Roadside America: Samoa Cookhouse, Eureka, California

There’s something about roadhouses that fascinates me. I don’t just mean dodgy watering holes of the kind Patrick Swayze kicked some butt in, but old school diners that cater to working folk. The food is often great, and there’s just something honest about them.

For over a decade, I’d longed to visit the famed Samoa Cookhouse just minutes from Eureka, California, after reading about it in a food magazine. Built in 1893, it’s at the crossroads of Northern California’s fishing and lumber industries, and the last surviving cookhouse in the West. It sounded like the kind of place I’d love, what with the communal dining hall seating and hearty, family-style prix fixe menus. There’s even a Logging Museum located at one end. The restaurant is still largely patronized by those in the industry, along with fisherman and other assorted blue-collar types.

This past July, my parents, brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew took a family vacation up to the Klamath River. We also spent a couple of days in Eureka, using it as a base to visit the nearby Redwoods National Park. When the inevitable “What’s for dinner?” question arose, my brother (whose teenaged nickname was “Garbage Disposal”), 16-year-old nephew, and I lobbied for Samoa Cookhouse. The rest of the family wasn’t so keen on this (cholesterol level issues/desire for a light meal/finicky 12-year-old niece who subsists on white foods).

It turned out that my brother, parents, and I had actually eaten at the Cookhouse when I was about 8. It’s strange that I can’t recall the visit, because most of my memories are centered on food, even at that time in my life when I, too, refused to eat anything but starchy carbs. This made me even more curious to see what I’d apparently blocked out.Even if you don’t enjoy stuffing yourself senseless, the Cookhouse is a historian’s dream. It’s as authentic a place as you can get, right down to the red-and-white checked plastic tablecloths (my brother and I were immediately reminded of the camp we both attended as kids), utilitarian, lumber camp-style of the dining hall and friendly service.

For $15.95, you’re offered the evening’s menu: soup, salad, homemade bread (hot, exceedingly wonderful, I dare you to not fill up on it), entree (in our case, pork chops and pot roast) potato, vegetable, dessert and coffee or tea. Lunch ($12.95) is along the same lines, while breakfast ($10.95), as you’d imagine, involves massive quantities of eggs, flapjacks, sausage, biscuits and gravy, and hash browns.

The food is a key part of the Cookhouse’s appeal – from our thick, nourishing, beef-barley soup to the sublime pot roast. It’s working man’s fare, done right. But it’s so much more than just a great meal (although the original Cookhouse menu items are today considered on-trend and command top dollar at the nation’s best restaurants: freshly churned butter from the Cookhouse dairy; homemade preserves, etc.).

The Cookhouse is also a vital piece of California history that’s often overlooked. The logging legacy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in large part helped the state prosper and brought many of the immigrants who helped establish Northern California’s “melting pot” culture. If nothing else, visit the museum, which contains an astounding array of photographs, relics, and some seriously badass cross-cut saws.

To get to Samoa Cookhouse, take the Highway 255/the Samoa Bridge over the bay from Eureka, and make a left. You’ll see the white dining hall perched on a hilltop. Open seven days a week.

[Flickr image via TrishaLyn]

Damnation Creek: Hiking Old-Growth To Ocean In Redwood National Park

Tredwoodshere are few places on earth I love more than Redwoods National Park, located 325 miles north of San Francisco. Growing up, we used to drive up the coast every summer, and a few nights camping in the redwoods was always on the itinerary.

The Redwoods are actually several parks within the national and state system, all of which are managed cooperatively by the National Park Service and California Department of Parks and Recreation. Together, they comprise nearly half of the remaining old-growth redwood forest in the state.

Last month, while driving down the coast from Seattle to San Francisco, I decided I was long overdue to sleep amongst the world’s tallest trees. I booked a site at Mill Creek Campground in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, just south of the dreary fishing port of Crescent City.

When I camp, I want to stay in a place that smells of wood smoke, and has sites covered in moss and ferns. I desire a forest canopy overhead, ranger talks, trailheads and wildlife lurking in the undergrowth. I do not want to see functioning cellphones, tour bus-sized RVs or swimming pools. I may be in a campground instead of the backcountry, but I have my standards.

Mill Creek, as well as Jedidiah Smith Campground (located 10 miles east of Crescent City, in Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State Park), both meet my criteria. I’ve stayed at the Smith campground in the past, and at either place, I’d be perfectly content to sit on a stump all day, inhaling the scent of burning wood and watching the banana slugs go by.

That said, I camp so I can hike, which is why I was thrilled to discover one of the Redwood’s best trails – one of only a few with old-growth forest-to-beach access – just down the road from Mill Creek. Damnation Creek was originally used by the region’s Yurok Indians, who went to the beach to collect shellfish and seaweed.

The trail drops 1,100 feet in two miles, switchbacking through Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, ferns, and huckleberries. It’s a steep drop, but utterly breathtaking due to the cathedral-like shroud of ancient redwoods that tower over everything. Damnation Creek runs near the bottom of the trail, just before you emerge onto a bluff overlooking the sea stacks of the Pacific. If the tide is out, you can walk down to a patch of rocky beach overlooking Damnation Cove. Take a deep breath. Realize cellphones and civilization are overrated. Linger. It’s a steep hike back.

Getting there
Located eight miles south on Highway 101 from Crescent City; the Damnation Creek Trailhead and pullout is at mile marker 16, on your right. Don’t leave any valuables in your car.

[Photo credit: redwoods, Flickr user goingslo]

Visit the Tall Trees Grove in Redwood National Park, California

Restaurant Rooftop Gardens: Five Of America’s Best

beekeepingFrom where I stood on the roof of Bastille Cafe & Bar in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, I could see flocks of seagulls circling nearby fishing boats, as I catch whiffs of brine, gasoline and eau de canal water.

Despite the industrial marine supplies and salmon canneries across the way, up here I was surrounded by buzzing honeybees and dozens of varieties of produce, from heirloom French beans and petit pois to herbs, tomato starts, lettuces and cucumber vines.

Bastille is part of an emerging breed of urban restaurant (many of which are located in hotels) popping up across America. Not content to just source food locally, today’s seasonally- and sustainably-driven chefs and restaurateurs are installing rooftop gardens and beehives to augment the product they purchase from family farms.

Many of these restaurants offer public tours of their rooftop gardens, greenhouses and hives, so even city-dwellers (or line cooks) no longer have an excuse to remain clueless about where their food comes from – and the public can’t get enough. With the urban farming movement – backyard produce, chickens, bees, even dairy goats – at critical mass, savvy chefs, concerned about their carbon footprint and wanting more control over the production and quality of their ingredients, have turned their rooftops into kitchen gardens.

Few restaurants can spare the labor or have staff experienced in cultivating crops, which is where small businesses like Seattle Urban Farm Company and Ballard Bee Company come in. The Urban Farm Company’s services include construction and maintenance of residential backyard farms, rooftop gardens, educational school gardens, and on-site gardens at restaurants and businesses. With regard to the latter, chefs and cooks receive education as well, and become involved in caring for and harvesting crops and collaborating on plantings based on menu ideas.

Corky Luster of Ballard Bee offers hive hosting or rental, where homeowners keep hives on their property, in exchange for maintenance, harvesting, and a share of the honey. Bastille keeps hives, and uses the honey in cocktails and dishes ranging from vinaigrette’s to desserts.

Following is the short list of rooftop garden restaurants that have served as inspiration for imitators, nationwide. Here’s to dirty cooks, everywhere.rooftop gardensBastille Cafe & Bar, Seattle
Seattle Urban Farm Company owner/founder Colin McCrate and his business partner Brad Halm and staff conceptualized Bastille’s garden with the restaurant’s owners three years ago. After substantial roof retrofitting, rectangular garden beds were installed. Over time, beehives were introduced, and this past year, plastic children’s swimming pools were reinforced with landscape fabric and UV-protective cloth, expanding the garden space to 4,500 feet.

In summer and fall, the garden supplies chef Jason Stoneburner and his staff with 25 percent of their produce for Bastille’s French-inspired seasonal cuisine. Housed in a lavishly restored, historic 1920s building, it has the vibe of a traditional Parisian brasserie, but here you’ll find an emphasis on lighter dishes as well as cocktails crafted from boutique spirits and rooftop ingredients.

Every Wednesday, Rooftop Garden Tours are hosted by Seattle Urban Farm Company, and include a complimentary Rum Fizz, made with Jamaican rum, mint, sparkling wine, bitters and (of course) rooftop honey. Cost is $10 per person; limit 10 people. Contact the restaurant for reservations.

honey
flour + water, and Central Kitchen, San Francisco
Thomas McNaughton of popular Mission pizzeria flour + water opened his newest venture on May 9. Both restaurants have rooftop gardens, and Central Kitchen is a lovely, modern rustic sanctuary serving simple, seasonal fare that highlights Northern California ingredients.

In addition to beehives, Central Kitchen is producing peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, berries, figs, citrus and herbs in a 2,000-square-foot space. Lexans (heavy-weight plastic storage containers used in professional kitchens) serve as garden beds, while herbs flourish in a converted Foosball table. Talk about recycling!

Uncommon Ground on Clark, Chicago
This big sister to the new Edgewater location features a 2,500-square-foot garden with solar panels to heat water used in the restaurant. Everything from beets, eggplant, okra and bush beans are cultivated, including rare seed varieties from the Slow Food “Ark of Taste.” The Ark is dedicated to preserving the “economic, social, and cultural heritage of fruits and vegetables,” as well as promoting genetic diversity. Expect refined crunchy granola fare with ethnic flourishes.
tomatoes
Roberta’s, Brooklyn
This insanely popular Bushwick restaurant made national headlines when chef Carlo Mirarchi was named a 2011 Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine for his wood-fired pizzas and way with rooftop produce, including some heirloom varieties.

Mirarchi, who is passionate about urban farming and community involvement, uses two repurposed cargo containers on the restaurant’s roof for cultivating crops, and keeps a blog about the evolution of the garden.

[Photo credits: honeycomb; Laurel Miller; tomatoes, Flickr user Muffet]

In this video, Chef Robert Gerstenecker of Park 75 restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel, Atlanta, talks rooftop gardening and beekeeping. He grew up on a family farm and dairy in Ohio.



Berkeley’s Edible Cities Guide Leads Urban Foragers To Free Good Eats

plum treeAnyone who’s ever snagged fruit off of their neighbor’s trees or bushes (oh, don’t look at me like that) will appreciate the new online Edible Cities guide from Berkeleyite Cristian Ionescu-Zanetti.

Berkeley is ground zero for the localized food movement, and “urban foraging” has been growing in popularity amongst local chefs as well as home cooks.

As a former resident and recent subletter, I can attest to just how many tasty treats grow in this region, which is composed of many microclimates. All manner of citrus – most notably Meyer lemons – heirloom varieties of plums, cherries, loquats, avocado, raspberries, blackberries, pomegranates, persimmons, rosemary, wild fennel, miner’s lettuce, wild watercress, mustard plants…they all flourish here, sometimes in backyards, but often in public spaces.

Hence, Edible Cities, which uses a Google Maps interface that denotes where specific species are free for the picking. In a recent interview in Berkeleyside, Inoescu-Zanetti, who is originally from Romania, stated that urban foraging’s “most important aspect is education: Kids need to learn where food comes from, and adults need a refresher, as well.” Here, here!

According to its mission statement, Edible Cities’ goal is to promote local food security by “mapping publicly available food sources” and “enable a more sustainable mode of food production that lessens our environmental impact.” In plain English, you can have free fruit and preserves year-round, instead of buying tasteless, imported crap sprayed with God knows what.

Oakland has a similar program, Forage Oakland, which began in 2008. Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle and Tampa also have fruit gleaning projects, which are variously used for residents and to provide fresh food for those in need.

[Photo credit: Flickr user OliBac]

How to Choose Ripe Fruit

Cheese festival season has sprung: the best in the West

sheep cheese Spring, as they say, has sprung. In farmstead and artisan cheese parlance, that means pastures are currently abound with calves, lambs, and kids (of the goat variety), and the first milk of the season is in. That’s why March is the kickoff month for cheese festivals, especially on the West Coast because of its more mild climate. The following just happen to be some of the nation’s best.

8th Annual Oregon Cheese Festival, March 17
Hosted by the Oregon Cheese Guild and Rogue Creamery, this much-loved event features dozens of cheese, beer, and wine makers. General admission is minimal, the sampling is free, and the vibe is laid-back. The festival is held at Rogue Creamery in Central Point, just outside of Ashland in southern Oregon. It possesses the vibe of a giant farmers market, with all of the vendors gathered beneath a giant tent. Events include a “Meet the Cheesemakers” dinner (held the night before), seminars, and tastings, including chocolate and cider.California Artisan Cheese Festival (CACF), March 24-25
What better place for a California cheese festival than wine country? CACF is held every March in Petaluma (located in Sonoma County, about 40 minutes north of San Francisco) and draws over 2,000 attendees who come to taste cheeses from the West Coast, Pacific Northwest, and Rockies. Sign up now to get in on local creamery tours, special lunches, and educational seminars.

On April 7, the inaugural Washington Artisan Cheesemakers Festival will take place in Seattle. In addition to cheesemakers from across the state, expect Washington food artisans, craft beer and cider producers, and winemakers. The event is a benefit for the Cascade Harvest Coalition, a non-profit dedicated to local food security.

Can’t make the festival circuit? Try taking a class at The Cheese School of San Francisco, which is focused solely on classes and tasting events for professionals and caseophiles alike. With an ongoing curriculum of classes taught by industry professionals, offerings may include everything from “Mozzarella Making” and “Craft Brews & Artisan Beers,” to “Sheep & Syrah” and “Springtime Cheeses and Loire Valley Wines.” This is the place geek out on dairy.

Admittedly, this video isn’t from a cheesemaker in the western U.S.; it comes from renown Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont. But it’s an excellent short clip on how cheese goes from cow to cheese case. Should you be fortunate enough to find Harbison at your local cheese shop, I strongly recommend you pounce upon it, because it’s simply dreamy.



[Photo credit: Kate Arding]