We are living in a golden age — golden brown, really — of mac and cheese. Diners, high-end restaurants, bars and food trucks alike all offer their takes on the quintessential comfort food. It's a dish that contains multitudes: the basic elbow and cheddar, stretchy forkfuls drizzled in truffle oil and duck fat, and deep fried breaded nuggets. Roll your eyes and pretend to be jaded but if the trend ever ends and the molten crocks disappear, you will miss them (R.I. P., flambé everything). Bask in it now, before it joins its first cousin the casserole, languishing at potlucks.
You could do a solid tour of macaroni and cheese around Humboldt County. If you do, send pictures. And don't skip Farmhouse on Main (460 Main St., Ferndale). The sunny dining room with its sturdy wooden tables and vintage stove opened last fall in the former home of Curley's Full Circle. Its mac and cheese is baked dish or orecchiette pasta crusted over in herby bread crumbs that break to reveal a pale, creamy cheddar sauce ($10.50). There are additions to be had, like bacon and shrimp, but consider the sliced cremini mushrooms ($2.50), which stand up well here. If the crispy, flaky fried chicken with homemade tomato jam ($15 small plate) lures you away, at least get the pasta as a side to share. It may well stay on the menu forever but, you know, just in case.
Lizette Acuna spoons an Argentinan Chimichurri on a grilled oyster.
Too many cooks in the kitchen? It didn't look like it on Monday night at the Equinox in Old Town fundraiser dinner. The Humboldt County Office of Education event served up seven courses by a team of neighborhood chefs including coordinator Josh Wiley of Restaurant Five Eleven, where the dinner took place, Liz Acuna of Ramone's Cafe on Harrison, Erik Masaki of Masaki's Kyoto Japanese Restaurant, Raphael Pumphrey of Cafe Nooner, Graham Miller of Mazzotti's and Daniel Dagorret of Restaurant 301.
The team laid out a feast for diners who shelled out $100 each to raise a total of $4,200 for HCOE’s Nutrition Programs and Services, which covers school meals, training and bringing local beef and produce into schools. Photographer Mark McKenna was there shooting (and likely sampling) from the appetizers to the dessert. Get a taste from the slideshow below.
There's a daredevil glee in chowing down in a greasy spoon, casting hygiene-related fears aside, scratching the mystery spot off your glass and regard your plate — its contents fried to kill all but the most exotic contagions — as Evel Knievel must have eyed Snake Canyon before he hit the ramp. But, like all extreme sports, its high is a brief one you might die chasing.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the deep calm of Amy's Delight (401 W. Harris St., Eureka). The Chinese-American diner has been in business since 1997 but the open kitchen, with its mirror-like stainless steel panels, calls to mind a computer clean room more than a diner. Rumor has it regulars include health department employees.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
This is the biscuit and gravy you're looking for.
Which is not to say hedonists and masochists can't still hurt themselves here. Order up the steak and eggs and find yourself facing a mound of pan-crisped potatoes and a full 12-ounce ribeye ($23). No fancy oven finishing — the steak is fried on the grill and so long as you don't get it well done and cover it in ketchup, you're eating better than our president. A pair of pancakes is among your side options but consider there is nowhere to sleep here. And the homemade biscuits, it should be noted, come with the sausage-heavy white pan gravy we have been searching for ($7.95).
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
Ham and egg fried rice omelet.
A more modest option is the signature Amy's Delight, an omelet stuffed with ham and egg fried rice and topped with mild cheese, tomatoes and cilantro ($11.95). It's homey and satisfying, especially with the house chili sauce. There are whispers, too, of a secret menu that includes a Taiwanese breakfast (Amy herself hails from Taiwan): two fried eggs over rice — break the yolks, drizzle with soy sauce — with a side of sautéed spinach ($9.95). But you didn't hear it from us.
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, tri-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, tri-tip won me over. (Respect, Humboldt Del Norte Cattlemen's Association dinner.) But why has it taken so long for pulled tri-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.