School cafeteria lunches don't have their bad reputation for nothing. Those of a certain age remember when ketchup was declared a vegetable and meatless Fridays meant frozen fish sticks or pale, Styrofoam-y squares of pizza. Still, did you secretly revel in those fish sticks and their accompanying tartar sauce packets? Was there shameful pleasure to be had on Sloppy Joe day even as you groaned over your Melamine tray with your classmates? Perhaps. But one staple of the hairnet set inspires unabashed nostalgia and occasional TV-adjacent binging: the Tater Tot.
Essentially cork-sized hash browns, they are a perfect frozen finger food, crisp, savory and soft. To resist a hot pan of tots is to resist the joy within your grasp. If you don't have children whose plates you can prey upon, you might be missing out on the adult enjoyment of Tater Tots.
Enter the Mad River Brewing Co.'s (101 Taylor Way, Blue Lake) Loaded Tots ($8). Unlike the ones you dutifully dump onto a baking sheet, these are deep fried for an audible crunch, liberally doused with cheddar cheese, sour cream, green onions and a mix of minced bell, Serrano and habañero peppers. The little jolts of fresh pepper preserve the illusion of maturity as you regress to junior high-era munching, mining for cheese and scooping up sour cream. The heat also makes these a bit much for small children. That's OK. They'll get plenty at school.
Don't drive hangry
You wouldn't think a slick, black truck edged with flames and emblazoned with a majestic rooster in profile would be hard to find. And yet, there I was, circling the Broadway Cinema parking lot, cursing the person who'd recommended the Tacos El Gallo truck (a film reviewer who shall remain nameless and who, it turns out, drove around hangry at the coworkers who'd recommended it to him the first time he tried the tacos).
In fact, Tacos El Gallo (no relation to the similarly named Los Gallos Taqueria in the Bayshore Mall) had moved a few blocks down Broadway to the 76 gas station off 14th Street (1411 Broadway, Eureka), now arguably the best smelling gas station in Humboldt. Happy as you might be with your standard carnitas order, change it up and you'll be rewarded. If you're early enough, there may even be fresh habañero salsa.
The shrimp taco ($3.75) with large, plump, spiced grilled shrimp, lettuce, pico de gallo, avocado slices and mayonnaise is lovely and fresh. The buche taco ($2.99), filled with charred, earthy curls of pig's stomach — more tender and meaty than beef tripe — is enlivened with the tang of a chartreuse salsa just hot enough to put a little color in your cheeks. Don't miss the foil packet of grilled green onions that comes with the tacos and is well worth requesting on its own.
If you're not up for seafood or offal, truck co-owner and cook Alex Figueroa suggests the chicken with good reason. The standard chicken burrito ($7.25) is filled with char-grilled chunks of marinated thigh meat, pico de gallo, homemade rice and firm pinto beans that I promise are not a waste of space in either your belly or the tight column of foil. Take a moment to appreciate its shining perfection in a chaotic world.
Fancy toast and bacon
Depending on the day you've had, a cocktail may or may not cover it — even if it comes with "intention," like those on the bar menu full of essential oil-spiked concoctions at the Griffin (937 10th St., Arcata). Might they be where the room's pleasantly herbal fragrance is coming from? In any case, despite the conspicuous absence of previously available Taco Faktory offerings on the menu, comfort can still be had.
Ron Swanson acolytes be warned: All the Bacons We Have ($12) is about variety, not quantity — all the bacons not all the bacon. On one end are sticky, folded strips of candied bacon, which are firm, slightly spicy and only barely sweet. Anchoring the plate is a fist-sized hunk of pork belly (not bacon, but no need to be a killjoy about it) with a browned and chewy crust, a fatty, fall-apart interior and a drizzle of frothy orange glaze. An order of bread would not be a bad idea here, nor would finishing with the adjacent smoky, salty-sweet, bacon-wrapped dates and spiced pecans.
The less carnivorous can celebrate the expanded reach of the fancy toast trend with the chevre, fruit and honey toast ($5). Before you throw out a reactionary pshaw at $5 toast, consider that the crusty JoshFox wheat bread is genuinely lovely and nutty, soft and elastic inside. On a recent visit, the Cypress Grove goat cheese was blanketed with golden kiwi slices and honey. As good — in both pleasure and wholesomeness — as you feel eating it, the hipster shaming from your companions is a small price.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal and she wants your tips on what to eat in Humboldt. Reach her at 442-1400 extension 320 or Jennifer@northcoastjournal.com Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.