Chinese comfort food
The "Secret Menu" at Szechuan Garden (753 18th St., Arcata) might be more accurately titled the Student Menu. Owner Nina Zhao, a native of Shenyang in Northern China who took over the place five years ago, added the page and a half list because so many Chinese and Chinese American students from Humboldt State University were homesick for familiar flavors.
Among the comfort foods are the simple, crunchy, garlicky bean sprouts with celery ($8.95) and the tender, translucent-skinned, leek-heavy steamed pork and shrimp dumplings ($8.75, dozen). Then there's the sentimental favorite: the humble egg with tomato ($9.95). This nostalgic, homestyle scramble is achieved by moms and restaurant cooks alike by swirling mercilessly beaten eggs in a hot, oiled wok with wedges of fresh tomato and scallions. The sauce is savory and sweet, reminiscent of thinned ketchup in the best way.
Those who enjoy offal and the numbing heat of Sichuan pepper will be pleased to lean into the fragrant fumes from the stainless steel, Sterno-powered Braised Spicy Pig Intestines in Hot Pot. The crinkly rings fried with dried red chilis, green and red peppers, mushrooms and cilantro that conceal a pool of smoky, deep red chili oil. The earthy, chewy stuff of sausage casings is given star treatment here, as is the pig stomach sliced to resemble soft, chewy mushrooms and stir-fried with thick slices of garlic, onion and jalapeño slivers (11.95).
Are jalapeño peppers native to China and therefore traditional? What are you, a cop? Like language, living, changing cuisines adapt and incorporate new ingredients, which is one of the many pleasures of immigrant food and experience. As are, let's be real, the Chinese take-out classics adapted for American palates, like a fat cabbage-y eggroll with duck sauce. Somebody somewhere is homesick for that, too.
- Photo by Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
- How the salted chocolate chip cookie crumbles.
Lunch in the lobby
Open for less than a month, Bandit Savory & Sweet (525 Second St., Eureka) is making itself at home in the lobby of the Vance in Old Town, its winking name and vintage aesthetic dovetailing with the revival of the landmark building. You might have sampled the baked goods before at the Friday Night Market. Now owner Erica Davie serves a full (though blessedly brief) menu of sweets and sandwiches on granny plates with mismatched silverware among the antique moldings and tile.
Select a velvet cushioned seat by the window and look out at the long-ago home of a brothel and speakeasy, to and from which patrons of the Vance Hotel once toddled. More wholesome pleasures are to be had now, and the beer, wine and cider no longer require a furtive trip across Second Street.
If you've come for lunch, check the chalkboard for the soup of the day ($4.50 per cup). Cross your fingers for the roughly pureed carrot ginger soup, sharp and peppery with a balancing swirl of cream and sprig of fresh dill. It's a solid match for the generous tuna salad mixed with shredded carrot and chopped cornichons on Brio rye ($12.50 soup and sandwich). Otherwise, a spring tart of tangy pureed artichoke hearts and asparagus in a crisp-to-the-bottom shell accompanied by a salad tossed with a fruity balsamic vinaigrette is another fine option ($11).
As for the sweet, there are cardamom and rose cupcakes that are fragrant but not soapy in the least ($4), and other treats — some gluten free — under glass domes at the counter. But the hefty salted chocolate chip cookies are a sure thing ($3), just bendable with a buttery, crusty edge and hunks of chocolate throughout, and flakes of sea salt on top. It satisfies wholly — sweet and savory, like the sign says.
- Photo by Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
- A grilled Reuben with shredded corned beef.
Trucking from Fortuna
Fortuna has been enjoying the fruits of the Humboldt Fresh truck for roughly five months at its 2059 Main St. parking spot in front of Fortuna Fabrics. But now it's pulling up in Eureka Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays in the lot by Les Schwab Tire Center (2440 Broadway). Fear not, Fortunans: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are still yours. Driving by at speed, one might not have a solid sense of what's on offer when at the window in back.
The special of the day was a $12.99 Reuben, grilled to make your fingers shiny, its marbled rye spilling with salty, tender shredded corned beef dotted with bits of fat, mild sauerkraut and melted Swiss cheese and a swipe of thousand island dressing. The white paper pouch of straight-cut fries is not hand cut but a happy surprise nonetheless, perfectly crisp and dusted with sea salt flakes. All together it could be a fruitful regular menu item.
The burger list is stacked with variations on the grass-fed patty, among them the Portobello and Swiss with bacon and grilled onion, lettuce and tomato ($8.99). The hand-formed patty is barely pink in the center and encourages further exploration of the list. The sourdough bun, though, might best be enjoyed at one of the adjacent picnic tables, as steaming in the container in your car doesn't serve it as well as eating it right away.
Side discussion: Nobody likes a Styrofoam container for obvious environmental reasons, yes, but also because the overzealous among us (looks around shamefully) sometimes puncture the bottom with an overenthusiastic fork jab, unleashing all manner of drippings onto our laps. Paper isn't ideal, either. Is it time, now that so many of us are trained to carry our own travel mugs, to consider the BYO take-out container option? Something sturdy that wouldn't earn glares from people with water canisters carabinered to their backpacks or force me to buy so many new pairs of pants?
A more ambitious carnivore — or a more social one — might head for the brisket nachos instead ($11.99). The pile of pleasingly brittle freshly fried tortilla chips is not cheesy/gooey but heaped with smoky pulled brisket, a simple guacamole, sour cream, pico de gallo and pickled jalapeño slices. Its true purpose is as a vehicle for the tasty hunks of meat. And that's not a bad mission for a meal or a truck.
Share your Hum Plate tips with Jennifer Fumiko Cahill, arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.Editor's note: This post has been edited to show the correct spelling of Nina Zhao's name.