The standard sub at Z & J Asian Subs (2336 Third St., Eureka) isn't so much a Vietnamese bánh mì as an American barbecue sandwich that spent a semester abroad and came back with pickled carrots, cucumbers, cilantro and sriracha sauce. Call it inauthentic, make fun of its souvenir beaded necklace, but you can't fight it — the thing is delicious. And when you've fallen down a Target hole, wandering the aisles of storage tubs and owl-shaped cookie jars well past lunchtime, it will save you from hunger and consumer despair.
But if you need to hear the majestic screams of bald eagles over your lunch, order the Southern pulled pork sandwich ($6.99). The trucker-handful of pork is smoked for 12 hours before it's shredded, tossed with barbecue sauce and scooped along with some red wine vinegar coleslaw onto a toasted brioche bun swiped with lime and chipotle mayonnaise. The brioche (OK, that's a little French, but so is a lot of the South) holds the mess together, but tuck a napkin in your shirt just in case.
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.
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 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 Humboldt Cider Company, opens in Arcata. You are warned.
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. 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 paper 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 lunchmeat 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 your 1950s-bomb-shelter-cuisine itch, the Spam burger is the way to scratch.