Willapa Bay Oysters; Cannon Beach Best

This is the third summer that we’ve headed out to Cannon Beach, Oregon for Labor Day weekend. Never quite sure of what the weather will be up to, we take our chances and wait until the last minute to book a room. Every year, so far, we’ve gotten the last room in town – at the Holiday Inn Express in neighboring Seaside.

We’ve established some food “habits” for the trip which involve a pit stop along the way and a meal in Cannon Beach. Since I’m told by the locals that September and October are really the best months to visit, I’m hoping these favorite places of ours might come in handy if you find yourself in these parts soon.

This year we didn’t take off until Saturday, which meant we could chill out on Friday night in Seattle. Chill we did with the boozy drinks from Ba Bar’s new slushy machine (pictured here). I was expecting something obnoxious and sweet ala New Orleans street style Hurricanes. Instead we got our icy concoctions served in respectable cocktail glasses. The featured drinks of the weekend were a Poivre Punch with Prosecco (refreshing) and the Old Country with Amaro CioCiaro and blackberry liqueur. The Amaro added a wonderfully bitter note.

On the way up the coast (we take the scenic route on 101), we always stop for lunch in South Bend, the supposed Oyster capital of the world, famous for their Willapa Bay oysters. At River View Dining (the name suggests everything it’s not: fancy and scenic), run for 12 years by Mexican owner Moreno and his wife, we always order the grilled oysters--and ribs for my daughter. If the food weren’t so good, we might not have made it back after our first time there.

Moreno is a hulking, surly guy who cooks and waits tables. When you arrive at lunch he’s less than welcoming. By the time he gets around to acknowledging you or getting you water, he finally blurts out something to the effect of: “Do you have enough time? It’ll be 45 minutes before I can pick up your order. If not, better keep moving.” (He warms up though; I was shocked he let me take his picture.)

We would have kept moving on that first visit if the table of four locals – all tree farmers (it’s a big logging area), wouldn’t have clued us in. One particularly dapper 82-year-old farmer patron in a purple-striped shirt with lime green suspenders (who often charmingly gets up to pour water and bus tables when it’s busy, which seems like always) told us that the grilled oysters were the best we would ever have. To convince us, he brought over one of their oysters hot off the grill, instructing me to not let any of the juices go, “slurp it right away.”

I awkwardly held the steaming hot shell, tilting it into my mouth to drink down the juice bathing quite a plump oyster. Butter, garlic, parsley, white wine, something spicy (?) --the secret sauce that Moreno squirts the oysters with as they grill outside on a massive griller/smoker contraption was indeed delectable. The oyster itself was meaty, its inner juice just waiting to release upon first bite, and had just the right hint of char. Sold. We waited the 45 minutes for two dozen more.

Besides oysters, they’ll cook ribs to order outside (also a 45-minute affair), and their clam and salmon chowder with ample chunks of seafood defies the creamy monotony that too often passes for chowder. Their pulled pork sandwiches are pretty darn good too; the dark as chocolate house-made BBQ sauce has a smoky, spicy finish and sort of calls to mind an Asian chutney kind of sweetness (sounds weird, I know). I’ve never tried the burgers or the root beer floats. The only signs of anything vaguely trendy here are Chai and a Hibiscus Lemonade.

Once we’re in Cannon Beach, we always go to The Irish Table for dinner – ditching the Seaside mess of fried Twinkies and taffy shops (though we come back later for a cone for my daughter and to ride the bumper cars). Coffee shop by day and stellar restaurant by night, this cozy cabin-like space doesn’t take reservations. On a weekend night, they open at 5:30 and people start crowding onto the lawn and hanging out in the Adirondack chairs by 5. If you miss that first seating, you might not get in until 8 or 9.

When I first came, I was skeptical. Irish food is not my favorite. Turns out that it’s really just a great farm to table place with nods to Ireland via their warm soda bread, Shepherd’s Pie and a handsome list of Irish whiskeys. But, in a wonderful twist, the Shepherd’s Pie is vegetarian, packed with meaty morels (pictured here). Besides that, there are just a handful of other offerings, usually a flat iron steak, a pork chop, a fish dish, a cheese plate, Penn Cove mussels in green curry and a few seasonal salads and soups.

The Carlton Farms chop was served with a sweet/sour huckleberry sauce this year – and a side of wild rice and cabbage. The soup was a curried lentil – vegan though wonderfully lush and bright yellow like the sun beaming down on us on the front porch -- that even my six-year-old daughter couldn’t resist. Likewise, you’ll find only a few desserts; we always get the Coconut Trifle. The dense layers of cake and spoonfuls of coconut cream-- a tad tangy and barely sweet--is by far one of the best coconut desserts I’ve ever had (and coconut desserts are among my favorite).

As great as the meal was though, I was most smitten with a drink they call “The Plunkett” (pictured here): Fresh muddled oranges, Irish whiskey and Ginger Ale on the rocks. I made it within moments after our five-hour trip home on Monday night. Talk about a simple summer drink that’ll go down shockingly (and perhaps dangerously) easy….

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