If you came to El Chipotle (850 Crescent Way, Arcata) in the mood for a torta, the prize specimen isn't listed with the others served on bolillo rolls. Flip to the house specialties page of the menu to find the showstopper pambazo. Chef and co-owner Oscar Anguiano's Mexico City iteration is a traditional soft, white pambazo roll dipped in savory guajillo chile sauce before it's pressed on the grill for a little crustiness, filled with a fistful of smoky, shredded chicken tinga and lettuce. The queso fresco is a nice balance to the tart tomatillo in the salsa verde.
However, if you are someone who always orders the chile relleno when it shows up on a menu, this is not the time to fight your nature. Sidebar on sides: The house-made beans are smoky, creamy, light on salt and have just a little firmness to the bite, and the rice is lovely and homey as well. Take time to appreciate their intermingling with the light but fragrant sauce poured over the star of the plate. A slice reveals the mild, roasted pasilla chile's tender, emerald interior and creamy melted queso fresco. The thick, eggy batter, garnished with cilantro and more queso fresco, holds the sauce and clings to the pepper to the last bite. Don't be sad it's over; be happy you can come back for another.
Fire breathing woks
The opening of Curry Leaf (2335 Fourth St., Eureka) in the former location of Gonsea is happy news for fans of noodles of many stripes but especially fried. There is more on the menu — a lot more, in fact, as the pan-Asian offerings span from kimchi fried rice to Malaysian curries to tempura and walnut shrimp, all before you read the specials board — but even co-owner Joe Tan, when pressed, will steer you to the fried noodles.
Beef chow fun stalwarts, I recognize your numbers and your loyalty to slippery, flat, rice noodles fried with bean sprouts, green onions, beef and Cantonese magic. Your reward arrives on a platter of gleaming noodles, browned by soy sauce and what I imagine is a wok of supernatural heat. This kind of wok hei flavor, lighter than a full char but imparted with more fire than can be summoned by any of the home gas stoves for which some folks are evidently ready to water the tree of liberty, enlivens the humble sprouts and scallions, too. Along with deft seasoning and a generous helping of tenderized beef, it adds to a depth of flavor often missed.
The thick Indian mee goreng noodles have that heat, too, along with a touch of chili in their rich, tangy sauce. These pan-fried egg noodles, scrambled egg, sprouts and onion topped with crushed peanuts and a squeeze of tart calamansi (lime here) are a fragrant favorite in Malaysian markets, I'm told, having come from Muslim Indian immigrants. They'll stick to your ribs even without the optional proteins (chicken, beef, tofu or shrimp).
If spicy eggplant shows up on the specials board, count yourself lucky. The fried purple skins are lacquered with a sweet and pleasingly hot chili sauce, and the flesh is custard-like as you hoped. The wok hei returns, bringing out the sugar in the peppers and the flavor of the garlic suspended in the chili oil that haloes out onto the plate. Lucky, indeed.
Share your tips about What's Good with Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her), arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Instagram @JFumikoCahill and Mastodon @jenniferfumikocahill.