See?" says Hank. He's pointing at a piece of salmon in the chilled display cabinet. It's sitting on a piece of wood.
"Cedar," says Hank. "They cook it on that. Northern peoples. Arctic. Ancient recipe. Makes all the difference in the world."
"North Pole? Cedar trees?" I say. "This I gotta test-taste."
"Except, dude, I'm having the salmon, and it's bad luck to order the same thing."
"Oh, yeah? Since when?"
"Since it's gonna cost about 12 bucks and you don't have two dimes to rub together. I don't have enough dinero for two salmon plates."
"But I've got a special treat for you."
And that's how I come to make the greatest sandwich discovery since I was six and Mom stuck a banana in my peanut butter sandwich.
Hank's been crowing about this place for months. It's quite small, maybe 15 feet wide, but deep, with pale lime walls, a white acoustic ceiling, and four black ceiling fans. The kitchen is all in the open, with green, red, and yellow enamel pots dangling from hooks. They have three tables inside and a couple out under the veranda. There's a sandwich list on a chalkboard to the right and, huh, a bookshelf on the left. The bottom half holds six-packs of Cokes, traditional bulgy small bottles. Cookbooks fill the upper shelves. Dozens of them. Whole Foods Market Cookbook. Chez Panisse Café Cookbook. Hugh Johnson World Atlas of Wine. Good sign. Someone here's interested in food.
So Hank makes mystery orders for the two of us. Ten minutes later, one of the cooks, Andy, brings out this big wide square china plate loaded with a rainbow of roasted vegetables, like zucchini, mushrooms, squash, red and green peppers, and tomatoes, and a rosy square of salmon. Wow. Classy. Hank lets me take a couple of chunks. Mouth-melters, with a sorta sweet, sorta herby, and maybe I'm imagining this, but, a slightly "woody" flavor. A little salt, and for me, perfecto.
But now Andy turns up with my plate. Jeez. Just a sandwich.
"Where's the justice, dude?"
I mean, deep down, I'm not a sandwich guy. And, okay, the place is pretty sandwichy. The board shows they do everything from grilled cheese ($4.50) to fried egg with cheese, bacon, and tomato ($5.50) to roast beef ($7.00). But they also do wraps, like the chicken Caesar ($6.50), and some pretty interesting salads, like the curried chicken with chutney ($4.25).
But what turns up is this basket with...grilled sourdough filled with, what? Spring-mix lettuce, slices of fruit, and some white gunk...
"Okay, what is it?" I say. I clamp my jaws down on one piece of the sandwich. Chomp. Oh, man. Shaft of light pours through the clouds. The waters part. I taste the sourdough. I taste the lettuce. I taste the sweetness of pears. I taste the sharp, strong gunk at the bottom, and the candied crunch of something nutty between. My eyes search the menu board. Of course! Goat cheese and d'Anjou pear ($7.00), with mustard, candied walnuts...
"My man," I say. "For once, you've nailed it. This is awesome." The combo taste is really great. Something about the flavor of that goat cheese and what the pear does to it. And how those walnuts come in like referees and say, "Come on now, fellas, cool it a little."
The iced tea Hank ordered ($1.50 each) hits the spot too.
But maybe I should've had Coke. "We get it from Mexico," says Clive. The owner. "They still use cane sugar. U.S. Coke uses refined white sugar. There's a difference."
Clive trained as a chef in Baltimore. His dad was a Navy captain. "We were always moving," he says. The same happened when Clive became a chef. Now he's got a four-year-old of his own, and when this site came up a couple of years ago, two blocks from his home, he grabbed the opportunity. "It's brought our family together," he says. "My dad comes around. He loves working with the 'family firm.' We grow our own herbs in our garden up the road, recycle 40 percent of our green waste into compost." Whew. "I just love cooking," Clive says. "We did a North African carrot ginger soup [$4.50] the other day."
And Hank's cedar plank salmon Arctic thing? "I saw it on a Williams-Sonoma cover," Clive says. "The idea comes from the Inuit Indians. They soak a plank of cedar in water, tack the salmon to it, then cook it on the edge of an ember fire. It gets cooked three ways. Steam from the wet wood steams it, smoke from the fire, and indirectly from the heat. We do just the same, and we finish it with honey, rice wine vinegar, or rosemary and lemon. But cedar definitely adds one of the flavors. The place smells like cedar when we're cooking."
Huh. At a table outside, this couple, Janet and Bob, are just finishing off a hot pastrami panini. "Have this next time," says Janet. "It's as good as at the Wine Cask in Santa Barbara."
"So what do most people ask for?" I ask Clive.
He looks a little embarrassed. "Actually, the fried egg sandwich," he says.
"If it hadn't been for the big guy here," I say, "that's what I would've ordered. For once, I'm glad I followed orders."