There’s been a small concrete block building on Placer Street near downtown for well over 40 years. It housed Jan’s Frost Shop, run by a cheerful round man with stunningly hairy arms who called everyone sweetheart and dished up memorably greasy French fries and pastrami sandwiches. After Jan’s closed it morphed into Between The Buns – Femme de Joie doesn’t remember the state of the arms of the owners – Willie Dogs, Brick’s (now on Eureka Way), and possibly another place or two lost to the steamy fog of memory.
Wilda’s Grill opened nearly two years ago in that little building. There’s no Wilda behind the counter; owners Bret & Dayna Speers (former owners of nearby Carnegie’s) bought the Wilda’s Mustard name & recipe from the eponymous creator (who made and sold it at the Ono Store some 30 years ago). Downtown Redding is chockablock with offices but surprisingly underserved for fast, inexpensive lunches, so Wilda’s quickly filled a longtime need. Extravagantly popular since their opening, they only serve lunch five days a week.
Buddha bowl, $6.00
If the photo seems blurry, it was because M. de Joie was attempting to wrest the Buddha Bowl from Amico Del Signore’s grip in a hurry before it was completely obliterated. If Wilda’s has a signature dish, it would be this creative Asian-inspired combo. On a base of brown rice and red beans is piled deliciously spicy tofu or chicken, shredded cabbage, slices of avocado, cilantro, Jalapenos, garlic chili sauce and a sesame-flavored dressing. We lifted the Chinese take-out carton it’s served in and estimated the weight at around 1.5 to 2 pounds, so it makes complete sense to serve it in a to-go box. Unfortunately, that also is a terribly awkward way to eat it, as the greens on top never get a chance to be amalgamated with the rice and beans underneath. A nearby diner solved the problem by ordering it to be served in a basket on a paper liner, which would also make an ideal way to share it with one or more additional diners. If Wilda’s asked how the Buddha bowl could be improved – which they haven’t, but if they did – black beans would be a better choice than red. Otherwise this is a wonderful lunch and can be made vegan easily.
Sweet potato fries, $3.00
There are only three sides available, and sweet potato fries are one of them. Non-greasy and nicely crispy, they’re not made in-house and are served with what was described by the server as garlic aioli, but which tasted like plain Best Foods to us.
Falafel sandwich, $6.00
Falafels are deep-fried patties or balls made from ground chickpeas (garbanzos). You can’t see them here under the toppings, but they were indeed there, wrapped in soft naan, drizzled with cucumber dressing, providing a nice nutty crunch under the cole slaw-like toppings. Deceptively light, this turned out to be quite a filling sandwich with subtle Middle Eastern flavors.
Roasted garlic dog, $5.25
When the garlic dog was delivered, it looked like the BBQ dog or the chili cheese dog. Reassured that this was the item we ordered, we took a couple of bites and wondered, where’s the garlic? This was a case of too much stuff and too many competing flavors. Soft sweet roasted garlic was unrecognizable and untasteable under an avalanche of grilled balsamic red pepper & onions, blue cheese (also nearly obliterated) and what the menu says is garlic-Parmesan aioli. There was so much goop that the bun quickly became soggy and squishy. The grilled mixture tasted more like sour wine than balsamic vinegar – not a great companion for the other toppings. If we had to order this again we’d ask for the red peppers and onions to be left off.
Blue cheese and bacon salad, $5.25
Femme de Joie understands why restaurants love iceberg lettuce: cases of it arrive in good shape without wilting, it’s cheap, it keeps very well, it can be cut without bruising the leaves, and it takes up room on a plate that would otherwise have to be filled with spendy temperamental leaf lettuces. There’s a restaurant mania for iceberg wedge salads – a hunk of iceberg lettuce coated with blue cheese dressing. Every time she tries one of those M. de Joie thinks, “This would be a great salad with decent lettuce.” She thought that again as she tried this salad. Good blue cheese, fresh sweet red onions and tomatoes, bacon crumbles – on a mesclun mix or spinach, this would be great. As it is, it’s good toppings trying to disguise the bland watery crunch underneath. It was undistinguished. Fans of iceberg lettuce may love it.
Hot pastrami sandwich, $5.95
While this pastrami sandwich didn’t match M. de Joie’s memories of Jan’s Frost Shop’s pastrami, nevertheless it was quite good, with plenty of pastrami under sweetly sauteed onions with Wilda’s mustard, pepperoncinis and jack cheese. Sometimes cured meats like pastrami are overly salty but these thin slices were mild and lean. It would have been nice to have a pickle spear alongside.
While not every menu item was indisputably wonderful, there are plenty of office workers nearby who love Wilda’s. We arrived for each visit either before or just after their 11 AM opening time and were amazed to see the tiny dining room packed with 15 or more hungry patrons within just a few minutes. Large portions and dirt cheap prices as well as a super-efficient system of getting orders out fast certainly contribute to its popularity. We’d visit it again for the Buddha bowl and to try the eggplant sandwich. If you’re parked downtown already on a weekday, walk over to give it a try and maybe pick up a jar of mustard ($3.99).
Wilda’s Grill, 1718 Placer Street (between Court and Oregon), Redding, CA 96001. 530-246-3502. Open Monday-Friday, 11:00 AM – 4:00 PM. Closed weekends. No alcohol. Cards, cash. Vegan and vegetarian options. Gluten-free bread available. Outdoor seating; small indoor dining room. The world’s smallest parking lot: better to park on Yuba or Oregon Street and walk. Follow Wilda’s Grill on Facebook.