I confess to being an elitist regarding food. I have been a professional cook and restaurant manager, and my wife and I enjoy cooking, eating and talking about food, so I have acquired definite prejudices and preferences. I also want my columns to entertain, rather than be purely practical. Thus, some of my more adventurous topics have generated letters reminding me that there is more to life than obscure or outrageous cuisine created in locales far from our rural paradise.
I welcome these comments. Clearly, many Journal readers have cultivated tastes, yet can't possibly afford restaurants that only cater to the well-to-do.
More than one reader has brought up the difficulty of going out for dinner at reasonable prices. And that prodded me to wonder if I could make a list of places that offer a good supper for $10 or under.
Researching this has been illuminating. Let us establish some ground rules:
1) It has to be dinner, not just lunch. Lunch is allowed to be skimpier, plus the turnover is quicker, as people have to return to work. Dinner is where you should be able to relax, take your time and have a leisurely meal.
2) It must include table service. There are a host of places where you place your order and pay at the register; they may serve up a bountiful feast, but if you are looking for the "restaurant experience," it includes a skilled and solicitous server. No standing in line, just sit down and relax.
3) The $10 limit is the price of a full meal, and should include potatoes, pasta or rice; vegetables; and a salad or soup. It is not "out-the-door" - there is a beverage if you want one, plus tax and a tip of at least 15 percent. No, sorry, poverty is not an excuse for not tipping. You are dining out, and that makes you part of a communal experience. Your server is paid minimum wage, and she (or he) does a lot of things you won't see (and are not supposed to see) to make your experience a pleasant one.
Fifteen percent is not a "reward," it's because that's the amount the IRS bases withholding on! If you tip less, you are actually penalizing the server, forcing her to pay tax on money she never received. (Most folks who've worked in restaurants tip 20 percent.) This is a social contract, people, and let's not invite parsimonious jerks to participate. We're all on this bus together.
So, tax and tip included, you should expect to pay a maximum of $12.25. That's not the same as takeout, but it's a luxury, and once a month or so you might find it worthwhile to give yourself a "mental health" meal out.
4) For now, we're not including burger places, although that's certainly a viable option, particularly if you don't care about all the amenities. We may be snobs, but when we found ourselves in Boston at 7 p.m. Humboldt Time (omigod, it's 10, all the restaurants are closed!), we panicked and went to the "sports bar" on the hotel's ground floor. There, sequestered away from the loud patrons and blaring TV, we enjoyed one of the best hamburgers we've ever tasted, grilled over an oak fire, with perfect jojos. There's definitely nothing wrong with burgers, but that's not today's topic.
The following list is incomplete. There are places we've had sincere but not distinguished meals. I hate to leave them out, but I also have to be candid with you. This is, I hope, the first installment of an ongoing list. It is one my wife and I have compiled with multiple visits, however, and I feel pretty confident about it. Generally, I've mentioned the menu item that impressed me as the best bargain. True, nothing is "perfect" - for perfect, you need to spend a little more. But for good, honest, house-cooked food, with a minimum of commercial ingredients, this is a pretty good start. With some surprises.
The Alibi: Pork Chop dinner, $10, with multiple options.
It's easy to overlook this popular bar and grill, but they have one of the largest and most creative menus anywhere. Every entree includes three choices from 12 selections, including various potatoes, rice pilaf, vegetables (steamed or sautéed), soup and salad. Blackened cod is $9, but there are also deep-fried oysters, sausage and peppers and a hot turkey sandwich, all under $10. Of course, they're hoping you'll order from the bar, but there's no reason you have to. Service is friendly and personal. (They also make burgers, but as I said, that's a topic for another day.)
Hue:From $6-8 including vegetables, egg rolls, rice or soup.
This tiny place has a large menu combining Laotian, Vietnamese and Thai dishes. We loved the fresh spring rolls (made with soft noodles, served with a tangy-sweet dipping sauce). Many dishes are called "soup" but are more like Asian stews (the house-made meatballs, actually closer to sausage, are good). A Thai dish we've not tasted except in metropolitan areas is "Larb," minced beef, pork or chicken, with fresh herbs and spices; sort of like a Southeast Asian chili. Try it with rice. Oh, and don't specify "hot" here, unless you really mean it.
Carmela's:Combinations abound: you can hardly go wrong.
A large bowl of albondigas (a rich, spicy broth, crammed with succulent meatballs and potato chunks) served with tortillas, is just $5.50, so you can also afford the delicious nopales salad ($3.25). Another bargain is the Guarache ($6.25), a thick cornmeal bread smothered with meat, nopales, salad and salty white cheese. Carmela's beef tamales are the best in the county. Deep-fried potato-and-chorizo dumplings, called bollitos, are addictive. Of course, if you are going to defy my advice and order a super-burrito or some other gringo travesty, I take no responsibility.
Liu's:Vegetable Spring Roll, Ma La Chicken, $10.
After a dozen years in Eureka, Liu's has proven its value. True, the dining room is boxy and slightly institutional, but it is head-and-shoulders above places with liquor and "elegant" decor. While it's eminently possible for a single diner to eat for under $10, the wiser choice is for two people to share. Combine lamb Hunan style ($8) or beef chow fun ($8, brisket with thick, broad noodles in a rich gravy) or Mu Shu Pork ($7.50, including 8 crepes), and you still have enough to add the Imperial Roll ($3.50), a feast for under $20.
AA Bar and Grill: Fried Chicken, potatoes, salad with blue/ranch, $9.
This is a place we had never considered until a friend tipped us off, a well-kept secret (well, until now). No wonder: It's the most improbable location ever, a tacky looking tavern across the street from the Humboldt County Jail.
There are only three to four tables clustered near the front, but many people eat at the comfortable bar, which occupies nearly all of the room. In dramatic contrast with The Alibi, AA has a very limited menu, posted on signboards along the west wall. Steaks, mostly - rib eye ($14) and porterhouse all the way up to the "order-24-hours-in-advance" three-pounder(!). Halibut and Chips are $11. Interestingly, for a bar, the jukebox level is low, and the TV sound off, giving the place an intimate feel where conversation is possible. An eclectic clientele, and a very mom-and-pop feel. Don't be in a hurry, though; if you feel like splurging, drinks are a bargain. The fried chicken, by the way, is the best we've had on the North Coast.
Enough for now. This is a column in progress. I haven't gone everywhere (who can afford to?) but generally, if it's pretty well-known, there's a reason I left it out. It may not fulfill the basic standards. And as I said, there are places (a couple of promising Mexican restaurants come to mind) I want to recommend (as readers have praised them) but can't yet, possibly because I tried the wrong dish. If you are a regular who knows something that works best at your favorite place, let me know.
I'm not oblivious to restaurants in Southern Humboldt, the Hoopa Valley, and Del Norte, all of which have had treasures in the past. I hope to deal with them in regional columns over the coming months. The same goes for burger joints, pizza purveyors and other establishments.
While I offer no apology for my choices, I don't claim to be flawless. I welcome thoughtful input. Just please check our "rules" - 1, 2, 3, and 4 - before you send me your favorites. And don't hesitate to write, even to tell me I'm wrong. I've gotten to know some interesting people that way, and the more concerned we are about what we eat, the better for us all.