Whenever I drive between Weed and Mt Shasta (the town) along I-5 in northern California, my breath is taken away by the spectacular beauty of Mt Shasta (the mountain) looming to the east. For some odd reason, I had always assumed that Mount Shasta was a national park. Conversely, I never before thought that Mount Lassen was, which we had just visited. Maybe the majesty of Shasta gave me the impression that it should be an important charge of the National Park Service. Some research revealed that there had been several attempts to get Congress to confer park status as far back as 1912, but all have so far failed. Ironically, though there were resolutions in the House for both in 1914, Mount Lassen drew attention away from Shasta when it erupted that very year and all effort was expended by Congress to make Lassen a national park. It seems that there is nothing unique about Shasta and its surrounding area that other established parks already showcase, so the argument goes. So for now, Shasta has to content itself with being a National Natural Landmark, which is equivalent in a beauty contest to getting the “most inspirational” award.
There are many a Black Bear Diner on the West Coast, 59 and counting. Truthfully, we had never heard of the chain before until we were here in Mt Shasta. And, as it turned out, this is where it all started. There is nothing to suggest a franchise except for the sign outside (above) and the menu printed on the inside pages of what looked like an informational newspaper (for mass distribution?). There are also more than the usual number of diner-labeled gift items in a small alcove which implies there might be other outlets. Otherwise, the interior has the look of a local diner or coffee shop.
The waitress told us that their chicken fried steak (☆☆☆) is a customer favorite, so that settled it for us. It was quite possibly the best I’ve had though it must be said the dish is not a usual breakfast choice for me. The steak was wonderfully tenderized and the breading nicely seasoned, crunchy and not in the least greasy. The gravy, which has never impressed me wherever I’ve had it, was adequate enough. Black Bear Diner encourages customer choice, so we opted for country red potatoes and poached eggs, both good.
The breakfast menu invites return visits. We won’t have to travel to Mt. Shasta for that, because there is one in Federal Way.
A whimsical touch to the diner’s ambience are the wood bears carved out of Washington red cedar.
VIA magazine pointed us to a gem of a diner, Nancy’s Airport Cafe, in Willows, and also highly recommended the The Goat Tavern in Mt Shasta, 150 miles north. According to the article’s writer, a food critic for San Francisco magazine, “I found spiritual uplift less than a mile off the highway in a juicy burger.” These endorsements were part of an article about the great finds along I-5 between Sacramento and Portland. My wife and I stopped in Mt Shasta for the night because we wanted to visit the namesake mountain on the following day.
The tavern is a local watering hole, sort of an oddity in a town known more for its New Age commercial district of crystal shops, yoga studios, alternative bookstores, and the like. Entry was confusing, not through what looked like the front door on the corner of Mt Shasta Blvd and Chestnut Street, but rather on the side of the building through an outdoor eating area. The place was dark on the inside with customers standing along the bar that had several beers on tap. A picture of the Mona Lisa was on the side. The atmosphere was convivial, loud and laid back. I ordered the aforementioned burger with cheese and fried onions rings, my wife the fish tacos. As it turned out, my sandwich was a full half-pound Angus cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, red onions and basil mayo. I knew from the beginning that I wasn’t going to finish it.
To my disappointment, the burger (☆☆½) was not the transcendent experience that the food critic had, but rather just a good enough one. The patty was lean and therefore a little dense, the bun a tad dry. The onion rings were great, coated in a fine crispy batter.
The grilled fish in the tacos (☆☆½) seemed a bit past its prime with a slight fishiness that announced it wasn’t absolutely fresh. Otherwise they too were tasty enough with seasoned cabbage and guacamole.
On the ceiling were mounts for all the draft beer handles, which the bartender could unscrew as needed to use when the beer selection changes. Nice touch.