There's a daredevil glee in chowing down in a greasy spoon, casting hygiene-related fears aside, scratching the mystery spot off your glass and regard your plate — its contents fried to kill all but the most exotic contagions — as Evel Knievel must have eyed Snake Canyon before he hit the ramp. But, like all extreme sports, its high is a brief one you might die chasing.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the deep calm of Amy's Delight (401 W. Harris St., Eureka). The Chinese-American diner has been in business since 1997 but the open kitchen, with its mirror-like stainless steel panels, calls to mind a computer clean room more than a diner. Rumor has it regulars include health department employees.
Which is not to say hedonists and masochists can't still hurt themselves here. Order up the steak and eggs and find yourself facing a mound of pan-crisped potatoes and a full 12-ounce ribeye ($23). No fancy oven finishing — the steak is fried on the grill and so long as you don't get it well done and cover it in ketchup, you're eating better than our president. A pair of pancakes is among your side options but consider there is nowhere to sleep here. Note that the homemade biscuits come with the sausage-heavy white pan gravy we have been searching for ($7.95).
A more modest option is the signature Amy's Delight, an omelet stuffed with ham and egg fried rice ($11.95). It's homey and satisfying, especially with the house chili sauce. There are whispers, too, of a secret menu that includes a Taiwanese breakfast (Amy herself hails from Taiwan): two fried eggs over rice — break the yolks, drizzle with soy sauce — with a side of sautéed spinach ($9.95). But you didn't hear it from us.
Heart of Gold
It's easy to wax philosophical and talk of the ephemeral pleasures of the world, watching waves wash away our footprints and blossoms wither like it's no big deal. And yet, for some of us, the here-today-gone-tomorrow specials at a restaurant can spike panic as we listen to the server rattle them off. What if they never do the short ribs again?
So the chalkboard menu at La Trattoria (30 Sunny Brae Center, Arcata) is a Fear of Missing Out trigger, every single menu item changing daily based on local availability, right down to the potatoes for the gnocchi. On a recent rainy evening, written over the powdery ghosts of the previous day's dishes was a homemade potato pasta with puttanesca sauce ($19). And when are you going to see that again?
Puttanesca, a sauce that famously takes its name from prostitutes, makes as strong a case as any against slut-shaming with the tang of tomatoes, capers and olives, and a little red pepper bite. In La Trattoria's version, firm manzanillas from Henry's Olives steal the show from under a blanket of Parmesan shavings. You'll be asked if you want anchovies — you should say yes and not cheat yourself out the smoky umami that grounds the tartness. The gnocchi are, at last, as they should be: soft little dumplings instead of the usual chewy eraser nubs. And if they are a little at sea in the sauce, their tenderness saves them and turns the puttanesca into comfort food — like a hooker with a heart of gold.
But will it be on the menu? Hard truth: maybe not. The gnocchi might, until potatoes are done, and the puttanesca will be back, too, made as it is from pantry staples. You'll just have to cruise by and see.
There are dark moments when American food appears to be slouching into strip-mall homogeneity, forcibly cheered on by the shrill strains of waitstaff marching a birthday dessert to a table at TGI Friday's. This dystopian malaise can be shaken off a number of ways. You can hit up a mom-and-pop joint, revel in the cuisine of one of our immigrant communities, try something a little experimental from a creative chef or dig into regional American cooking.
Barbecue remains, blissfully, a contentious business. Say the word "boiled" to an Oklahoman with a pair of tongs and see what happens. From Alabama's white sauce to Texan brisket to Hawaiian kalua pig, across the country our pits and grills contain multitudes. In California, birthplace of the Santa Maria grill, tri-tip is king. It's a cut I never encountered back east. Turns out the sirloin bottom cut is not some muscle cows don't develop that side of the Rockies — it's just often ground for hamburger instead. And to be honest, I didn't get it at first, as lean and potentially tough as the meat is.
But marinated, rubbed, smoked and sliced, tri-tip won me over. (Respect, Humboldt Del Norte Cattlemen's Association dinner.) But why has it taken so long for pulled tri-tip to show up? Relative newcomer 101 Barbecue Steakhouse (1134 Fifth St., Eureka) has stepped up with a saucy pulled tri-tip sandwich on ciabatta bread ($14.99). The meat, cooked low and slow over 10 hours, has enough deep beef flavor to stand up to the sweet honey-Bourbon barbecue sauce that is the house staple, as well as the melted Swiss cheese. Yes, Swiss cheese. This is California and all bets are off. The grilled onions are firm and translucent, the bite only just cooked out of them. The toasted and airy ciabatta has a sheen of oil and (sorry, purists) holds together better than a traditional white bun, giving you a little more time to savor before it all goes sideways.