Nothing hurts like taking that deep breath to splurge on a steak only to end up gnawing a flavorless knot of overcooked muscle, wondering if it's worth making dinner all weird by sending it back or if you should keep chewing and just imagine a wonderful cut of meat from the past. Do you have to go back and cook that steak yourself to get it exactly the way you want it? It's not a terrible idea. And if you are a member of the Elk's Lodge (445 Herrick Ave., Eureka), that esteemed hall of animal taxidermy, deep leather seats and dangerously cheap cocktails — or know someone who is — you can do just that. On a Friday steak night, anywhere from 175 to 300 members and their guests lay down $18 each and line up for a two-fingers-thick, marbled New York steak with a luxurious rind of fat and grill it up themselves on a big ol' open grate outside. Let's see the Masons top that.
Off to the side are friendly women handing out hot rolls and scooping soft, buttery cafeteria-style vegetables and steak fries. The salad bar is likewise old school, with canisters of canned olives, shredded cheese, croutons and diner dressings. But these, like the long table covered in a battalion of lemon cake squares, are distractions.
Once you've stood in line and the gentleman up front has placed your chosen steak on a plate with tongs, you make your way out to the little table of seasoning shakers and back to the flaming grate, where people are either chatting away with long grilling forks in hand or staring with sniper-like focus into the fire, poised to flip their meat at the right second. Go ahead, put a dollop of the supplied butter on top of your browned prize when it's done and watch others follow suit. Because by the time you are seated at your reserved table under the watchful eye of an enormous stag head, the butter will have melted into the crevices of the meat, mingling with the juices on your plate as you cut into a charred and juicy steak to reveal the bruisey red or blush pink you dream of — just the way you want it.
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.
The pork ribs are succulent after three to four hours of cooking, still clinging to the bone but tender and without too much char. Asked about his rub, Sammy Maualuga himself shrugs — just salt, pepper and garlic. Fair enough. The sauce on the table is Ray's, but everyone seems to prefer the sweet chili in the squeeze bottle. Taste the Kalua pulled pork before you touch the sauce — 14 hours on the rotisserie brings out the meat's deep flavors, like the pork roast pan drippings you sneak in the kitchen. (Oh, we see you.) The teriyaki chicken is also the real deal: juicy, nicely charred and well marinated.
Sides are similarly classic. The macaroni salad is the comforting mayo, onion, salt and pepper with paprika on top recipe that you remember from childhood picnics and that nobody will freaking make for you anymore. Ditto the soft, nearly mashed potato salad. Choose one of these and opt for the pineapple slaw for your second side; the chunks of fruit, Napa cabbage and cilantro are a refreshing balance to the meat.
Get a table out back on the "boatyard seating" deck if it's sunny and enjoy a view of weathered boats in the inlet. No wonder the Maualuga family (yes, that Maualuga family) eats out there almost every week when the place closes for Sunday dinner.
We've been nibbling away at a forthcoming investigative piece on the county's best chile relleno (go to www.northcoastjournal.com to see how the bracket-style competition is going, or follow #humboldtsbestchilerelleno). And as always, share your hot tips on great meals around Humboldt by emailing Jennifer@northcoastjournal.com.