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click to enlarge May Siricharoen's "Andaman Sea" entry took Best Presentation and Best Cold Oyster.

Photo by Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

May Siricharoen's "Andaman Sea" entry took Best Presentation and Best Cold Oyster.

By 9:45 a.m. on Saturday, June 15, chefs, staffers and volunteers were pushing through the doors of the former Mazzotti's, carrying platters of oysters on drifts of white salt, cold stones and ice. Most of the restaurant, slated to open as another Italian spot under new owner Jack Wu, was dark, but there was plenty of light up front. Jessica Silva (a Journal contributor), in a T-shirt and crown of flowers, directed those bearing hot and cold entries for the Arcata Bay Oyster Festival's Best Oyster competition to their assigned spots on tables by the front windows. That Silva had been banned from Mazzotti's after sparring online with its owner seemed to add gleeful mischief to her zipping around the dining room.

At the height of the pandemic, the Oyster Fest competition adapted, first by taking judges on the road to try entries at participating restaurants while the festival itself was held remotely. Then, once it returned to the plaza, organizers responded to dwindling contestants by lifting the long-standing rule requiring entrants to sell the same oysters at the festival. This opened the competition to not only those businesses that couldn't manage the cost of booth rental, staffing and supplies, but also individual chefs and home cooks. The change is evident in the submissions and the winners. Those hoping for a taste of the Oyster Fest victors' wares will have to visit a stand or a pop-up dinner.

Contestants and their helpers were still arranging cilantro flowers and tobiko, and adding droplets of sauce to shucked shells, when a cheer erupted from the judges' table by the bar. One of the judges had returned with an unsanctioned pitcher of beer. Once Silva called the start of judging, she and the 10 judges — Sue Charnes, Bob Doran, Lucia Ordonez, Wendy Chan (another Journal contributor), Michael Bettencourt, David Baes, Colleen Toste, Marisela Carrillo, Misha Blacker and Laysha Roberts — began milling around the tables spread with platters to make their notes on presentation.

Once the intact spread was evaluated, the sampling began. Rather than the slow process of parading each dish one at a time, tasting progressed in what Silva acknowledged was a streamlined frenzy, with everyone picking up half-shells, eyeing them, downing them and marking notes and scores in their printed pamphlets. A couple late entries didn't slow the process much. When only a few stray shells lay beached on silver trays, everyone returned to the judges' table to discuss the respective merits of gumbo sauce and cucumbers hollowed into shot glasses. (Both delicious, the latter more difficult to consume with dignity.)

Pamphlets in hand and judges dispersed to the festival outside, Silva began tallying scores. The loosely anonymous entries (hard to miss them carrying in their submissions) were revealed, with previous competition stalwarts Tomo, Sushi Spot, Blue Lake Casino and Hog Island Oyster Co. notably absent, though Manzanilla Kitchen, A Taste of Bim and 511 made returns. (Mouse ear-sporting team Shuck E. Seas should be noted for its Kinetic-level name.)

With "Korean BBQ," David Orluck offered big, intense flavors, snagging him both Best Overall Oyster and Best Hot Oyster. The North Bay Shellfish Kumamoto was cooked in a sweet Korean barbecue marinade, playing on the oyster's richness rather than its brininess. The half-shell was packed with a pinch of tart and spicy kimchi, a morsel of beef bulgogi, green onion and pickled carrot slivers. "I never want to reuse the same recipes from the year before," he said, coming off his second Oyster Fest win. This year's concept came from a friend and his love of all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue joints, and the recipe went over well at a pop-up event he did with Mother's Cooking Experience and Septentrio Winery. He added he's looking at another event there soon.

May Siricharoen, who recently launched her Tasty Thai-ger stand at Friday Night Market, also took home a pair of awards. Her painstaking care paid off with Best Presentation for her "Andaman Sea" cold platter, featuring Kumamotos served with either basil-lemongrass granita or Thai-style chimichurri and crispy shallots. The former earned Best Cold Oyster with Thai flavors that enhanced the taste of the shellfish and that more than one judge remarked were transportive. Having just returned from an inspiring family trip to Thailand, that's what Siricharoen said she was going for. "I just wanna present that flavor, that Thai flavor to the judges," she said. "I'm a pretty competitive person," the veteran of the TV show Chopped added. Relatively new to Humboldt, she said she's also hoping her wins will boost her name and draw interest in the Tasty Thai-ger

That Mainely Lobster took Best Local with its "Competition Oyster" was a bit ironic, given its name, but only the vermillion points of Maine lobster claw, garlic butter and lemon juice hailed from out of county. The Kumamotos, chives and Huck's Humboldt Hotties pineapple-habanero hot sauce cleverly captured in boba-like pearls that burst after the first taste of shellfish, were all local. Owner Chris Downs grew up in Maine with a lobster fisherman grandfather — the same docks he worked supply the lobsters Downs ships to Humboldt for his newly minted business. He's done one pop-up event at the Pub at the Creamery, and booked a stall at Oyster Fest to introduce Mainely Lobster to a wider audience. The award was a happy surprise, though he said, "I had high hopes — I knew I was doing something no one else was doing with the lobster and the sphere-ification of the hot sauce." Oysters aside, Downs said he plans to bring his lobster rolls and ravioli to more restaurant pop-ups and festivals over the summer.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Instagram @JFumikoCahill.

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About The Author

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor of the North Coast Journal. She won the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2020 Best Food Writing Award and the 2019 California News Publisher's Association award for Best Writing.

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