DUNSMUIR, Calif. — The day begins with coffee for me and tea for my wife at a sweet little bakery-cafe in the hip Pearl District of Portland, Ore. We’re getting ready to leave a city we love on the return leg of a late winter road trip that started a week before in San Francisco. It promises to be a long day behind the wheel. While the drive north had been enlivened by a circuit of California’s spectacular Clear Lake, the direct route we are taking back offers little in the way of breathtaking vistas. The plan is to make straight for the northern California town of Mount Shasta, in hopes of arriving by suppertime.
The bakery crew pack lunch for us: roast turkey sandwiches made with thick slabs of chewy, whole grain bread. Delicious, but by 11 a.m. already in the annals of sandwich history. We snack on clementines and bottled water as the road and afternoon roll by. By 6 p.m. thoughts of supper are beginning to take firm shape. Worst case, we’re no more than an hour away from the day’s first glass of wine.
Our inn proves devilishly tricky to find, then is dreary and unwelcoming. When no one has a supper suggestion that sounds remotely appetizing, we consult a map. Noting that a town called Weed lies just north of us, we head . . . due south to Dunsmuir, a sad-faced little town that appears closed up pretty tight for such an early hour. Two restaurants seem possible. One is shut for vacation. The other, Sengthong’s, is so dark we have to wonder if it, too, is closed. It turns out to be our biggest restaurant surprise ever.
The unlikely cuisine in this unlikely spot is Laotian-Thai-Vietnamese. We get a long, interesting story from the pony-tailed waiter about the genesis of the place and later discover that the person in the kitchen cooking some of the best Asian food we’ve ever tasted is the man’s Laotian-born wife.
Vegetables are pristine; liberal clippings of fresh herbs make every plate sing. We rip into a delicately flavored soup, swoon over some heavenly pot stickers, then make short work of a memorable dish of pan-fried noodles. We drink cold beer instead of wine, and we don’t care.
We leave happy travelers, wondering what the hipster crew at the bakery would make of the place and if this is how caravaners feel when they hit the oasis.