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Apr. 17th, 2017

Simple Mexican Food at Las Dos Marias

Show of hands, please: how many of you were first introduced to Mexican food by Taco Bell (en-chi-REE-toe,TAH-co)? And how many of you were shocked to learn that Taco Bell is not actually Mexican food as served in Mexico?

Ooops. Sorry. Femme de Joie just realized that she may have committed the culinary equivalent of saying there’s no Santa Claus. Well, as long as she’s busily destroying fondly-held beliefs, Chipotle isn’t Mexican either. Neither is that place you had lunch at on the cruise excursion at Cabo. And neither is… well, pretty much any Mexican restaurant that commits any of these sins. That doesn’t mean the food doesn’t taste good, but don’t call it authentic. (See this article for another take on authenticity.)

Mostly what we get here in NorCal is a pan-TexMex-California take on Mexican food. That’s not a bad thing – cuisine evolves with available ingredients and changing tastes. But we do tend to pile on every available ingredient until a simple taco morphs into a promiscuous behemoth, unrecognizable except by name and inevitably topped with Brobdingnagian mounds of shredded processed yellow cheese.

So it’s refreshing to find a small unpresuming restaurant that serves simple, tasty food with a minimum of excess and little acknowledgment of trends. Las Dos Marias has been serving their simple Mexican dishes in a tiny space on Bechelli Lane that was once home to Bartels Burgers. You can go inside to order at the counter and have a seat at one of the five or six small tables, or avail yourself of their drive-up window. The menu is not elaborate – the usual combination plates, burritos, quesadillas, etc. Service is fast and cheerful.

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Salsa and chips, $1.99

The prices are low and portion size reflects that: if you want chips and salsa – usually included with an order in Mexican restaurants – you have to order them separately. M. de Joie liked the chips but the salsa was bland and watery, as though it had been in the freezer and lost its punch.

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Chile verde burrito, $7.99

Looks plain and is plain, but the ingredients were top-notch. Creamy refried beans meshed with the tangy tomatillo-based verde sauce and bites of pork to make a satisfying burrito filling.

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Carnitas enchiladas, $7.75

M. de Joie liked that the simple grilled carnitas taste didn’t get smothered with too much melty whatever goop. Just enough sauce and a feathery dusting of cheese was all the adornment the enchiladas needed. The rice was a bit dry but with savory, almost smoky flavor; more of those homemade refried beans on the side rounded out the plate.

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Small chicken tortilla soup, $2.99

This was a special not offered on the regular menu, but it hit the spot on a cold day. A tomato-chili enhanced chicken broth with carrots, onions, celery and crisp tortilla chips was lighter than it looks and made a terrific lunch starter.

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Combination plate of tamale and a carnitas taco, $8.00

It wasn’t listed on the menu board, but Las Dos Marias was happy to create this combination by request. A carnitas taco was one of the best tacos M. de Joie has had in a very long time – very juicy with tender pork, pico de gallo, and a dollop of guacamole on warm flour tortillas. Tamales are a house specialty – you can order them by the dozen – and this one was excellent, a generous amount of pork filling inside the masa case and slathered with a warm-ish red chili sauce.

Femme de Joie doesn’t cruise down Bechelli Lane much, but she’d be willing to make a detour for a lunch at Las Dos Marias. Inexpensive and well-prepared food with clean, unadulterated tastes is sometimes just what the doctor ordered, and this small unpretentious place fills the bill. Give it a try.

Las Dos Marias, 2640 Bechelli Lane, Redding, CA 96002. 530-226-8011. Open Monday through Saturday, 11:00 AM – 8:00 PM. Closed Sunday. Cards and cash, no checks. Vegetarian options. No alcohol. Parking lot. Drive-through window. Website at LasDosMarias.org or follow them on Facebook.

What’s the Attraction at Madayne?

You would think a roadway as busy as Eureka Way would be lined with more and better restaurant options than having to order via a microphone and eat in your car, but most of the eateries are expressly designed to get you driving again as fast as possible. Maybe it has to do with the number of medical facilities and high schools on that street – necessary to be sure, but not really the sort of business zoning that attracts restaurants.

An oddly-shaped little plot at Eureka Way and 11th Street has been home to a series of sit-down restaurants. Back in the 1980s it housed a very good Italian restaurant, followed by (among others) the Donut Wheel, the ill-fated Avocado’s, Brick’s, and Uncle Mike’s Burgers. Uncle Mike’s had barely let the paint dry before Madayne took over, opening their second Redding location (the other on Hilltop Drive).

The dining room is relentlessly boxy, with small aqua wooden-topped tables and banquette seating along one wall and a lengthy counter on another, metal chairs to be moved around as needed. There’s a divided-off space in the center with picnic tables. When you walk in, order and pay at the counter (there is also another counter on the other side of the room which mainly serves coffee drinks), then take a seat and wait for your food to be delivered. While you wait, you can peruse the t-shirts, mugs, books, and coffee for sale.

On M. de Joie’s first visit, she ordered and then asked for a receipt but was abandoned by the cashier, so she never got it. She supposes the cashier had to confer with others in front of and behind the coffee bar who all seemed to be busily sending and receiving texts.

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Trinami sandwich, 1/2 $8.50, plus hummus & veggies, $1.00 with meal, $1.50 a la carte

Trinami is the name given to a sandwich built with smoked tri-tip, pastrami, Swiss cheese, and chipotle sauce on what the paper menu described as a baggett. The menu also said it came with fries, which were nowhere to be seen. While the sandwich was delicious, this was by far the smallest half-sandwich M. de Joie has encountered in a very long time. It was a good thing she ordered the hummus & veggies on the side since that $8.50 half sandwich was terribly lonely all by itself. It would have been nice to have a spoon or some other implement to scoop up the hummus after running out of baby carrots, but waitstaff was nowhere to be seen – maybe involved in a texting scheme to take over the world. Actually the hummus was very good scooped up with fingers.

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Black and blue salad, half $9.50

M. de Joie was surprised at the generous serving of salad, given the incident with the half-sandwich, and wonders if they got it right or she was given the wrong portion. No way to check now. At any rate, the salad was delicious, with thinly-sliced warmly grilled tri-tip and a generous amount of blue cheese.

It was while she was eating this salad that M. de Joie began musing about the wisdom of tipping. Now she is fully aware that the subject of tipping is a volatile minefield, but she’s going there anyway for the purpose of this story. Service/tipping is for, you know, service. You are seated in a restaurant, your waitperson brings you menus, takes your drink order, brings your drinks, takes your meal order, brings you your meal, checks back to see if you need anything, and in general makes sure you get everything you want/need. That fulfills the concept of service. Now at a place like Madayne, when you pay by card you are asked right away if you want to tip, and the options are spelled out on the automated screen (15%, 20%, etc.).

M. de Joie is a generous tipper in exchange for good service, knowing that waitstaff put up with a lot of abuse and are not paid well, but something stuck in her craw about this. How do you know what you want to tip for service when you haven’t had any service?

No one came to take Femme de Joie’s order: she gave it at the counter. No one checked to see if she had everything she needed. Someone did come around and plunk down the salad, but that was it. Since she’d had to get her own water, she could have easily gotten up to get her own salad too. Was delivery of a salad, a walk from the kitchen, worth a buck-fifty?

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NorCal breakfast burrito, $6.99

The old smears on the tables had been wiped away and replaced with fresh smears. A burrito filled with breakfast staples – egg, potato, bacon, ham, Cheddar – then lightly grilled was really very good, with all the fillings hot and cooked just right, though it did scream out for some salsa. Reluctant to have to get up and go disturb the waitstaff, M. de Joie decided to take a chance on a bottle on the table labeled “Madayne Sauce – a fresh take on ketchup.” She had noticed it on her first visit, mainly because the bottles on the table were half empty and left uncapped. Not feeling impetuous, she poured some onto her plate and tasted it before saucing the burrito. It was sweet ketchup with a hint of heat and a decided moldy flavor, and not the delicious type of mold like Brie.

M. de Joie also ordered coffee since they flog it tirelessly ($2.25). She won’t make that mistake again, though she was impressed at how a cup of coffee can be bitter and watery at the same time.

What to say about Madayne? The food is pretty good but overpriced. You’re hit up for a tip for service before you even sit down. Staff is friendly but elusive: you’re pretty much on your own. There doesn’t seem to be any one person in charge and the staff seems lackadaisical about taking care of basic details. Femme de Joie only visited the Eureka Way location and it may be different at the Hilltop Drive branch, but she’s not really interested in spending more money there to find out.

Madayne Grill & Espresso, 1970 Eureka Way, Redding, CA 96001. 530-245-9160. Also Madayne Eatery & Espresso, 930 Hilltop Drive, Redding, CA 96003. 530-224-1111. Open Monday through Friday, 7:00 AM to 8:00 PM, Saturday 8:00 AM to 7:00 PM, Sunday 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM (Hilltop branch closes at 7 PM on Sunday). Cash and cards. Parking lot. Vegetarian and vegan options. Beer and wine. Website at http://madayne.com/

A Mixed Bag at Peacock in Anderson

Back in the late 1980s, there was a Peacock Restaurant on Lake Boulevard near… oh dear. Femme de Joie was about to say it was near Timber Lanes, but that bowling alley had closed up by that time. So it was near Joann’s Fabric… but that’s moved twice since then. Well…. it was in the strip mall that is fronted by A&W (which M. de Joie thinks of as being on South Market Street, but oh dear again, that hasn’t been in that spot for a million or so years).

Let’s start over.

Does anyone remember when a new steak house was about to open in Anderson twenty-some years ago? Two Feathers was the name; it was custom-built and heavily promoted in the local rag as the next big thing, with calls going out for high-class servers and bartenders and dog catchers. It opened and closed again with astonishing swiftness before M. de Joie had a chance to bask in its glamour, so she’ll never know if it was great but just misunderstood or ahead of its time or what the story was. At some point when Femme de Joie wasn’t paying attention, the old Peacock closed in the 90’s and then reopened a few years ago in the Two Feathers space.

Peacock is situated favorably right next to a motel – sharing their parking lot, actually – and right off Interstate 5, meaning they’ve got a couple of built-in audiences. Such places can survive and be terrible because they don’t need local customers; their patrons will come in, eat, and goest away in their shiny car in the night, never to return. Still, M. de Joie read favorable things about Peacock and wondered if it was anything like it used to be when it was on Lake Boulevard.

The interior seems oversized when you look up at the circular light fixture built into the oddly high ceiling. And it’s relentlessly pink except for the carpet, which is relentlessly green and needs replacing. Still, it’s clean and cheerful, with wide windows letting in natural light. There’s a constant flow of customers, some of whom seem to be regulars. Service ranges from efficient to friendly.

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Hong Kong chow mein, $9.25

Hong Kong chow mein is usually a melange of stir-fried vegetables plus shrimp, beef, chicken, etc. bound in a light sauce and served on top of pan-fried noodles. The noodles were pan-fried but really didn’t have much personality other than a little crunch; the same could be said for the meat-vegetable topping. It wasn’t unpleasant but it didn’t have that zsa zsa zsu that makes you want to order it again.

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Wor Won Ton soup, $7.50 medium, $9.25 large

Wor Won Ton soup, with a delicate broth, plenty of filled won tons, shrimp, and fresh leafy spinach, was a treat on a cold day. The medium order is enough for two people to share or one person to enjoy as a light lunch. This was a winner.

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Szechuan beef, $9.75

It’s deja vu all over again. Szechuan beef appeared to be virtually the same dish as the Hong Kong chow mein, minus the noodles and shrimp. Two small dried red chilies had been tossed in almost as an afterthought but they didn’t have that light char indicating they had been in the wok for any length of time, so the requisite heat was missing and the sauce tasted the same as the chow mein’s. And two slices of beef seemed to have been added from the frozen stage; they stubbornly clung to each other, resulting in raw undersides. Oops.

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Luncheon combination plate #2, $8.00

Down at the bottom of the menu page listing luncheon specials are a few combination plates. Those were a terrific bargain and the food was noticeably better than the a la carte plates. Egg foo yung is too often an omelet hockey puck at sea in a glutinous brown salty sauce. Here it was puffy and light with a thin flavorful gravy. Sweet and sour pork was particularly good, with a not-so-sweet sauce and cubes of pork with crunchy exterior and tender insides. Sometimes you feel that egg rolls could just be wrung out and the oil recycled, but this one was non-oily and freshly cooked.

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Soup of the day – comes with luncheon combinations

Here again, soup was very good. Beneath that eggy surface lay a good mix of tiny tofu cubes, chicken, diced Chinese BBQ pork, carrots and peas in a slightly salty broth. Adding a few drops of the hot oil from a small jar on the condiment tray made it sing.

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Luncheon combination #7, $8.50

M. de Joie loved the perfectly stir-fried crunchy vegetables in almond chicken laced with a light chicken-y sauce. It was a little short on chicken and almonds, but she didn’t mind because the rest was so good. Now about that doughnut in the center of the plate: that was advertised as “fried prawn,” and there was indeed a small prawnish creature inside, but a truthful menu would have described it as “fried batter ring with a hidden shrimp prize.”

Femme de Joie liked Peacock, though it does have its flaws. The luncheon combinations were far better than similar plates in most Chinese restaurants, and the soups were warming and tasty. A little bit of attention to detail could fix the problems – a spicy dish being decidedly unspicy, some ginger and garlic added to a stir-fry. Peacock is worth a visit if you’re in Anderson and maybe even a special trip from Redding for lunch.

Peacock Chinese Restaurant, 2881 McMurry Drive (between North Street and Balls Ferry Road), Anderson, CA 96007. 530-365-9833. Open Tuesday through Thursday, 11:00 AM to 9:30 PM, Friday 11:00 AM to 10:00 PM, Saturday 12:00 PM to 10:00 PM, Sunday 12:00 PM to 9:30 PM. Closed Monday. Cash and cards, no checks. Vegetarian and vegan options. Beer and wine. Parking lot.

Tiny Ma Der Serves Big Flavor in Old Redding

For six decades there’s been a whole lotta cooking going on in that tiny concrete block building on Placer, the one across from Holly Bail Bonds. Back in the 1960s it was home to Jan’s Frost Shop, run by a swarthy burly hirsute man who called everyone sweetheart and who made the most fabulous greasy pastrami sandwiches and French fries. After Jan’s closed, a series of fast food cafes opened including (in no particular order) Between the Bun, a hot dog place whose name escapes Femme de Joie at this moment, the first home of now-permanently-closed Brick’s, Wilda’s, and at least one or two others now lost to the vagaries of memory.

Ma Der Ma Der Sap House opened in that little building just a few months ago, serving Thai/Lao fusion with AmeriMex influences. Staffed by three energetic young men working the flattop, they use minimal equipment in a cramped kitchen to quickly turn out innovative specialties. Customers come from the nearby offices and most seem to already have their favorites from the short menu board above the counter.There are a few tables inside; in good weather sit on a barstool outside and eat at the ledge on the side of the building. Service is fast, helpful, and cheerful. For those wondering about the name: Ma Der Ma Der means “come over, come over.” Sap means “tasty” but also means “spicy-hot” or “chile hot.”

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A quick primer on Sap House sauces, fifty cents for a small cup with about two tablespoons of sauce: roasted Jalapeno is by far the mildest and would be acceptable to nearly all palates. Honey-Sriracha is like a hot and sweet orange-colored ketchup; if you like Srirachal you’ll like this. Roasted Thai chili sauce moves up considerably on the heat level; it is similar to bottled chile-garlic sauce, but hotter. M. de Joie didn’t quite have the moxie to sample the roasted Habanero sauce but has to assume it will take the top of your head off.

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Sapprito, $9.50

The cafe’s namesake dish is an Asian take on a burrito. Packed tightly in a flour tortilla are 2 eggs, mushrooms, onions, bell pepper, Lao sausage, tri-tip, sticky rice, and your choice of sauce; the tortilla is grilled just enough to give the exterior a little browning and crisp texture. If you have any doubts about whether the combination of Thai/Lao/Mexican is a good idea, this will lay them to rest: the flavors and concept work. Two people could easily split one sapprito for lunch.

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Philly cheese steak fries, $8.00

A registered dietitian would probably have harsh things to say about the Philly cheese steak fries: it combines French fries with cheesy, oniony fried strips of ribeye steak. It’s not on any known sensible diet plan. The fries – the bedrock – make it a carbaholic’s nightmare. But this gooey, salty mess of sandwich filling is as addictive as potato chips: you cannot have just one bite. It’s not health food but then Ma Der doesn’t claim it to be. If the photo looks a little fuzzy, well, that’s steam rising on a cold day.

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Blackened shrimp tacos, two for $7.00

If you just can’t bear all the goodness of the goopier dishes, the blackened shrimp tacos are more salad-y. While they aren’t actually blackened, lots of spicy rock shrimp with a squeeze of lime give a little kick to the rabbit food underneath, all held together in a flour tortilla canoe. M. de Joie thought that a creamy sort of dressing would be good to bind it all together, but it was quite delicious without, light and tangy.

Femme de Joie likes this little place, innovative without pretense and a good value in old Redding, which despite the number of offices really isn’t served well for fast non-junky lunch restaurants. Everything on the menu is under $10, can be split if you’re so inclined, and is already packed in a to-go box. Make it as mild or wild as your palate approves. If you’re looking to have something different and exciting for a workday lunch, try Ma Der Ma Der Sap House & Grill.

Ma Der Ma Der Sap House & Grill, 1718 Placer Street, Redding CA 96001. 530-691-4194. Open Monday-Saturday, 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM. Cash and cards; no checks. No alcohol. World’s worst and tiniest parking lot; many signs saying, “no restaurant parking.” Better to park on Yuba, Oregon, or Placer instead. Vegetarian and vegan options. Follow them on Facebook.

Healthy Take-Out Mexican at Roquito’s Taqueria

If you haven’t lived in Redding long, you might be surprised to know that Market Street used to be part of California’s main thoroughfare. The Highway Formerly Known As 99 ran from Mexico to the Oregon border and was quite the accomplishment in interstate highways. When Interstate 5 was completed – likewise an accomplishment – it decimated businesses along 99, including Market Streets north and south (AKA State Route 273). Looking at it now, it’s hard to believe that it was lined with perfectly respectable motels, restaurants, and other businesses (remember the Coliseum Roller Skating Rink? Chesty’s Floor Shop? A&W? Paul Bunyan?).

A Denny’s Restaurant operated on 273 in the 1960s and ’70s; it morphed into the Lime Tree Restaurant, which later became AJ’s. Four years ago Roque and Tiferet Carbajal opened Sweetie’s in that old Denny’s, serving up their seasonal specialties like heirloom tomato Benedict and strawberry-rhubarb cobbler alongside home-smoked & barbecued meats to an appreciative customer base. Now Roque Carbajal has opened Roquito’s Taqueria on South Market, take-out Mexican in a tiny building that formerly housed to-go pizza and was perhaps best known as “that place next to The Tropics.”

Though there are a few picnic tables on the south side of the building, Roquito’s is really a take-it-home kind of place. There’s just enough room to squeeze inside and order; you watch your food assembled in the tiny kitchen. Or phone your order in ahead and pick it up; Femme de Joie wished desperately she had done this while waiting behind a customer who ordered a LOT of food yet seemed to not know what each item actually was.

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Nachos with grilled chicken, Roquito style, $7.50

“Roquito style” is available on all menu items for an extra dollar and is worth it; it includes cabbage, pico de gallo, Jalepenos, cilantro, onion, lime, and a spicy creamy sauce drizzled over. Although M. de Joie had her misgivings when she saw the nachos being assembled in a smallish-to-medium-size Styrofoam take-out box, the end product was more than the sum of its parts. Melty cheese sauce ladled over house-made chips with all of the Roquito toppings plus morsels of grilled chicken made two very generous servings and we wound up scraping the box for leftover smidgens of sauce. The chicken got a bit lost amidst all the competing flavors so a more strongly flavored meat like carnitas or barbacoa would work better – or no meat at all.

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Smoked carnitas torta, $9.50

Many Mexican restaurants don’t offer tortas; if they do, it’s likely inoffensive and unmemorable. The crusty grilled bolillo roll was necessary to hold the juicy filling – the house spicy sauce, lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese, and delectable smoked pork carnitas all pressed together. The smoked carnitas was one of the better versions in town, with real wood smoke taste on pull-apart shreds of pork. In fact, an order of the carnitas alone would be fantastic – it’s that good.

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Carne Asada burrito, $8.50

Roquito’s does a few things differently: whole wheat tortillas instead of white. Ranchero beans (pintos in a smoky sauce) instead of refried. And brown rice in place of the usual reddish annatto “Spanish” rice. So you can have a giant burrito and a lot less guilt. This was filling but not heavy with niblets of grilled carne asada beef peeking though – again, the meat got a little overwhelmed by all the toppings, but the little bites were delicious on their own.

Roque Carbajal is onto something here. The limited menu – no enchiladas, no chile rellanos, no tamales – lets Roquitos focus on just a few things and do them very well. Staff is efficient, friendly, and helpful even when the little foyer is packed. Grilled meat from Sweetie’s is on tap. Prices are reasonable for the quality and serving size. They serve Cholula Hot Sauce in to-go packets. Is it too much to dream that Sweetie’s and Roquito’s might be the harbinger of a Renaissance of South Market Street?

Roquito’s Taqueria, 2605 South Market Street, Redding, CA 96001. 530-768-1103. Open Monday through Saturday, 11:00 AM to 8:00 PM. Closed Sunday. Cash and cards, no checks. No alcohol. Parking is wherever you can find it – there’s a vacant lot to the north of The Tropics. Vegetarian and vegan options. Follow them on Facebook.

Gironda’s Blooms Under New Ownership

Apparently no one in Redding had ever heard the phrase, “Location, location, location” when the old Ramona’s Mexican Restaurant opened. Or maybe it’s just that the edge-of-downtown location was pretty good way back when. There was a  lively, uh, bar scene and, robust, uh, personal entertainment industry. And of course there was no Mt. Shasta Mall or much of anything in Enterprise, so most people lived and shopped and dined out downtown, or close to it.

After Ramona’s closed – sometime in the late 1970s, M. de Joie thinks – it became a steak house called Grady’s, which did Okay (the Joe Clubs incident aside) and there may have been another similar steak house after that.  In 2002 Jim and Penny Gironda opened their eponymous Italian restaurant, which was bought by Deja Vu’s Karline Niver last year.

Niver has brought back lunch service,- making sense in West Redding, which has a lot of white-collar professionals but not so many sit-down lunch spots. The interior design is sleeker and more polished, while the menu has undergone a slight revamping. Service is friendly and helpful, though once in a while it seems as though not all waitstaff has their signals straight about who is waiting on which table – not enough to be problematic, but slightly confusing.

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Crispy calamari appetizer, $11.99

Femme de Joie loves calamari but has to admit that most of the time one restaurant’s version is indistinguishable from another’s. Amico del Signore has always been blasé at best about it. But the extra-crunchy calamari accompanied by a spicy roasted tomato cream sauce is much better than most, with crisp breading and just enough heat to elevate this above the average. It made a fan out of A. Del Signore.

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House salad, $4.99

You never know if a simple green salad will just be poured out of a giant Costco bag with some bottled dressing. Gironda’s salad is something to look forward to, with house-made dressings and a nice mix of fresh vegetables and greens. We would gladly order a giant bowl of this if it was on the menu.

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Roasted apple pizza, small $15.99, large $18.99,

Apple and arugula on a pizza? Why not? Pizza is a suitable vehicle for all kinds of toppings, and it works well here. Enhanced with gorgonzola (a great accompaniment to apples and arugula), salty proscuitto and sweet caramelized onions and roasted garlic, this is a winning combination of flavors and textures on a crisp crust.  Warning: one dedicated eater can finish an entire large pizza with ease. Just so you know.

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Catch of the day, shrimp picatta on linguine, $24.99

Femme de Joie loved the sharp lemony caper sauce on the shrimp and the pasta. Both were cooked perfectly and were a nice change from overly-buttery scampi presentations. The carrots were not quite cooked and not quite raw, so picking them up to eat seemed like the only possible solution.

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Pasta special, $19.99 – Beef Stroganoff with smoked Gouda sauce and New York steak slices on linguine

Smoked cheeses are one of those food that always sound tempting but which M. de Joie usually finds disappointing, a cheap way to cover up bland cheese. However, the judicious use of smoked Gouda in this fanciful version of Stroganoff was the right touch to give the creamy sauce a little oomph and character. The beefy taste of tender strips of New York steak were a good match for the slight smokiness.

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Catch of the day, Salmon on fettucine, $21.99

The waitress thought the salmon was a 6-ounce cut but it was more like a 4-ounce cut when it arrived. Moist and flaky, it could have done without the bit of cheese on top, but was still enjoyable with garlicky fettucine. Simply cooked fresh green beans were a pleasant side vegetable.

Femme de Joie likes what the new owner is doing at Gironda’s, from the pared-down, sophisticated decor to the updated wine list. Overall service has been good to exemplary; the food is very good and becoming more innovative while still holding on to the classics.  While it isn’t quite a white-tablecloth sort of place, Gironda’s is nevertheless a good place to take a date while casual enough to be comfortable and relaxed. If you haven’t been in a few years, check it out.

Gironda’s Restaurant and Bar, 1100 Center Street at Trinity, Redding CA 96001. 530-244-7663. Open Monday through Thursday, 11:00 AM to 9:00 PM, Friday 11:00 AM to 10:00 PM; Saturday 4:00 PM to 10:00 PM, Sunday 4:00 PM to 9:00 PM. Parking lot. Full bar. Cash and cards; no checks. Vegetarian and vegan options. Website at www.girondasitalian.com or follow them on Facebook.

Old Mill Delivers Real Barbecue in Shasta Lake

If you live in the US of A, chances are good that you own a grill – according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, 75% of Americans own a smoker or grill, and 61% of them use it year round. No statistics are known to exist on how many people refer to grilling as barbecuing, but it’s a safe bet that “most of them” is the right answer.

If you get home from work and start up the Char-Broil or set fire to some Kingsford Briquets to cook some tender steaks or burgers, that’s grilling. If you light a wood fire in a big ol’ half-barrel and pull up a cooler full of beer to while away some serious hours tending tough hunks of meat, you’re talking either barbecuing or smoking. It’s all in the technique and window-dressing won’t cut it: serious pitmasters know that anyone who talks extensively about their 50-ingredient secret barbecue sauce recipe is an unworthy poseur and amateur. Real barbecue is expensive and time-consuming; there are lots of restaurants with the barbecue name that just flood some cooked chicken with sweet gloppy sauce and assume you don’t know the difference, or care.

Femme de Joie had heard good things about Old Mill Eatery & Smokehouse in Shasta Lake and thought it was time to head north to check it out. It opened some ten years ago and was taken over by new owners in 2015. In a light-filled faux log cabin chalet on Shasta Dam Boulevard, they serve three meals a day to a variety of tourists and locals, grandpas in overalls and hipsters with flashy hair tints, business folk and families, all of whom come for the generous portions and real smoked barbecue. Service is helpful and friendly albeit sometimes a little leisurely.

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House-made corned beef hash and eggs, $12.95

Canned corned beef hash isn’t worth the time and effort to make it attractive and palatable; you may as well serve a fry-up of Alpo. Homemade is a different story. Old Mill mixed pink shims of house-smoked corned beef mixed with hash browns and crisp-fried, a bit on the salty side but both crunchy and tender at the same time. More hash browns alongside had a golden crackly top and moist insides to go with eggs cooked sunnyside up.

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Smokehouse breakfast with ham, $12.95

Very often the ham part of ham-and-eggs is a neat little soldier of a ham slice, uniformly cut from a pressed loaf, microwaved or held in a heating tray until needed. A nicely browned 8-ounce slice has some texture and character and heft as it was here.

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A large flaky biscuit baked in-house was a breakfast in itself along with peppery thick cream gravy redolent with bits of sausage. The biscuit was not quite baked all the way through, though, so the inside was a little gummy.

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Old Mill Cheese Steak, half $11.95, full $14.95

Skip the drive to Philly and get this one instead. On the lively and spicy side, luscious smoked tri-tip meshed with mushrooms, onions, and bell peppers in a coat of melted cheese. A really delicious and messy sandwich.

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Potato salad and dirty rice, $3.95 each

Side orders are done especially well at Old Mill. House-made new potato salad, a far cry from that weird yellow sweet paste sold in plastic tubs in supermarket refrigerator cases, was crunchy with celery, creamy but not mushy, and lightly peppery. Dirty rice was outstanding – often made with chicken livers and giblets, this savory, fluffy rice was chock full of smoked beef niblets and seasoned generously with cayenne.

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Smoked brisket sandwich, $12.95, side of baked beans $2.95, cole slaw $2.95

At dinner, full plates of smoked meats are available, but they can also be ordered as sandwiches for lunch. Smoked brisket, though on the salty side, was juicy and tender with visible smoke rings – lots of smoke taste here, though the amount of meat on the sandwich was a bit scanty. The house-made baked beans had a snappy vinegary tang with diced bacon flavor. Femme de Joie assumed the cole slaw would have a creamy dressing and was pleased to instead taste a piquant apple cider vinegar-based sharp dressing that paired well with smoky meats. A A tiny cup of barbecue sauce tasted of ketchup, sugar, vinegar, and liquid smoke; the brisket did not deserve to be sullied with it.

Though not everything was perfect, there are many good things going on at Old Mill Eatery & Smokehouse – enough to warrant a drive up I-5 to Shasta Lake. If you crave barbecue that isn’t coated with sticky bottled sauce, this is worth trying out on your way up to the dam (go have a look while there’s water in it).

Old Mill Eatery & Smokehouse, 4132 Shasta Dam Boulevard, Shasta Lake, CA 96073. 530-275-0515. Open daily, Sunday though Thursday, 7:00 AM to 8:00 PM, Friday and Saturday 7:00 AM to 9:00 PM. Parking lot. Cash and cards, no checks. Beer and wine. Not much for vegetarians to see here. Follow them on Facebook.

Come to Airpark Cafe for the Views, Stay for the Food

You’re at the airport waiting for your flight. You feel a bit peckish, maybe a little anxious, and decide to throw caution to the wind and get something to eat. You think about comfort food: a stack of warm cookies, a cheeseburger, a triple gin and tonic – but when you actually start looking at the prices, the trip back down to earth nearly shatters your ankles.  Ten dollars for a bowl of soup? Thirteen bucks for an Irish coffee? Twenty-one for a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon? Even as you reluctantly fork over $9.75 for a sad cellophane-wrapped turkey sandwich, you already know what it tastes like: the lonely humiliation of being the last one chosen for the softball team.

Fortunately for those who fly in and out of Benton Airpark, the situation is much happier. You might not think of dining at the airport, but West Redding is fortunate to have the Airpark Cafe close at hand, open to the public and pilots alike. Taken over by new owners a few months ago, it’s a cheerful place to enjoy a leisurely breakfast or lunch while enjoying the views of the mountains and planes landing and taking off. The outdoor deck is pleasant even on hot days with canopies and misters. Service is friendly, though a bit on the slow side.

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Reuben sandwich, $7.99, with house-made potato salad; small house salad, $2.50

Grilled Reuben sandwich needed just a bit more sauerkraut – it was pretty thinly spread – but otherwise was tasty and a good value. House-made potato salad was much better than the stuff in industrial-packaged tubs you so often get in small cafes – creamy and slightly sweet. Femme de Joie was expecting a salad of bagged iceberg lettuce so it was a nice surprise to get this salad of dark greens and tomato instead – and at a good price.

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Chicken fried steak breakfast sandwich, $8.25, side of hash browns, $2.50

Whoever thought of putting chicken fried steak into sandwich form is one smart cookie. This isn’t diet food by any means, but it was tender and savory with a thin omelet, cheese, and smear of gravy inside the bread. Hash browns were crisp on the outside and tender inside.

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French toast combo, $8.25

Freshly made French toast was light and fluffy alongside crisp bacon, eggs cooked as requested, and hash browns. A very good deal for the money.

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Side order of two biscuits ($1.50 each) and gravy $1.50

The gravy was definitely made in-house, as evidenced by the swirl of sausage fat that hadn’t quite been incorporated. Great sausage flavor and not too salty, this went nicely on fresh biscuits and smeared on the hash browns.

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French dip supreme with mushrooms, onions, and Swiss cheese, $8.25, sweet potato fries on the side

Airpark Cafe had some very tender tri-tip available, and that smokey taste made this French dip rise above the ordinary, a juicy and messy combination. Sweet potato fries were out of a freezer bag but were crisp and non-greasy.

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Florentine Omelet, $8.99, home-style potatoes on the side

The Florentine Omelet was a special of the day, with spinach, tomatoes, and ham, covered in Hollandaise. Eggs were tender and filled with fresh ingredients; the lusciously rich Hollandaise was missing the requisite tang of lemon and was more like a thick eggy butter sauce. Home-style fries were a bit undercooked.

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Cobb salad, $7.99

Cobb salad included dried cranberries, feta cheese, fresh apple, red onion, tomato, candied walnuts, and strips of grilled chicken atop a mesclun mix – this would probably be called a half-salad portion in most restaurants, but the price fit the portion size. Light and refreshing, this made a good lunch.

Airpark Cafe is a little gem in an unlikely place above the tarmac, not far from the Dog Park – hence the dog bed and dog water bowl on the deck. The low prices and friendly atmosphere make up for the somewhat slow service. It’s quite small so is unsuited for a group of more than about eight people, and is up a flight of stairs (Femme de Joie assumes there is another access from within the building it’s housed in, but doesn’t know for certain). It’s a good value with tasty food in an area where restaurants are thin on the ground. Worth checking out.

Additional bonus: they are currently offering a tri-tip dinner and a movie on Saturday nights in the hangar; schedule at flyhillside.com

Airpark Cafe at Benton Airpark, 2600 Gold Street at Airpark Drive, Redding, CA 96001. 530-241-4204. Open daily, 7:00 AM to 3:00 PM. Cash and cards; no checks, Beer and wine. Vegetarian and vegan options. Parking lot.

Trending Downward at Trendy’s

It seems to be an inescapable part of growing older: asking, “Do you remember -” and increasingly finding the answer is, “No.” The Rite Spot, Shasta Maid, Redding Bakery, Shasta Bakery, the Shack, Midway Inn, Ramona’s, Holly Cafe – for longtime locals, those exist only in memories; sometimes the location has been erased, paved over or left to the nonstop erosion of time.

Femme de Joie was just a wee tot when she and Maman de Joie visited the old Gold Street Cafe – in particular she remembers a slice of caramel layer cake; a few days later she asked Maman if she thought the cafe still had any. Over the years there were many visits to Gold Street Cafe; it was inexpensive, quick, and the diner-style food was pretty good, with the homemade pies in a glass display case a standout. Then the cafe was sold a couple of times and finally closed in late 2014.

A few months ago a banner appeared on the east wall of that building, announcing that Trendy’s would open soon. Now Femme de Joie has to say here and now that she thought Trendy’s was an awful name for a restaurant. It sounds like a place in the mall selling cheap fall-apart jewelry to teenage girls. But the reviews on Yelp and Trip Advisor were generally positive, and the food photos looked luscious, so how bad could it be?

The old pastel paint and faux-Victorian decor is gone, replaced with sleek black and white paint and accents of red. A major and much-needed change was changing the restrooms around so you don’t have to walk outside the building to get to them. Service is generally fast and on the chatty side.

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Corned beef hash and eggs, $11.00

Corned beef hash is made in-house and did taste homemade, though there didn’t seem to be a lot of it on the plate. Amico del Signore asked for hash browns and was told Trendy’s doesn’t serve them, but that the garlic herb house potatoes were “really special.” We found them not-special without much garlic or herb taste, just home fries by another name.

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Griddle cakes were recommended with the corned beef hash and the waitress assured us that “everything is homemade.” From where M. de Joie sat, she could clearly see the restaurant-sized boxes of Krusteaz Pancake Mix on a shelf in the back, so she wasn’t terribly surprised when the pancakes proved to be very sweet with overwhelming vanilla taste. Perhaps the Krusteaz is used for a purpose other than pancakes, but having used this product herself, Femme de Joie feels this is the “homemade” pancake batter. Some people consider adding an egg and milk to a mix to be homemade; M. de Joie is not one of those people. It reminds one of the very old joke about the young bride who went all over town looking for a box of scratch because her new husband told her that’s what his mother made cake from.

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Country Fried Steak, $11.00

Eggs were ordered straight up; they arrived runny on top. While M. de Joie doesn’t mind this, most people would strenuously object being served uncooked egg white. Likewise undercooked was the roux for the gravy; the gravy tasted of raw flour. The country fried steak also suffered from raw flour underneath the crisp exterior – probably from cooking too fast so that the outside was done before the entire coating was cooked. The steak itself separated into curious layers when prodded with a knife.

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Biscuit and gravy would have been good if (A) the biscuit had been baked all the way through and (B) not smothered in the raw-flour gravy.

Femme de Joie is a clean-plate ranger, but left quite a bit of this meal on her plate. Amico del Signore declined to accompany her on subsequent visits.

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Two carnitas gringo tacos, $12, with house-made potato salad

The carnitas tacos were quite good, with juicy, tender meat, a spicy aioli over avocado slices, and melted cheese cradling the inside of the flour tortilla taco shell. The menu promised jicama slaw but what was delivered was cabbage. Potato salad had lots of dill pickle and was one of the better restaurant potato salads M. de Joie has tasted, There was a lot of empty territory on the plate, though; for $12.00 you’d expect a bit more actual food.

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The Bomb Burger, $12.00, with fries, extra $1.00 for garlic and Parmesan

This is one of Trendy’s most popular items, or so the waitress said. The 1/3 pound burger itself was good, but the Cholula fried onions didn’t have any Cholula taste (there’s an oversized bottle of Cholula on M. de Joie’s kitchen counter at all times, so she’s quite familiar with the pequin-arbol flavor). The onions had a nice light crunch at first but as they cooled, the crunch morphed into a bready, starchy texture that didn’t enhance the burger and mostly wound up back on the plate, along with the none-too-fresh flap of leaf lettuce. The garlic fries were probably wonderful when they were hot, but Femme de Joie didn’t get to experience them then. When they arrived at her table, they were lukewarm and gummy. Maybe they were cooked at the beginning of the 15 minutes it took to get the order and had been patiently awaiting the burger.

After reading the glowing reviews online and hoping Trendy’s would carry on the diner food legacy of Gold Street Cafe, it’s almost as though M. de Joie visited an entirely different restaurant. There’s nothing wrong with Trendy’s that some basic timing and cooking practice can’t fix. But when the food is disappointing, the menu prices seem even higher than they are – and they do seem pricey for portion size and quality. She hopes that some simple kitchen management will take care of the problems. Trendy’s has plenty of fans, but right now Femme de Joie doesn’t see whatever it is they see.

Trendy’s. 1730 Gold Street at Railroad Avenue, Redding, CA 96001. 530-768-1499. Open Monday-Friday, 6:00 AM – 2:00 PM, Sunday 8:00 AM – 2:00 PM. Closed Saturdays, Cash and cards; no checks. No alcohol. Vegetarian and vegan options. Parking lot. Follow them on Facebook.

Palo Cedro’s California Brewing Company is Worth the Drive

Anyone who has lived in the Redding area more than a few years knows that until quite recently live music was as rare as jackalopes. Oh, sure, if you were over 21 you might have gone into Ricardo’s to hear some band that got stuck here on their way to getting stuck in Lodi, or heard Norm Bailey and the Nervous Kats at a dance at the Moose Lodge, but that was about it. Concerts? Well, the Turtles played at the old Shasta High School auditorium (now U-Prep) in the mid-60s. There was also a concert by the 1910 Fruitgum Company and the Ohio Express – who can forget the immortal lyrics, “Yummy yummy yummy I’ve got love in my tummy”? The situation improved in the 1970s when the civic auditorium occasionally hosted a touring musician with an open date on their schedule like Jeff Beck or a young Dire Straits, but venues for local music just didn’t exist.

These are happier days for music fans. In the past couple of years numerous bars and restaurants have started featuring live music at least one night a week. (A News Cafe’s own Hal Johnson has taken on the arduous task of compiling listings weekly.) California Brewing Company is one such spot that opened up two years ago next to Holiday Market in Palo Cedro. A small dining room is augmented by a courtyard that serves as an auxiliary dining room & stage in good weather. In bad weather – well, squeeze together to make room for the musicians. When there’s no live music, you can watch a silent TV while listening to piped-in oldies.

Though primary focus is on their beer, CBC offers a simple menu that goes beyond salty bar snacks. The focus is on fresh, uncomplicated dishes that appeal whether you’re quaffing a brew or sipping an iced tea.

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California Club Wrap, $9.99, with side of deep-fried green beans, extra $2.00

You heard it here first: Femme de Joie predicts that crisp-fried green beans will replace sweet potato fries as the next ultra-popular restaurant appetizer. In the same way that deep-fried mushrooms have an almost meaty taste and texture, grassy green beans were transformed into vegetarian snacks that a carnivore would snarf up in a nanosecond. On a hot day, the salady California club wrap – lightly dressed chicken salad enfolded in a tomato flour tortilla (though colored tortillas never seem to actually taste like whatever they’re tinted with) was filling without being overwhelmingly heavy.

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Adult Stout Float, $4.99

Years ago, when a friend described the stout-and-ice-cream dessert he’d had at a Portland restaurant, M. de Joie privately thought that sounded really disgusting. Fortunately, tastes change. Dark and spicy house-made stout poured over chocolate ice cream, eaten while listening to the Trammps sing, “Disco inferno, burn that mother down,” is a pleasure M. de Joie doesn’t expect to ever find again in this life. Not for fans of super-sweet desserts, this was like carbonated dark bitter chocolate in a glass. Lovely.

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Baja California Burger, $10.99

Yes, $10.99 is a lot for a burger – unless it’s a 1/2 pound burger. Topped with fresh Jalapeno, pepper jack cheese, and sliced avocado, the Baja California was one of the better hamburgers Femme de Joie has tasted around the area – the burger still juicy despite needing a longer cooking time, with abundant and spicy toppings. More of those green beans on the side – they’re worth the $2.00 upgrade from salad or fries.

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Bacon, lettuce, & tomato sandwich with French fries, $6.99

This was a special deal sandwich, hence the lower price. The fillings were all fresh and tasty but it was a bit on the skimpy side. To be sure, you get what you pay for. The fries were quite good, non-greasy and very lightly salted.

Palo Cedro isn’t a long drive from downtown Redding and this little oasis is a pleasant reward for making the trip. The limited menu doesn’t overtax the small kitchen so service is fairly speedy. Service is friendly and helpful. Though there isn’t a children’s menu, all ages are welcome.

And now Femme de Joie gets on her soapbox, which she carries with her everywhere: Yes, there is frequent free live music. But there has been an influx of people coming into CBC, occupying chairs and tables, and ordering a glass of water. While that isn’t illegal, it takes up seating that would otherwise be used by customers who would happily pay good money to order food and drinks, which is what keeps the restaurant in business and keeps the live music coming. If this trend continues, it would certainly make sense for California Brewing Company to institute a cover charge or minimum purchase, and M. de Joie couldn’t blame them if they did. All this to say – if you want to listen to live music, don’t sponge off the good nature of a place like CBC.

California Brewing Company, 9348H Deschutes Road, Palo Cedro, CA 96073, in the Holiday Market shopping center. 530-222-2739. Open Wednesday and Thursday, 4:00 PM – 9:00 PM, Friday and Saturday, 4:00 PM – 10:00 PM, Sunday 12:00 PM – 6:00 PM. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Cash and cards; no checks. Beer and wine. Vegetarian and vegan options. Parking lot. Website at California Brewing Company or follow them on Facebook.

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