I am told by a reliable Greek co-worker that everything is Greek. Everything. And yet when I swung into the office with a paper bag from Humboldt Soup Company (1019 Myrtle Ave., Eureka), there was some panic — from the Greek Panikos, incidentally — as to whether its gyro ($8.29) would be Greek enough.
The meat is key here. There are those of us who look at gyro meat or shawarma — the glistening, rotating column of the Mediterranean/Middle-East's answer to sausage — and recoil. Others among us dream of having a similar set-up beside the couch and shearing off strips of greasy goodness as John Stamos flickers on TV. This gyro is stuffed with beef and lamb shawarma that's soft and spicy, somewhere between sausage and meatball, but not overly salty. It's not exactly the same as the stuff they're slicing off the turning spit in the old country (or in Queens, for that matter) but it's savory and makes the cut.
The pita is legit — warm, soft and grilled — and unlike the usual foil-wrapped, dripping behemoth, the whole thing is pretty. Well, not anger-Hera-and-turn-you-into-the-snake-headed-Medusa pretty, but fancy enough to justify the price. The circles of pink pickled onion are tart and bright against the earthy meat and the tzatziki sauce is lightly garlicky and creamy with cubes of cucumber and tomato. Some fancy lettuce and a dark and nutty tahini spread that adds sweet smokiness are enough to make you forget about all that Greek austerity. Just don't get carried away and throw your plate. It's cardboard and that's not festive, it's littering.
It's not that you thought you were done with burgers, but you really did intend to take a break. Have a salad. OK, you were going to get the fried chicken sandwich, but then someone said the words "pork belly burger."
Let's be frank: If somebody puts a handful of roasted, glistening pork on top of a burger, it can't be bad. But the one at Plaza Grill (780 Seventh St. Arcata) is exceptional in its execution — it is everything done right ($13). The grassfed beef burger (treat yourself to the $2 upgrade) is exactly medium rare and has its own char-grilled meatiness to stand on its own. The cheddar cheese, aioli and oil-brushed and toasted ciabatta bun would be accompaniment enough. But the pork — caramelized at its edges, sweet and fatty, falling apart as you pick at a piece under the bun — is downright marvelous. Pork belly might be the new bacon, a richer and softer alternative to the usual smoky and salty stuff. Is the fried egg on top superfluous with all the umami already on the scene? No. Because it, too, is perfectly done, fried for a crisp, browned frill and a thick yolk that cascades down the side and onto the plate where you should swab at it with a French fry. If you were unsure about ciabatta before, you'll be grateful for its sturdiness and its ability to soak up all those meaty juices now. The lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle sit smug and safe on your plate, as there's no way to fit them onto this thing. No matter. You're back on salad tomorrow.
Buttermilk fried chicken goes fancy.
Unless you come back for that fried chicken sandwich. The buttermilk chicken sandwich (dinner only, $12), again on ciabatta, with a generous organic breast in a none-too-salty crust, is tender to the bite. The Sriracha aioli (which sounds like a gimmick but is a genuine pleasure that lights up all parts of your brain and which you should order on the side with your fries from now on) offers a bit of a kick, but the aromatic pickled onions steal the show with their crispiness, tang and hit of turmeric. All together it's a satisfying take on a pub and diner standard. And don't scoff at the iceberg lettuce — it's what you really wanted. You have the rest of your life for dark, leafy greens. Starting tomorrow.
How's your cold? Just kidding. No one cares. You missed getting sick when everyone else was coughing and sneezing, and now that your friends and co-workers are healed up, they have no sympathy for you. Fine. You can drown your sorrows in more canned soup and cough syrup or you can drag yourself to a corner table — away from other customers, Typhoid Mary — at Pho Lan Phuong (1709 Fifth St., Eureka) and order the hot and spicy beef noodle soup ($9.75).
Don't be frightened by the color of the chili oil or the red letters on the menu; it's not crazy hot. In fact, there's just enough heat in the lemongrass broth to help you fake the glow of health. Toss in the sprouts and squeeze the lime in there with a couple of jalapeno slices, and breathe in the scent of the cilantro. It's not terribly salty, so if you feel the need to paint the town red with that squeeze bottle of Sriracha, you go ahead. There are thick, comforting rice noodles, slices of beef shank and soft hunks of tendon. Hey, collagen-rich tendon is supposed to be good for your skin, and you need something to lord over those insufferable healthy people.
If the wall-to-wall Betty Boop décor (down to a tacked-up pair of socks) doesn't give it away, the sign exclaiming that pizza fries with meatballs and cheese are back should clue you in that Deb's Great American Hamburger Company (3340 Redwood Drive, Redway) is not about subtlety. Good thing, too.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
Cheeseburger cross-section. For science.
You will be grateful for the more is more aesthetic untethered to trends or changing theories about "nutrition" when the fast and focused young woman from the counter finds your little, red vinyl-covered table and puts down your hefty Western burger ($9.47). The patty itself is a beast — thick and browned under a swath of melted cheese — on a white bun with a crisp onion ring and bacon. And bacon. Languid, brick red slices, salty and just-chewy-enough, drape out over the sides to taunt those who order the simple cheeseburger, pleasingly old-fashioned as it is ($8.52). In fact, there's enough of the stuff that snaking a piece from my husband's burger did not end with me hitchhiking home from Redway.
A blueberry scone to set you on the path of righteousness.
So, after the holiday decadence you've resolved to eat healthy foods, to treat your body like a sustainably built temple instead of the shameless altar of Bacchus it's been for the last two months. But do you have to be a monk? Because that bowl of cold grains you're starting off with is a little grim. The counter at Cafe Phoenix (1300 G. St., Arcata), which boasts a changing menu of locally sourced and/or organic everything, might be a better place to start. The cake stands are stacked with scones, brownies and coffee cakes made with organic butter, flour, eggs and fruit to ease you into your new lifestyle. The blueberry scone ($3.50) is a good place to start — soft and cakey inside with indigo bursts of berries (antioxidants!) and a delicate, buttery crust of cinnamon. Do you want that warmed up in the oven so it's toasty outside and just a bit steamy within? Of course you do. Maybe a side of butter (organic, and we've decided butter's good right now — jump on that train while it's running). There are poached eggs and veggies on the board, but hey, baby steps. Let the next table explore Brussels sprouts as a breakfast food. You just enjoy that scone.
Trinidad's reputation as "a drinking town with a fishing problem" means it's also a town that needs a solid recovery breakfast. Lucky the place is small enough that the Trinidad Bay Eatery (607 Parker St.) is only a short stumble away. A plate of fluffy cut-out buttermilk biscuits split and blanketed with white bacon gravy might be enough to steady you ($5.99). If nothing else, the pale expanse will blot out those fuzzy memories and thoughts of the gym.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
The Sailor's Mess after a stormy night.
But if you're still puzzling over what to do with the drunken sailor, the Sailor's Mess might be called for ($11.99). Order it and your sympathetic server will bring you a plate filled to the edges with hash browns and topped with onions and peppers (vegetables!), a trio of eggs and three strips of bacon. Hidden beneath those eggs is a ladleful of that bacon gravy, which is a fine idea. The potatoes are all you want from hash browns — a flattened haystack that's crisp on the surface and steamy and soft within. And, wonder of wonders, it's by no means a greasy affair but an actual meal to fortify you and help you regain your sea legs.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
Warm icing melts into a hot cinnamon roll.
If you're there when the cinnamon rolls come out of the oven, get one ($2.99). The spiral of pastry — taking up the table like a coiled fire hose — is doused with warm icing just before serving. The sugar melting into the simple dough is comforting rather than decadent to pull apart and nibble with black coffee — just the thing you need.
The sprouting crop of man buns around the room at the Woodrose Café (911 Redwood Drive, Garberville) might lead you to worry about trendiness encroaching on your breakfast, but fear not. A copy of Sunset Magazine's Eating up the West Coast, into which the house recipe for cheese sauce found its way, is propped up behind the counter. Find out why — order the Eggs Woodrose ($13.95). The poached egg and mound of ham and spinach are obscured by a ladle of white cheese sauce. At the bottom somewhere is an English muffin. Taste the creamy and not overly salty stuff and ask yourself what else might be improved/hidden with a warm blanketing of it. (Brussel sprouts? Urban blight?) There are potatoes, too. They are herbed and possessed of a kind of salty pan crust that only comes when the cook has the steely nerve to leave them alone in the skillet. Your ketchup may go ignored.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
The mushroom omelette reveals its bounty.
Also accompanied by potatoes is the mushroom and cheese omelet ($13.95). It's not cheap, as omelets go, but given the sheer volume of sautéed locally grown shiitake mushrooms, you might be getting it at cost. Along with the melted white cheddar, they are deeply satisfying. It fulfills the broken promises of your friends who are always telling you a portobello burger is just as good as a real burger.
With the start of Dia de los Muertos starts this weekend, folks are picking up pan de muerto (dead bread) to pile onto altars among photos, sugar skulls and candles for their lost loved ones. Don't risk losing control of your sweet tooth and swiping a bun from the dearly departed. Get your own.
El Pueblo Market (3600 Broadway, Eureka) has two sizes of the soft, pale yellow bread dusted with superfine sugar ($1 small). If you like a not-too-sweet raised doughnut rolled in crunchy sugar, this is for you.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
Behold, the bakery bounty.
But there you are with the green plastic tray and the tongs and this wall of glass cabinets piled with yellow buns, sprinkles, pastel-frosted rolls, wedges of cake and, wait, is that just a hunk of bread slathered in butter and dunked in sugar? Most of it is $1 apiece. Load up.
The coconut covered ball turns out to be scone-firm, bready muffin-top halves fused together with red marmalade. The chewy brown bun with a swipe of baked yellow frosting is full of cinnamon is lovely with a cup of strong coffee.
There are soft, bready cones are filled with vanilla custard and wedges of eggy cheesecake that's solid enough to eat with your fingers and totally justifiable as a breakfast item.
It's what's inside that counts. As long as it's bacon.
The newly opened Greene Lily (307 Second St., Eureka) has trundled away the vinyl chairs and grim lighting of the former Mekong Cafe, swapping in a bright copper ceiling and white padded banquettes. It's quite a makeover. With all the distraction of shiny newness, facing the laminated gleam of an unfamiliar menu could be daunting. Or not — because if someone is back in the kitchen pouring waffle batter over a hot iron with a layer of bacon inside, then get that. The bacon Belgian waffle ($8.95) appears at first as plain as a Kardashian without her contouring make-up, or Channing Tatum in lots of loose clothing. But cutting into the browned exterior is the brunch equivalent of a glasses-off-hair-shaken-out movie transformation. Inside is a layer of brick-red bacon that's been fried to a crisp edge but not crunchy. See, your mother was right and it's what's inside that counts. As long as there's salty pig fat inside.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
Lean in — get the bacon gravy, too.
Sure, you could drizzle syrup from your little cup if you're up for sweet and salty. Or you could double down on the savory and order up a side of the bacon gravy ($2.95) that normally comes with the biscuits. The gravy isn't particularly salty, and the barely sweet flavor of the waffle still comes through. Besides, enough of the creamy, bacon-flecked stuff will show up that you can afford to be generous and let companions dip a fry or two. And that's an attractive quality.
Is there a limit to how many burger places Humboldt can support? Will the day come when we crumple our ketchup-stained napkins, cast them to the floor and say enough? Yeah, no.
Sixth and E Neighborhood Eatery has opened up in Eureka (603 E St.) with a small army of burgers and tricked-out fries. The modestly named Good Burger is a 1/3-pound of grassfed beef with lettuce, tomato, mayo, pickle and cheddar cheese, criss-crossed with peppery bacon on a soft, slightly chewy grilled bun ($11.99).
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
Fries with that.
The schmear of avocado spread is creamy and has the advantage of not sliding off your burger the way a slab of avocado does, challenging you to rearrange your burger for proper topping distribution while pretending you are still listening to your lunch companions. The meat is none too tightly packed and has a juicy bite. (Nothing sadder than seeing perfectly good meat kneaded into an angry, gray lump.) Beside your burger in the cake tin that serves as your plate, you have the option of barbecue rub-dusted wedge-cut fries with skins or a nest of skinny, crispy onion rings in golden batter. See, we do have room for one more.