Humboldt County has a feeling of the wild west. Not in the stereotypical way of fake cowboy hats and cheesy poster-staged shot-em-ups now prominent in the places the real wild west once thrived. The simple truth is that this place has and still does live in the netherworld between acceptability and lawlessness. Nestled between the blue of the Pacific and the enormity of the Redwoods, you get a feeling that rules are for sissies, there are more brains than money here and that a healthy level of individualism is not only tolerated but required. A fog-shrouded, swinging door saloon with creaking wood floors, dance hall guys and gals, serving oysters and a cannabis-infused rosé would not seem even slightly out of place. It’s where the Wild West mellows out into California Cool.
I know people who have lived in Northern California all their lives and, generally, having explored only up to Mendocino, have never even wandered this far up the coast. One might ask why? I came here 30 years ago and was entranced even then. It’s a lovely coastal small-city with a stable fishing industry, an interesting history, beautiful architecture and lovely people. I suppose the five hours from the city might seem daunting but I honestly don’t think that’s it. I believe most wonder, “why would I?” because frankly, they don’t know much about it. And here the lawlessness again reveals itself, Humboldt County and even Eureka proper would just as soon they stay on the down-low. They’ve got an agreeable little world going on here and outsiders, well, I’d guess they think you just won’t get it. That you are too City or too Berkeley, too Silicon or Marin, too polished and not nearly brave enough to stake your lives, your families, your livelihoods and your entire county on what is still an illegal endeavor. And I’d hazard they are mostly right.
This world-away-from-the-world sensibility impacts everything here, including the drink and food. Unfussy riches might describe it best.
Their beverages of choice are fast-made and fast-consumed hard ciders, brews and the growing industry of infused ‘wines.’ In our fair state, drinks may not contain both cannabis and alcohol. So, when you start to see cannabis-infused rosé on Safeway shelves, know it is weed and not booze. Sacramento’s way of telling us to pick our poison, I’d assume. We do, however, have good company in this practice around the world. I once left my partner who did not imbibe in weed, to visit an Amsterdam coffee house. There I got high while I also got buzzed on a couple of excellent espressos and held a deep and quite fast-paced conversation with a gent regarding atheistic vs. puritan based societies. I know that’s what we discussed but I couldn’t tell you at all what was said because, having previously only been high while having a beer at college and frankly on the very week weed we used to get in Missouri, my brain was magically mellow and caffeine zooming at mach 9 simultaneously. I do remember wondering several times if this is how schizophrenia might feel. Creating infused “wines” doesn’t take years. Neither does making great beers or ciders. At Wrangletown Cider, the owner and cidermaker will greet you, literally, at the roll-up door of the steel warehouse used for creation, brief aging, bottling and storage. She’s trained in winemaking, from Napa, which is evident as you enjoy each varietal. They have a long flavor and subtle complexity, as you sit in backyard lounge chairs in the makeshift tasting room open only two days a week. This all resides in an old area of town filled with abandoned factories, now used by artists and, to date, undiscovered by gentrification. When asked about how they age, I was struck when she said “I try to keep back a bottle or two to try them but, you know, I have to make a living.” I get her. Humboldt Cider Company has a big fancy downtown tasting room, dozens of ciders with a more polished and filtered commercial taste, blends, single varietals like their Gravenstein and Old Grav, ciders aged in whiskey barrels, 4-6 beers and a newly emerging favorite of hard seltzers. Still, you sense a similar attitude with Wrangletown. Make it well. Drink it down. Make something new.
Their food mirrors this straightforward quality. A thriving fishing industry, weather that rarely freezes, inland flatlands that gather more sun to grow crops and raise cattle and a small but highly functional airport give them everything they need to make honest food that is unflinchingly about the quality of the primary ingredient. Yes, there is complexity in their dishes but never to overwhelm, or worse yet, to coverup the star. Perhaps they take their cue from how a divine oyster is served, nothing unnecessary, only what will enhance.
We have had a perfectly prepared stream trout at Brick and Fire, a pint-sized place with great big tastes. The fish was no fuss, head-on, some salt, pepper and a hint of butter and cooked precisely perfect. The point being to buy the best fish, cook it in the best way and not load on, frankly, a bunch of ingredients that only distract. In addition, they do wonderfully crafted pizzas. Their crust has a light touch of sourdough, their sausage, just the right combination of herbs and spices and not too much fennel or garlic! A little of these pungent ingredients is always enough. No, build-your-own here, there are other places for that or there is always home where you may put the Taj Mahal on your pizza if you like. You go out to have someone cook and create for you and why would you ever mess with a creation like Fig, Pig & Fog? Balsamic poached figs, some pig of house-cured pancetta and Cowgirl Creamery’s Humboldt Fog. That is just plain inspired! Their sister establishment, Two Doors Down, is a 20-seat, candle-lit, fantastically cozy wine bar that makes Mondays magical with Polenta Night. Grits style, cheesy, cakes, fried or cubed, every Monday they serve up inspired polenta dishes such as buttery cod & sautéed vegetables, coq au vin and even, my favorite, ratatouille. The Nooner Café makes everything, except their bread, it must be said, from scratch because anything else “would be gross” – direct quote from their waitperson. Their creole chicken breast had such a light touch of all the perfect spices to bring out the best. It did not in any way require an aioli AND a pesto, which I just recently saw on a menu as if it was an asset to the poor sandwich! Everything at Arcata’s Campground steakhouse is perfection on a on plate, their rack of organic lamb being a standout in herbed simplicity. It’s all about the meat! At Ramone’s, it’s all about baking. We’ve had custard and fruit tarts, a raspberry napoleon, a gateau Marjolaine, a dark chocolate torte and sugar cookie in the shape of a pig with pink icing. All evenly laid forth among savory nut, tart fruit, rich cream and light sweetness.
Things in Eureka feel balanced. You likely won’t get a Michelin star here. However, you also won’t get food dumbed down or unnecessarily complicated to the point of making a taste bud yell uncle. They have, to date, stayed off the downward slide of “more ingredients = better food”. It’s not complicated…quality ingredients perfectly paired and prepared. Just like the land on the ocean to the north. The diamond blue sea with a deep evergreen backdrop. The law, with the not so lawful. City with country. Funky with earthy. Savory with sweet. A place well worth the drive and the experience.