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An Outlaw Cook in Humboldt County

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“We’ve never had such a breakfast: heaping cuts of wild pig, some with skin, some with crust-crunchy bones, and a smoky tenderloin chop....” Photo courtesy of flickr.com user drazz.

This is a memoir of a Humboldt County legend, a restaurant that broke all the rules, sold incredible food cheap and, like a meteor, came and went, from 1999 to 2004, in a blaze of fire. It was called “Al’s Diner” and it was in Rio Dell. And it was funky -- a tiny high-ceiling room with a useless built-in counter and uncomfortable stools, plus four ratty booths up against one wall. If you didn’t know, you might walk in, look around, and go right out again.

My favorite periodical on food is Simple Cooking, a newsletter penned mostly by John Thorne, widely regarded as America’s best food writer. Thorne is also the author of a number of books that combine memoir, philosophical musings and culinary history -- the best known being his Outlaw Cook (with his wife, Matt, 1992), which was precociously outrageous (as Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential was 10 years later).

Still, until 1999, I’d never considered the possibility that “outlaw cook” was anything but a well-turned phrase. The thought that a restaurant could literally break the law? Bypass the bureaucratic hegemony of the Health Department? Ignore Fish and Game strictures, which demand a paper trail for every quail and abalone? Endanger the public, serving food that was insufficiently regulated, registered, processed and spindled before it ever got to the kitchen? No! They’d be busted long before ... well, maybe not.

We were on our way south to San Francisco when we first stopped at Al’s Diner for lunch. It was October, and the couple in the next booth ordered pumpkin pie. “Do you have any whipped cream?” they asked the waitress. “No, but if you don’t mind waiting, I’ll make some.” And she did.

That got our attention. That ever happen to you? Me neither.

The lunch special was pork steak. It looked good to me. Al nodded approvingly from the kitchen, and disappeared. I could hear pounding, as a slice of pork shoulder was macerated with thyme, dill and flour. Twenty minutes later (a long time, if you are used to fast food), there appeared a platter: a crispy tender disc about seven inches wide, covered with a rich, beefy gravy with hints of red wine, a huge scoop of mashed potato with more beef gravy in the center topped with grilled onions -- paper thin, with caramelized edges; plus narrow slices of char-edged sweet red pepper, topped by a deep-fried crushed garlic clove. Where it could be squeezed in were simple steamed baby broccoli buds and pickled red cabbage.

With this I had a Dr Pepper, since no beer was available. (Or so I thought.)

Beni had chosen the meat loaf sandwich. Served room temperature on house-baked rough-textured bread, the two halves stood three inches high, with double slabs of a moist, pâté-like loaf topped with homemade mayonnaise, the last tomato of the season and minced sweet onion.

This was our introduction to Al’s Diner. The waitress was Al’s wife, Andrea, a picture-pretty HSU grad whose hometown sweetness took some of the rough edges off Al’s macho exterior. Their two daughters were part of the deal, and over several years they began to take part, just as Andrea took over baking duties, and the already good bread became extraordinary.

McKinleyville was a long way from Al’s, but we found ways to make the trip.

One of the keys to their success was the community of organic farmers in the Eel/Mattole Valley. Al was a master of barter, and since his was the only good food commercially available, he was able to save enormously on food costs. And every time we came for lunch, the same tiny Wiyot lady, surely 80, was perched on the last stool at the counter, peeling quart after quart of garlic. Al called her “Mom.”

Recounting every meal would be impossible, but I do recall one “Catfish Creole.” The Creole sauce was classic, made with crushed tomato (rather than tomato sauce), scallion, sweet pepper, cayenne and sherry. The breading of the fish included a curiously haunting spice, which we couldn’t quite identify: dried fennel? bay leaf? It was sassafras, as in filé gumbo. And there was something Al did with slices of yellow squash, mashing them into a bowl of finely minced garlic, Parmesan and flour, then crisping them on the griddle. What stuck on became a savory crust. Wow.

Up the hill, Al had a friend “growing hams,” as he put it, using carefully-saved vegetable discards and farmer’s market leftovers. But “organic” was not something Al cared about: flavor counted, not ideology. No catering to vegetarians, either. You wanted a plate of vegetables with some spaghetti, fine. But the “vegetable soup” had chunks of beef chuck.

To this bounty Al added seasonal wild mushrooms, including a sauté of white, black and blue chanterelles he sometimes served as a supper side dish. He was a blue-collar chef, but one who had been around the culinary block, in East and West Coast restaurants, and he knew every style from cowboy to haute cuisine. (He mastered costs as well: “No steam table,” I once observed. “Steam tables are the biggest waste of gas I know,” he said. “I just put a few saucepans on the back of the grill.”)

One Valentine’s Day there was a crowd of reservations, and we did our own barter with Al. I played romantic accordion music; Beni took over the pantry. After the customers had departed, Al produced the staff meal -- New York steak Bordelaise, large breaded prawns with garlic sauce, and plump three-inch ravioli stuffed with black trumpet mushrooms and Gorgonzola. Oh, and there was beer from local microbreweries, plenty of it, piled in the walk-in cooler. Customers regularly brought six-packs and left what they didn’t drink. It had always been there, just not on the menu. I’d never asked.

But before we ate, everyone went out back and got gloriously stoned on sinsemilla -- something Beni and I hadn’t done for almost a decade. The stars were crisp, the air bright; with the gentle rush of the river in the background, I was reminded of why I used to get high, before “getting high” became a habit, a defense against the relentless grind of L.A.

Throughout the Northwest, the fisheries are being depleted by vast, unregulated, multinational fishing fleets, and lumberjacks and millworkers are vanishing breeds as well; there is an average unemployment rate twice that of California’s. Traditional sources of income have plummeted. Well, there IS one other traditional source.

Like Al, the locals he knew (many of them Native Americans) were iconoclasts. They gathered mushrooms in the national forest; they fished without licenses, dove for abalone, hunted where and when they wished. And some of them grew dope, and they didn’t take kindly to huge feral pigs that came rooting through their carefully tended gardens. You see where this is going.

Al’s Diner was a conduit for stuff that was otherwise available only by going out yourself and foraging, hunting or fishing. He didn’t advertise it, naturally, but if you knew Al, you could on occasion get the bounty of the North Coast as it might have been a century ago, prepared as only a master can do it. The freshest halibut we’ve ever had was “fish and chips” one spring.

And it needn’t be only the North Coast. We heard, one Friday, that the big cast-iron barbecue out back was roasting ducks, flown in from Alaska, and with them lingonberries the hunter had harvested, made into a chutney. Al knew a lot of folks, and some of them were rich and had airplanes. Others were survivors, the kind that can work the land and sea.

Trinity, our prime Farmer’s Market grower of spring onions, tomatoes, garlic and gossip, helped wait tables on weekends. She was a cheerfully inept waitress who brightened the funky dining room. It was from her that we learned that there had been wild boar the previous night. Hoping there might be leftovers, we took off at 8 Sunday morning to make the weekly Sunday brunch. We’ve never had such a breakfast: heaping cuts of wild pig, some with skin, some with crust-crunchy bones, and a smoky tenderloin chop that was like foie gras. Slowly cooked over apple chips, served with Andrea’s sourdough biscuits. Al had also grilled some red and yellow baby Roma tomatoes, and there were hashbrowns buried somewhere on the bottom of the four-inch pile. I never got that far.

We stuffed ourselves as best we could, put the rest in a box, and added one more order so we could have it again for supper. Which we did -- an all-feral-pig Sunday! And I chopped up those leftovers for Monday night’s “wild boar sandwiches,” while I sipped beer and watched the 49ers. Oh -- total cost, including Sunday’s iced tea, plus a lavish tip, was $44.

I realize there are some disturbing questions here. Clearly, there were laws and health codes and regulations that were being flouted. I guess we should have been feeling guilty. But we heard there was a yearling buck of venison on the coals the following Friday, and it must have slipped our minds.

Nothing good lasts forever. The Diner outgrew its location, a greedy landlord refused to remodel, even with the prospect of increased rent, and the only way up would have been to raise prices and/or change to a high-rent venue in Eureka or Arcata. Al and Andrea had enjoyed raising their daughters in a rural environment, and they closed up and moved to ... well, a more rural locale. We’re told their restaurant there is booked months in advance, but that they will always make room for old customers.

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