by Ree Slocum
Going north along the 101 in Mendocino County a half hour beyond Willits is the little town of Laytonville. Like so much of our diverse county, Laytonville’s farming, food, and drink gems are scattered in the hills, tucked among derelict buildings along the highway, near other thriving businesses, or in long-ago homes of ranchers or loggers. Nestled off the road, next to the laundromat, just before the bustling town center is the Big Chief Restaurant.
The restaurant originally opened sometime in the mid ’60s offering the usual drive-in fare of hamburgers, french fries, and shakes. Through its six owners and fifty-year history it’s been a stop for travelers and had (still has) a devoted local following. In its new incarnation, New Orleans-connected owners Clay Carpenter, chef and butcher; Mat Paradis, all around PR man, chef and bartender who also raises pigs for the restaurant; and Troy Terrill, draft beverage curator, continue to serve popular hamburgers and fries as well as other favorites. The trio has a ten-year history of fine creative cooking for community events and fundraisers. They decided to honor their roots and originality by serving the food they’ve learned to love and cook: New Orleans Cajun.
On the new menu (they’ve been open since January) you’ll find the very popular Po’boy sandwiches with choices of fried gulf shrimp (“We just had to use the gulf shrimp,” Mat said almost apologetically), hot roast beef (Covelo grass-fed), fried chicken (locally sourced when available), house-smoked and locally grown ham, with gruyere cheese and house- pickled onions, and a fried shitake mushroom choice. There are Caesar, garden, and beet salads. Clay said they obtained permission to harvest beets from the high school’s green- house because they weren’t being harvested in summer. There are always specials during the week such as Baja-seasoned ling cod (harvested from Fort Bragg) on a brioche bun with cabbage slaw.
What to drink at the Chief? None of the three was interested in serving milk shakes, much to the disappointment of several local children. In New Orleans, Troy Terrill studied food and beverage in college and worked at a beer bar. Although he learned about wine in France, he became more interested in the extensive varieties of microbrewery beers he enjoyed when visiting friends in Laytonville, so the restaurant features the Draft Punk bar. Everything is draft, including the Clearly Kombucha and Nitro Iced Coffe, “because it tastes better,”
Troy asserts. He should know: he has cultivated relationships with many breweries. In some cases they know him so well they send the newly kegged brews directly to him, which soon become the next unusual offerings posted on the boards hanging above the bar. Want to try something way out of the ordinary? Ask Troy, Mat or Cody about Shot in the Dark or the Cee Shandy and maybe there will be another new and amazing combination when you visit.
After concluding my interviews and photography, I treated myself to a late lunch and ordered a beet salad with house- pickled onions, walnuts, and goat cheese (not goat-y) on a bed of organic greens with a fabulous, house-made vinaigrette. It was large and filling and one of the best beet salads I remember eating. Earlier in the day, while inter- viewing Troy, I ordered a kombucha with essence of Asian pear. Very refreshing. A wonderfully mild flavored kombucha, which begged me to purchase more to take home; I did, and enjoyed it immensely as I wrote this article celebrating the genius of the Big Chief’s three owners.