ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly


story & photos by BOB DORAN


The ballots are counted and the results final for this year's "Best of Humboldt" poll. Your favorite Mexican food comes from Rita's Café and Taqueria.
Best of winners list
I remember the first time I heard about Rita's, not long after she opened her place on Wabash in Eureka in 1988. A couple of friends, guys who had traveled extensively in Mexico, told me they had discovered the perfect restaurant, a place with the best food north of the border.

My mouth watered as they described the flavorful sauces, authentic tacos and other delights. But there was a catch: They wouldn't tell me the name of the place or where it was. They knew once the word spread they would not be able to walk in and get a table whenever they wanted.

And they were right.

Rita Fregoso-Pimentel [see photo above] was raised on a ranch near San Martin, a small town outside of Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco. She moved to Humboldt County in 1976 and by 1987 was working in the restaurant business, beginning as a cook at the Jalisco Café.

"I told my husband some day I would like a very small place of my own for a restaurant," she told me as I dined on a combo plate at her new restaurant on Harris.

When she heard about a little diner available on Wabash the following year, she decided that was a good place to start and she opened the Chapala Café, offering authentic Mexican dishes she learned from her mother.

"My mama, she was a good cook. And then I learned things myself," Rita said. "I wrote my first menu by myself and ran the place myself the first years. I was the cook and the server. I made everything and did everything."

As business picked up she found help but, as my friends had predicted, it became harder and harder to get a table, particularly at lunch. (She didn't take reservations.)

Since she seemed to have more than enough customers, some loyal fans convinced her she should expand. The result was a new Chapala Café, a spacious place on Second Street in Old Town with high ceilings and room for lots of tables.

More employees were hired, customers followed and the restaurant flourished but eventually Rita discovered her duties as manager and hostess left her little time in the kitchen she loved. So after a few years, in 1994, she sold the place to Ted Stewart, one of her waiters.

"I miss Chapala, but I like the smaller place," said Rita, looking back. After focusing on marketing her salsa, in 1998 she and her family reopened the Wabash diner as Rita's Taqueria. Then in Spetember she expanded into a second location, a place she is buying on West Harris.

The former pizza parlor -- "Not too big, not too small" -- became available in a bit of restaurant musical chairs. Another Mexican restaurant, Roman's, moved to Henderson Center, taking over the space once occupied by the City Grill.

"I worked so hard for too many years. Now I'm glad to be buying this property. We have pretty good business here, and I still work some down at the other place. We have good business there, too," Rita said.

The expansion is in part due to the growth in her wholesale business. Following the advice of Tom Pagano, who distributes Rita's products through his company, Tomaso's Specialty Foods, Rita expanded her product line adding vegetarian burritos.

"Now you can get my burritos and salsa at stores all over," she said. But the burrito production was overwhelming her small space on Wabash.

"I'm making almost 1,000 every week. I needed more room. It was too tight doing it down there. Here I have a big walk-in and a big kitchen. I won't have any problems for a while."

With two restaurants and the wholesale business, she works a lot, but says it's no problem. She closes the Wabash operation on Sundays, but not the new one.

"I work seven days a week here. Sometimes it's hard, but I'm happy. I'm glad. My customers love me and my food. I'm very happy."

One footnote to this story: The Journal's "Best of Humboldt" poll included a new category this year -- "Best burrito." The winner? Rita's.

Many of this year's food category winners were repeats from previous years. Maybe because Humboldters have a tendency to find something they like and stick with it.

Perennial favorite Larrupin' Cafe, Dixie Gorrell's chic rib joint in Trinidad, was chosen "Best upscale eatery" as it had in previous years. What's new is that this year Larrupin' had some serious competition. Tied for second place were two relative newcomers -- Jambalaya in Arcata and Hurricane Kate's in Old Town Eureka.

It's probably worth mentioning that Kate's also received many write-in votes for "best pizza." And that Larrupin', Kate's and Jambalaya all got write-ins for "best seafood," a category that once again was swept by the Sea Grill.
"Best coffee" went to Muddy Waters in Arcata -- again. And Crosswinds in Arcata repeated its victory in the "Best Sunday breakfast" category.

Live from New York, McKinleyville and Arcata, was a slam-dunk repeat in the "Best pizza" slot. Last year Abruzzi, located in Arcata's Jacoby Storehouse, was a close second to Mazzotti's, a popular Eureka Old Town eatery, in the "Best Italian" category. This year Abruzzi edged out Mazzotti's.

The Journal increased the choices in the lunch category this year. Hole in the Wall Arcata/Eureka, a contender last year, swept the competition for "Best deli sandwiches" while "Best quickie lunch spot" honors went to the multicultural Los Bagels, Arcata and Old Town, where the lines sometimes stretch out the door.

Brio Bread

Journal readers pick

A new category, "Best real bread," replaced "Best bakery." The result was serious domination by Brio. The Arcata-based bread company outstripped the competition drawing more votes than any other entry.

Plate of sushiThe Journal's "Best Asian" slot drew such a range of responses last year that it was divided into three categories. Last year's winner, Tomo, took this year's the "Best Japanese" spot. "Best Chinese" went to Gonsea in Eureka, with Hunan Village in Arcata a close second. "Best other Asian" went to Humboldt's only Thai restaurant, Smile of Siam. (Have you ever wondered why we only have one Thai restaurant? Even Crescent City has two.)

Northtown Books in Arcata won last year's "Best bookstore." This time it was chosen "Best bookstore new." Tin Can Mailman, right dNorthtown Books employeesown the street, took "Best bookstore used" with Booklegger in Old Town a close second.

Northern Mountain Supply dominated the new "Best outdoor outfitter" category. With "Best bike shop" it was a different story. A tight race ended up a dead heat between Revolution in Arcata and Henderson Center in Eureka. (One Journal reader wrote in "Harley-Davidson" in the bike shop category.)

Ferndale's horse races pulled ahead of the banana slugs to win "Best day at the races," a category that, according to readers, omitted a serious contender -- the Kinetic Sculpture Race.

Northtown Books: Art Burton, Barbara Turner, Lisa Rizer and Dante DiGenova.

Building the best burger

Christine Dunn opened her first Stars burger restaurant in 1988 on Harrison across from General Hospital. Seven years ago she and her husband Joe opened a Stars in Arcata. In between they tried a couple of other locations -- one near the Sea Grill on Second Street and another attached to Club West -- that have since folded. They also opened and closed a dinner house known as Bay City Grill and later, the City Grill and tried a Stars on Broadway, which like the others eventually was closed.

"It's easier for Joe and I to just run two restaurants than three," said Christine in an interview at the Arcata Stars.

What's the secret to making the best burger?Star's hamburger

"Our hamburger and our buns," she said. "All the beef comes from local ranchers, local cows, local packers. It's federally inspected. There's no antibiotics, no bovine growth hormone. The cows are 70 percent pasture fed, 30 percent grain fed. And it's ground fresh every day. That's the key to the hamburger, fresh beef with a lean-to-fat ratio with 18 percent fat. The fat is what gives the beef really good flavor.

"The buns are our recipe. The flour is a mixture of whole wheat and white. What gives it its sweetness is honey and/or blackstrap molasses. Big Loaf made them until Williams Bakery bought them out. Now Williams makes them. It took a good two months for them to perfect it, to make them the way Big Loaf used to."

Stars offers a wide variety of burgers and cheeseburgers come topped with cheddar, Swiss or bleu. Cajun burgers are made with blackening spice. And there's the very decadent guacamole-bacon burger and more. Every one is made to order.

"We don't have hamburgers sitting under a light," said Dunn. "The wait is a little longer here. Some people get a little ticked off because they expect their food to be done in like, two minutes. It takes at least 12 minutes to make a hamburger. We are not a fast food place -- but our hamburgers are a lot better."

The best in music

Music was another area where we tinkered with last year's ballot. We took two music categories, "Best band" and "Best musician," stretched them into four and added karaoke and "Best place to dance" for good measure. Unfortunately all that tinkering only seemed to make things more confusing.

The new karaoke category was a case in point. Some people voted for karaoke crews, others for bars where the crews set up. The winner, the Alibi, was neck and neck with the Red Lion. Makin' Music, the team that runs both sessions, came in third.
We still got dozens of entries in most categories, with votes for all sorts of bands -- country, rock, jazz, blues, funk, reggae, metal, gospel, alt. this and that -- everyone from the Appleonians to Zombie Kore Allegiance.

People unclear on the concept wrote in the same band in all categories, especially hardcore fans of Lazybonz and the Hitch, some even wrote them in for karaoke.

Three bands emerged victorious. The Cutters were a perfect fit for "Best bar band." The Celtic quartet, Good Company shook off serious competition from two bluegrass bands (Lazybonz and the Compost Mountain Boys) and the rockin' Delta Nationals to take "Best folk, roots, etc."

The clear winneJoyce Hough Bandr overall -- The Joyce Hough Band -- chosen as "Best dance band" and "Best band." It's not too surprising. Joyce and her partner Fred Neighbor have been at the forefront of the Humboldt music scene since the early '70s when they founded my all-time favorite nightclub, the Jambalaya, where they led the house band, Freddy and the Starliners. Bands that followed, the Appliances and the Whole Enchilada, carried the torch forward.

[The Joyce Hough Band: Tim Gray, Joyce Hough, Fred Neighbor, Gary Davidson and Rick Nelson.]

Fred and Joyce have always surrounded themselves with fine musicians and the JHB is no exception. Tim Gray and Gary Davidson build a rock solid rhythm section and Rick Nelson adds masterful keyboard work. Fred's guitar work has always been impeccable; in recent years it has matured like fine wine. And Joyce? Well, she's got soul to spare, but her real strength lies in her ability to inhabit a song.

A friend who saw her sing recently spoke of Joyce's introduction to some break-up song, a sad personal story that seemed completely real. My friend was amazed to see Fred grinning happily through it all; surely if he and Joyce were parting ways he would not be smiling. I assured her that what she had witnessed was acting.

What I like about the band is its ability to take a disparate set of cover tunes and make them mesh. Songs drawing on different eras and styles are woven into a tapestry and, like the band, the whole becomes greater than the individual parts. Bruce Cockburn, Al Green and the Talking Heads join hands, a picture emerges and with it a message about the importance of love and happiness in building a better world.

And, that's not all. As they used to say on American Bandstand, "It's got a great beat. You can dance to it."

The best place to dance

Cafe Tomo ruled the "Best place to dance" category in the Journal's readers survey. Unfortunately your favorite place to boogie is set to close its doors for good in just about two weeks.

In 1996 Journal readers' favorite Japanese restaurateur, Fukiko Marshall, took over the former home of Brew `n' Beats, a hip night club with an odd décor. It took a long time for the conversion from a black/graffiti interior to a modern Oriental natural wood feel with a new stage and raised seating. In October 1996 the café opened with a sushi menu similar to its sister restaurant across the Plaza in the Hotel Arcata.

Lincoln Wachtel [photo at right] was hired as floor manager in May 1997 leaving behind an administrative job with Humboldt State University's admissions and records department.Lincoln Wachtel of Cafe Tomo

"I started out running the restaurant. At the time we had 60 employees, the place was really going off as a food place and the music part was getting strong. Then Fukiko took a trip to Japan and the general manager pulled the sushi menu, changed the Japanese décor, everything. Instead he put in a bar and grill thing with burgers. It killed us."

The result was traumatic and after Fukiko returned Wachtel lost his job. Then she decided to close the café to cut her losses only to change her mind after lobbying from a number of music fans who had come to depend on the club as a venue. Instead she gave her general manager the axe and rehired Wachtel to handle music booking.

"That's when I really started getting into it, bringing bigger acts. It was working well. After three months she asked me to take over as GM, which I did."

Lincoln is a guy who was raised on rock `n' roll and he booked the bands he liked. The lifespan of the club matched the rise of jam bands and the best of them played on the Tomo stage. Steve Kimock's assorted appearances and Galactic were among the first that came to mind when I asked about his favorites. Dave Alvin, Richard Thompson, Dick Dale, DJ Logic, Eric Bibb, Burning Spear, Michelle Shocked and Paula Cole were other faves. A commemorative t-shirt lists dozens of other national and local acts that graced the stage and marks the end of an era. A show on Nov. 17 will be the last for Café Tomo.

"We're at the end of our lease and Fukiko has decided to pursue what she loves more, the food," said Wachtel. "She just opened the Tomo Deli in Eureka and she's focusing on that, then of course there's still Tomo Arcata. That's where her energy is."

Wachtel admits that he knows more about music than food. A series of menu experiments failed to capture a niche market. People who came to eat before shows would swamp the kitchen. In May the food side was abandoned to focus on music. And the music keeps rolling.

Still to come before Café Tomo closes its doors -- a benefit for the North Coast Environmental Center Nov. 10 with poetry by Jerry Martien, Jim Dodge and Freeman House, and music by Manifest, EPQ and the Joyce Hough Band. Nov. 15 you can spend an evening with Los Lobos. Friday, Nov, 16, it's a double bill: first blues-belter Sista Monica, then the jam band Netwerk: Electric. Then Saturday, Nov. 17, the last Café Tomo show ever features EPQ, DJ Red and your favorite bar band, the Cutters.

What happens then? "All I know is that (landlord) Jack Golden is having us take out all of the woodwork and the bars -- everything," said Wachtel. "As far as my future plans, I turned down a couple of jobs outside the area. I have a feeling I'll be doing something very cool here in Arcata some time soon."

According to Jack Golden, a number of people have shown interest in the space, but he has not signed a new tenant. He said his remodeling plans include a redesigned bar and a reconfigured stage.

"My objective is to make the place even more comfortable for the presentation of music," he said. "It will continue to be what it has been for the last 10 years, a place where there's music and dancing."


Comments? E-mail the Journal: ncjour@northcoast.com

North Coast Journal banner

© Copyright 2001, North Coast Journal, Inc.