Friday, July 24, 2015

Arcata's Best Chile Relleno, Determined

Posted By on Fri, Jul 24, 2015 at 2:24 PM

Three chiles enter, all leave ... in our stomachs. - JENNIFER FUMIKO CAHILL
  • Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
  • Three chiles enter, all leave ... in our stomachs.


Okay, lovers of Mexican food, we heard you. You said last week's entry into the Arcata bracket, the eggy, crepe-y delish dish from Fiesta Grill and Cantina, was inadequate competition against the traditional battered and fried version from Carmela's. So we returned to that foggy college town and made the rounds again, this time including the late nomination Valley Azteca (5000 Valley West Blvd #6).

Mmm, squeaky traditional cheese. - JENNIFER FUMIKO CAHILL
  • Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
  • Mmm, squeaky traditional cheese.


First things first. We called Fiesta Grill and Cantina (3525 Janes Road) and demanded (okay, asked politely) a traditional, stem in, battered and fried chile relleno. And it delivered. Man, did it deliver. Check out that squeaky queso fresco dotting the delicious, chewy batter. The batter itself was puffy, a wee bit chewy (reminded us of inari), sodden with rich red sauce. It included a side of above-par rice and beans that had just the tiniest hint of garlic. Well worth dipping into with bits of torn-off tortilla.


Mexican brunch? We say yes. - JENNIFER FUMIKO CAHILL
  • Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
  • Mexican brunch? We say yes.

Just up the road, Valley Azteca proved to be cool and pleasant respite from the week's hot weather. It was our first visit and the tastefully decorated white cantina-esque walls and dark leather booths immediately impressed us. We bellied up to the bar while waiting for our order. The owner explained that the house version was made with an Anaheim pepper. We chose not to be disappointed that it was of the eggy, omelette-y variety, instead focusing on how the Anaheim's bite was complemented by the green onion garnish. The lightness of this chile relleno was refreshing after the solidity of other entrants. Our call? Valley Azteca for your Mexican food brunch, every time. The hole-in-the-wall restaurant opens at 9 a.m. and appears to offer a nice selection of vegetarian items as well.

A deep, dark, satisfying relleno with cilantro garnish. - JENNIFER FUMIKO CAHILL
  • Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
  • A deep, dark, satisfying relleno with cilantro garnish.

Our final entrant was that student stand-by, Carmela's (1288 G St.). It's hard to describe how much we appreciated the savory sauce this monster was swimming in. We plucked scraps of pepper and onion from its container and savored every last bit of it, holding back from licking the plate only by sheer force of will. As for the chile relleno itself, well, one of our reviewers described it as a "Mexican ravioli." Mmm, that dense, sharp, ricotta-like cheese! That savory batter! We agreed that the flavor in this particular dish was well layered and subtle.

The winner ...

So, we're not going to lie to you guys, this was a nail-biter. We decided to skate controversy and put Valley Azteca on the sidelines (again, brunch!), doing a bite-by-bite comparison of Carmela's and Fiesta. With just the tip of each pepper left, we had to call in a tie-breaker. Our production staff left their computers and dutifully picked up their forks, only to reach another stalemate. Too close to call? A fervent analysis began, citing the merits of a bitter pepper, the ratio of batter to cheese, whether the accompanying rice and beans should factor in. In the end, that traditional cheese and spectacular rice and beans won out. Congratulations Fiesta Grill and Cantina! Thank you for bringing your A game, and welcome to the lightning round. We will crown #humboldtsbestchilerelleno in our annual Best of Humboldt edition — on newsstands August 13.

But wait ... did we miss a restaurant? We saved room for more. Any last-minute entries? We want to be thorough. Email, comment, hit us up on Facebook or Twitter. Let's do this!
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Sunday, July 12, 2015

Chile vs. Chile: Fortuna Strong

Posted By on Sun, Jul 12, 2015 at 10:09 AM

The Fortuna contingent brought it hard this week, forcing us to revise our standards. Two different restaurants produced three very different rellenos, with a spectrum of chiles, sauces and batters. All were delicious, and as such we’ve decided to be more inclusive. There is no black and white when it comes to pepper, cheese, batter and salsa: the world deserves a relleno rainbow.
dsc_3409_lacosta.jpg
When we put the call for regional nominations out on Facebook, we were bombarded with recommendations for La Costa (664 S. Fortuna Blvd), including at least one cryptic message: “Try both kinds.” Both kinds? What witchery was this? So we called to inquire and the nice lady assured that they did, in fact, have two different types of chile rellenos to choose from. We got them both: a yellow, omelette-y envelope swaddling a pale Anaheim pepper, and its dark, stout masa-battered counterpoint with the traditional Poblano within. Both yielded to our forks with a gush of cheese, and both were swimming in a savory reddish sauce so thick it could pass for gravy. After sampling (and sampling, and sampling) both, we chose the thick-battered Poblano version as an in-house favorite, pitting it against….

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Taco Loco (955 Main Street), is another Friendly City favorite that came highly recommended. We gave a deep sigh of appreciation when we opened the takeaway box and saw the plump, brown-battered chile smothered in green tomatillo sauce. A tinfoil-wrapped package of warm tortillas sat waiting for us to tear, scoop and savor. Lovers of all things green will not be disappointed by Taco Loco’s dish: you get a lot of pepper per forkful, the tomatillo sauce is delightful, and the chef definitely knows their way around a spice cabinet. The only off-note was a slightly strange aftertaste, leading us to think their grease traps might need cleaning.



So, ultimately, Fortuna’s best chile relleno is also the fan favorite: La Costa! Felicidades to the Friendly City, and welcome to the big time! In a few weeks we’ll pit your winner against Eureka, Arcata and McKinleyville, for the final determination of who makes #humboldtsbestchilerelleno!
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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Chile vs. Chile: The Fast Food Edition

Posted By on Sun, Jul 5, 2015 at 4:33 PM

Expectation is a double-edged sword when it comes to experience: it can both elevate the mundane and intensify the disappointing. Never was this more was this true than with Los Gallos Taqueria at the Bayshore Mall. In case you think we’ve rigged this race, Los Gallos has been a dark horse favorite in the world of Humboldt taco aficionados for years. Not only does it occasionally have carne cabeza, that delicious, tender face meat, but the tamales and sauce are a cut above your average mall food. When we saw that their rellenos are prepared far in advance of serving, however, our hopes sank. We each took one tentative mouthful, and then put down our forks for the day. Limp, watery, rubbery, under-seasoned, with gritty cheese and a garnish of browning guacamole and bland beans — to say we were disappointed would be an understatement. But, after all, we choose chile rellenos as our point of comparison for Mexican food in Humboldt County, and perhaps they’re a dish too far for your average lunch-on-the-run joint …

Los Gallos does garnish right, at least. - DREW HYLAND
  • Drew Hyland
  • Los Gallos does garnish right, at least.
… or are they? A seven-minute turnaround at the Speedy Taco food truck (1223 Broadway) yielded a salivation-worthy, deep brown monster of a chile relleno with a fistful of piping hot corn tortillas to sop up the extra cheese and piquant green sauce. The thick, oozy cheese inside hit every millimeter of umami area on our tongues, and the pepper itself had just the right amount of bite. The one off-note was the slightly soggy batter, which, if we had to guess, likely came from the dish having been frozen. After all, we know they’re not making the whole thing from scratch in that little trailer.

Dense and cheesy at Speedy Taco. - GRANT GOFORTH
  • GRANT GOFORTH
  • Dense and cheesy at Speedy Taco.

And the winner is ...

Did you really have to ask? It’s Speedy Taco! Congratulations guys, you’ve made it to the next round!
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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Chile vs. Chile: Eureka

Posted By on Sun, Jun 28, 2015 at 5:21 PM

Our epic quest to find Humboldt County's best chile relleno got underway this week, with gustatory explorations on Tuesday and Thursday. Our criteria for a good relleno? Stem in, naturally. Poblano pepper or nada. Good ratio of batter to cheese to pepper, with no one aspect reigning supreme. And whatever the Spanish version of je ne sais quoi is, that x factor that takes the dish from sufficient to sabroso.


TUESDAY
Esmeralda's Mexican Food, 328 Grotto St., Eureka.

The friendly, tattooed waitress assured us that "her mom makes the best chile relleno." Nepotism aside, our first bite revealed she just might be right. Cheese was soft and oozy, complementing the puffy, brown batter and the perfectly cooked pepper. There was a nice bite to the pepper, with a sweet burn of an aftertaste. Not bitter, not too hot. The kind of pepper you want to try when you're looking to level up on your spicy game.

A forkful of Esmeralda's chile relleno. - DREW HYLAND
  • Drew Hyland
  • A forkful of Esmeralda's chile relleno.

THURSDAY
Pachanga, 1802 Fifth St, Eureka.

So much cheese. We love cheese. Nice, eggy batter. Fantastic, zippy, tomatillo sauce. Ultimately, though, the cheese (stringier and a little more mozzarella-y than Esmeralda's) overwhelmed both batter and pepper. Points for atmosphere: friendly attentive waitresses, a kid's corner and lots of ladies who look like they know what they're doing sweating in the open kitchen. We get why this spot is a local favorite.

Pachanga's does not skimp on cheese. - DREW HYLAND
  • Drew Hyland
  • Pachanga's does not skimp on cheese.

And the winner is ... Esmeralda's! It's hard to override our love of cheese, but when it comes to the yo no se que (figured out the translation) of a good relleno, Esmeralda's nails it.

Next week:Eureka Part II. Where should we try? What spots deserve to go head to head against Esmeralda's in the bracket? Let us know here, on Facebook or Twitter. #humboldtsbestchilerelleno
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Friday, June 5, 2015

Boathouse Barbecue

Posted By on Fri, Jun 5, 2015 at 3:21 PM

Sunshine, ribs and pulled pork. - JENNIFER FUMIKO CAHILL
  • Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
  • Sunshine, ribs and pulled pork.
Barbecue has gotten a little esoteric. At once secretive and boastful, the macho hype surrounding the grill can make you long for the simple sweetness of pork cooked low and slow without all the fuss. This is a good time to swing into King Salmon for hole-in-the-wall Polynesian barbecue at Sammy's BBQ & Catering (1125 King Salmon Ave.). Two meats and two sides will run you $12. 


Continue reading »

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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Á la Truck

Posted By on Wed, May 27, 2015 at 11:10 AM

Crepes rolling out of the Hum Grown Grindz truck. - DREW HYLAND
  • Drew Hyland
  • Crepes rolling out of the Hum Grown Grindz truck.
The appeal of a crepe is its delicate nature. Sure, you love the lumberjack-powering stack of flapjacks meant to send you off to either haul timber or drop back into bed like a felled tree. But crepes are the pancake’s refined French cousin, impractical, requiring special pans. Crepes are art for art’s sake.

Yes, those are little sliders and crepe fixings all on one tiny range. - DREW HYLAND
  • Drew Hyland
  • Yes, those are little sliders and crepe fixings all on one tiny range.
Hum Grown Grindz, the red food truck that can be found lately parked at Bigfoot Supply in Willow Creek (41212 State Route 299) seems an unlikely source, but it’s cranking out both sweet and savory varieties. The chicken chipotle pesto crepe is so stuffed it’s thinking about being a burrito ($9). Did you get the wrong order? No, it’s supposed to be that creamy, and with the basil, garlic and a little smoky heat, the sauce and tender chicken hit all the buttons. And so pretty! It’s easily the fanciest thing you’ve gotten out of a truck in some time. The crepe itself is substantial enough to hold all that filling, pleasantly egg-y and moist. In fact, it still holds together after a car ride back to Eureka, where office mates descended like a starving French mob on the leftovers, which were still delicious.

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Friday, May 22, 2015

Reubenesque

Posted By on Fri, May 22, 2015 at 11:47 AM

A sandwich worth defending. - JENNIFER FUMIKO CAHILL
  • Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
  • A sandwich worth defending.

It's hard to look classy whilst cramming a big, grilled, cheesy, pastrami-packed Reuben into your mouth. And there are days when you want the taste of the sandwich, but maybe not the heart flutters afterward. Your solution is at Nourish Bistro & Catering (518 Henderson St., Eureka). Order up a Reuben at the counter and try not to be distressed when you are asked about your choice of bread, cheese and dressing ($8.50). Apparently there are those who want to tweak the classic, and that's their lifestyle choice. But maybe we need to address some actual issues and draft a Defense of Reubens Act that defines this American institution as a hot sandwich on rye bread with pastrami, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and thousand island dressing. Do what you will in your own home, but you can't call it a Reuben without hurting all Reubens.

Ahem. Nourish's version, cut into sharp wedges, is downright minimalist. This is not the daunting monolith you faced on your visit to New York — the tower of meat teetering to one side, a flimsy slice of bread stranded at the top like Faye Wray. Instead, it's toasty, swirly rye bread with a reasonable handful of satisfyingly salty Premier pastrami, sauerkraut and a swipe of thousand island. Piping hot so you can taste the fat of the meat, which is cut just enough with the tart kraut, it is a taste of the real thing that you can eat with dignity in your distressed, white shabby chic chair.

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Friday, May 15, 2015

Flat Out

Posted By on Fri, May 15, 2015 at 2:02 PM

Tacos and flautas at La Partia Solis. - JENNIFER FUMIKO CAHILL
  • Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
  • Tacos and flautas at La Partia Solis.

You think you're happy with the damp circle of particle board that is a packaged tortilla. And maybe you are. But a fresh, handmade corn or flour tortilla with its uneven edges and its delicate chewiness is to the hard-edged pre-packaged kind as a crackling, oven-warm baguette is to a slice of Wonder. Sure, there's a time and place for the mass-produced stuff (late at night, with a jar of Nutella, under the cold scrutiny of your cat). But up against homemade? It's not even a fair fight.

Two crews of happy, well-fed construction workers ambled out of La Patria Solis (1718 Fourth St., Eureka) yesterday. According to the waitress, everybody got the pastor and asada tacos ($2.49 each). The homemade corn tortillas are soft, warm and thick, cradling handfuls of chopped grilled steak with onion and cilantro. The asada has a little char to it, and the red marinade of the pastor is tangy and spicy, playing nicely off the sweet corn tortilla.

Wait, the flour tortillas are homemade, too? We're getting flautas — beef, because I think one of those construction guys got the last of the lengua ($2.79 each). They come with sides, but you can order them a la carte and they'll show up with some grilled onions on the side and a hefty dollop of sour cream and queso fresco on top. The cigar-like rolls are still tender, not over-fried, and the flavor of the tortilla reminds you why you will never really break up with white flour. Let the cat judge you for that.


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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Southern Comfort

Posted By on Tue, Apr 28, 2015 at 1:00 PM

Kentucky Derby pie comes with a kick of Bourbon. - JENNIFER FUMIKO CAHILL
  • Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
  • Kentucky Derby pie comes with a kick of Bourbon.

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.
Peanut butter chess pie is a dessert fit for the King. - JENNIFER FUMIKO CAHILL
  • 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.
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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Spamtastic

Posted By on Wed, Apr 22, 2015 at 4:52 PM

Think pink. - GRANT SCOTT-GOFORTH
  • Grant Scott-Goforth
  • Think pink.
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.
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