the strawhouse grows up | edible shasta-butte
By Nora Mounce
Seventeen years ago, when Don and Julia Ellis set out to create an agro-tourism destination on the Trinity River, they never imagined tossing pizzas and roasting coffee in a house made of straw. Now Don, head pizza chef and chief roaster, wouldn’t want it any other way. The Strawhouse Café & Resorts is perched just off Highway 299 in Big Flat, California, a hitching post sized town halfway between Redding and the Pacific coast. The scenic highway hugs the bubbling whitewater and blue-green pools of the Trinity River as it rushes west. Nearly every year, winter storms send massive boulders bouncing down the mountainside, resulting in frequent road closures and long delays. After an onslaught of rain last winter, the highway was closed, incredibly enough, for two long months. In this wild and mountainous country, even on an average year, the challenge in accessing fresh and organic foods is huge. Against all odds, the Strawhouse Café has been weathering the storm for seventeen years.
“We wanted to farm. We wanted to be truly self-sustainable,” says Don, reflecting on the dreams that led them to Big Flat. After selling most their possessions, the Ellises bought a truck and headed north, leaving behind a successful upholstery restoration business in Orange County. Motivated by their faith, Don and Julia ended up in Trinity County, purchasing fifteen acres on the Trinity River, across from the Strawhouse’s current location. After toying with the idea of planting a vineyard, Don and Julia soon saw the need for healthy dining outposts on the well-traveled highway. The Ellises opened the Strawhouse Café in 2000– and no one lined up at the door.
“We were an accident you came upon and wondered if you should try,” remembers Don with a laugh.
The Strawhouse’s early days of accidental customers are a distant memory. Though little has changed amongst the small mountain towns dotting the Trinity, the entrance of the Strawhouse is a revolving door. Open year round, seven days a week, the reasonably priced café caters to locals, tourists, backpackers, bikers, and rafters. Every Friday night and weekends during the summer, the Ellises stoke the wood-fired oven by the patio and offer a special pizza menu. Guests of the resort make the pilgrimage to the Strawhouse annually for family reunions, church revivals, and rafting trips. Over the years, Don and Julia have steadily added a variety of lodging options to the resort. Today, the Strawhouse’s accommodations offer everything from budget units, appealing to ever-present Caltrans workers, to a 30’ yurt, complete with bamboo floors, a clawfoot tub, and lofted queen bed.
Inside the small, casual café, guests sit chatting at the large community table or head to the counter to order coffee and lunch. The entire cavernous room is decorated with a tasteful selection of local art, largely inspired by the rugged beauty of Trinity County. On one hot summer day, on the patio, a breeze blows upriver, and diners gain a sweeping view of the Trinity River. Families lunch outside under cooling misters, while travelers order organic espresso drinks to fuel the remainder of their trip. An inflatable raft loaded with smiling faces and orange life vests, paddles by shouting, “Hello, Strawhouse!”
The green menu options at the Straw House are influenced by the philosophy that food is medicine, fitting for the Ellises, who are both lifelong vegetarians. Though a hard note to hit in the restaurant business, the Ellises have managed to develop a small, operable menu that caters to classic tastes and health-conscious appetites. Breakfast options consist of bagel sandwiches topped with a variety of eggs, cheese, bacon, and pesto, along with quiche and a selection of green smoothies. For lunch, people love the large entrée salads topped with grilled chicken or steak, but nothing is more popular than the Strawhouse’s signature Spicy Tri-Tip Sandwich. Stacked high with marinated tri-tip, roasted red peppers, provolone cheese and a chipotle sauce on ciabatta, the sandwiches fly out the door on busy summer days. On the leaner side, The Super Green Salad features everything green you can imagine, including mixed greens, kale, arugula, spinach, avocado, and cucumber, served with sprouted grain bread. All of the Strawhouse’s breads are made in-house from scratch, including their famous cinnamon rolls and whole-wheat pizza dough.
The Strawhouse might be best known for its wood-fired pizza. Every Friday night and weekends all summer long, the Strawhouse crew stokes the outdoor brick oven to a fiery 800 degrees. Strawhouse’s whole-wheat crust, house made sauces, and a creative menu of pies, served overlooking the tranquil Trinity River, make for an unforgettable pizza night. Locals love the Tri-Tip Pizza, topped with a red bell pepper sauce, cheese, tri-tip, mushrooms, and caramelized onions. Out-of-towners can’t resist the Sasquatch Special (maybe eating the pizza will help their chances of a sighting!), featuring a mythical combination of pesto, goat cheese, blueberries and rosemary. The Strawhouse depends on Country Organics, a bustling natural foods market in Redding, to keep them supplied with organic produce, olive oil, nut milks, and organic flours. Before the Ellises arrived in Trinity County, the straw bale construction home they now occupy had sat vacant and unfinished for eighteen years. After purchasing the unique property, Don took a weekend course on straw bale construction at the Solar Living Center in Hopland. A low-cost and readily available renewable resource, straw bale construction is a green alternative building method that reduces energy dependence in hot climates. Don and his architect finished the exterior of the building with a combination of cement, sand, and lime and a few coats of the Strawhouse’s signature bright yellow paint. As triple digit temperatures are routine for Trinity County summers, the well-insulated building has been ideal for minimizing air conditioning use. Continuing construction on the resort, the Ellises added a row of charming cottages along the river and across the highway in 2005. Occupancy has since increased from 20% to over 65%, with summers typically booked to maximum capacity.
When guests in the Adirondack chairs on the grassy meadow below the patio, the ambling Trinity and a wall of colorful flowers encircle them. In such a tranquil natural setting, the Strawhouse hosts several weddings each summer. Recently, Don and Julia have also enjoyed working with winemakers from Humboldt to Butte counties, hosting special dinners on the patio.
“We want to give people more reasons to be here,” says Don, acknowledging the many hurdles their rural location has raised over the years.
If not for the beauty of the river, the eco-conscious lodging or wood-fired pizzas, people visit the Strawhouse for the coffee. In step with the Ellises’ commitment to quality and sustainable agriculture, Don began roasting coffee during the Strawhouse’s second year in business. After tasting what was available, the Ellises had decided that to serve superior tasting, organic coffee, they’d have to make it themselves. Don, whose personal philosophy is, “I can learn how to do that,” drove all the way to Sandpoint, Idaho, for a two-day crash course in roasting. He purchased a Diedrich IR-7, a gleaming, retro-red industrial roaster. Still at it fifteen years later, the Strawhouse buys organic, fair-trade, shade-grown beans directly from growers whenever possible, though these trademarks are often too expensive for small Central American coffee farms. By roasting his own beans, Don is able to understand their source and quality, guaranteeing his customers a delicious and sustainable brew. In addition to being served at the café, bags of Strawhouse coffee are available at small markets and natural foods store from Weaverville to Redding.
“The good news is that people who are just discovering how to eat good food can already eat healthy here,” says Don, reflecting on the Strawhouse’s role in Trinity County’s food culture.
Through Don and Julia’s dedication and passion for eating well and living sustainably, the Strawhouse Café & Resorts has become a charming and emblematic destination on Highway 299. As word of mouth about Trinity County hospitality, the craft coffee and delicious, organic cuisine spreads down river, many people make reservations for dinner,and stay the night at the Strawhouse Café & Resorts. Be warned, there’s no cell service in Big Flat—we promise, you won’t miss it.