dreaming of Roberto's, the 50-year-old gold standard for the city's signature carne asada burrito. And in a real desire to help, you may have taken him or her to your favorite spot only to see a perfectly fine burrito met with a sad smile and that distant look again.
Don't give up. That funny log cabin-looking building near the courthouse has been hastily painted over yellow and converted into Raliberto's Taco Shop (1039 Fourth St., Eureka), an outpost of the franchise rumored to have been started by a relative of the Roberto's dynasty. Right by the courthouse. Takeout is not a bad idea.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
The sandwich version with lettuce for health nuts.
The Journal's token San Diegan was pleased. The carne asada burrito ($5.95) is a slightly too chewy flour tortilla stuffed with fistfuls of marinated chopped beef, pico de gallo and guacamole. That's it. No rice, no beans, no cheese. Between bites its SoCal minimalism drew sounds of happy surprise from northerners, too, as did its torta cousin ($5.95) on a soft bun with the addition of a little shredded lettuce. Much of the credit goes to the green and red salsas, little shot cups with no lumps and plenty of heat.
Early evening at Five Eleven, with its azure concrete floor and shining glass tile bar, is a bit like relaxing in rather than beside a very chic swimming pool. On a recent night, adjacent tables were stocked with flat-billed hats, toddlers picking at fancy pizza and older patrons discussed the fine line between appetizers and small plates — all of us likely wishing we were as flatteringly lit as the bottles behind the bar.
By 6 p.m., there were only three orders of the special appetizer left: roasted beef marrow bones served with micro greens and black tobiko caviar ($16). And with good reason. Halves of the split bone, like a pair of dug-out canoes, are filled with melting marrow salted only by the briny caviar. Coax a mouthful out of its hollow with a spoon and onto your char-striped bread, and the roasted marrow's deep meat flavor emerges. Suddenly the theory about early humans surviving off scavenged marrow sounds like the kind of Paleo diet you can get behind (assuming the availability of bruschetta).
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
Low down on the regular menu, the duck confit mac and cheese ($19) speaks to the sometimes conflicting urges toward comfort and swank. The sauce, an already luxurious melding of mozzarella and parmesan, is further enriched with duck fat, cream, herbs and truffles, as well as buried shreds of duck. The whole thing is crowned with a crisp sprinkling of fried shallots and duck skin cracklings. It is rich enough that you may have to share — if not out of generosity, then self preservation.
Some of us leap flip-flop first into summer at the first hiss of lawn sprinklers. For the rest of us, zipping up our hoodies in vampiric fear of the sun and denial over the year whizzing by, a little incentive is required. A slice of Key lime pie will help.
There is patio seating at Café Nooner (409 Opera Alley, Eureka) for those who are ready for it — otherwise, take the baby step of snagging a window table. The Key lime pie looks like a tall, slick wedge of cheesecake ($4). At the bottom is a pinky-thick graham cracker crust, sandy and salty-caramelized against the sweet and tart, dense filling. It speaks to the kind of beachy pleasures that don't require exercise, more Hemingway-esqe boating around the Florida Keys with a cigar than oceanside yoga in Malibu.
Come out of hibernation, friends. There's pie out here.