Monday, August 30, 2010

Waffle House

Sunday August 29th 2010
Waffle House, White Bridge Rd and White Bridge Pl, Nashville, TN

Late 90's, I’m twelve maybe thirteen years old, soaring down the interstate in the back seat of my parents Toyota counting South of the Border signs, in the good old American south for the first time on our way to visit family in Florida. And shortly after our entry into that state, in its humid vegetation heavy north, I was struck with the sudden urgency to urinate. Not taking my shyness and awkward social hesitations into account, my parents pull up to a Waffle House and tell me to run in. I’d seen the signs before, in fact they plagued me like a stalker taking the “remain at a fifty foot distance” part of their restraining order far to literally, their black and yellow logo like an evil bumble bee lurking on every exits food sign. My shoe clapped up a cloud of dust as I stepped out of the car, I was in a vacant wasteland save for the explosion of subtropical plant growth and the occasional passing of a dented pick up truck. Had it not been for the pressing need to relieve myself, a call which would not go unanswered, there is simply no way I’d have crossed through those doors. Desperate times.
I knew it couldn’t go well, but there was nothing that would have prepared me for a reality this harsh. Timidly, I eased my body through a narrow crack in the doorway. My mind was simultaneously consumed with getting to the bathroom as fast as possible and remaining undetected by the staff and customers, I saw no reason why both couldn’t be accomplished if I kept my focus. The problem is, I didn’t, letting the door slam behind me, causing a chain reaction of heads turning in my direction and their eyes laying upon me. Heads and eyes which combined with stubbly facial hair, teeth suffering from years of neglect, skin tainted by a lifetime of smoke exposure, thin scraggly strands of hair escaping from a tightly affixed ball cap, and stares as blank as a page, formed the faces of more motley a cast than any movie could ever wish to portray. Flies buzzed about in rhythm with the faint country twang emanating from their dust laden jukebox. All were silent. I found myself in the lair of a species I’d never known to exist. They ain’t got no Waffle House in Rhode Island.
It was certainly a scarring experience, but as the years passed and I began to venture into the south as an adult, it didn’t take too long for me to figure out that Waffle House was pretty much the cheapest place around to get something to eat, and although I would dwell on that extraterrestrial experience I had that day with a fear I couldn’t shake, I again crossed through those doors with every ounce of bravery I had, and in time got used to it. I’d never seen any southern fried freaks that bad before, but I’ve seen worse since.
As breakfasts that blurred the line between early and late became a more common occurrence in my travels, Waffle House became associated with being away from home. If I was at a Waffle House I was somewhere else. Because why, in your city of residence, with access to a kitchen, and/or knowledge of a better place to eat, would you go to Waffle House? Not for a cup of Bert’s Chili of course. Or for a plate of scattered, smothered, covered, topped, and capped hash browns. These were novelties that one ate in absence of another eating choice, b- for sustenance, and a- for traveling traditions sake. Yet now, in a turn of events that could never have been foreseen or believed by my youthful post initial Waffle House experience mind, I live (according to Google Maps) 0.7 miles from one. I drive by it EVERY DAY, and it reminds me of where I am. “It would feel so weird going there.”, I said aloud the other day, and of course less than a week later, it happened.
Some of us at least were anticipating the arrival of one Scott Otis, fellow Rhode Islander, and professional antic enactor. Who wasted no time, getting right down to business, folding his leg in half on a tire swing nine hours into his one week stay, breaking it so bad that the severed bone became exposed, overlapping the skin in which it should have been incased, ending up like this.

Pure gore. The rest of us chatted about it uncontrollably after the paramedics took him away, tied to a stretcher, pleasantly distant on morphine, and broke our topic of conversation only for one brief moment; to decide to go to Waffle House. It was 4:30 AM, we’d been up all day, but when you get a glimpse at your friends protruding and shattered bone, the necessity of sleep escapes you. So the four of us headed on over, our thoughts in other places, the image of Scotts misshapen leg stuck in our brains like the screen saver on a frozen computer, and ordered our food.
Most of these things dawned on me afterwards, as I wasn’t exactly clear headed or I wouldn’t have been there in the first place, but their staff presence was much higher than it should have been for the hour it was, I mean I know the elderly do some weird things, but 4:30? There were about ten people working. And then when John Adams tried to order, “I’ll have the two eggs with sausage...”, he was cut off by our waitress.
“We’re out of sausage. Actually, we’re out of sausage, bacon, ham, and t-bones.” The fact that a breakfast restaurant would be out of all their breakfast meats is totally absurd, not to mention awful for business, and when Adams was either about to say it was ok, or start freaking out, Val burst into a fit of tears triggered by the mention of being “out of t-bones”, because we knew all too well about that didn’t we. As you may expect this took our waitress by surprise. “Did I say something?”, she shrieked with concern, jumping a few feet back with her hand to her chest. We explained to her that yes in fact she had, composure was regained, and the ordering process completed.

I basically get the same thing every time I come here; two eggs scrambled with cheese, hash browns ‘covered’ with cheese and then loaded up with ketchup, some pieces of overly margarined white bread toast, and several cups of watered down black coffee. I know, its disgusting, but what are you supposed to do? It all goes down real easy, heavily lubricated with liquid grease, and the flavors although varied all end up tasting pretty much the same, gelling together into one indifferent mash. Classic diner mediocrity (see my entry: Richmond Diner).
Far from satisfied, far from pleased, we sailed away from the Waffle House in Old Vanny, away into the streets, shielding our eyes from the burn of the morning sun. We found out later from a friend who attempted to dine at that same Waffle House only hours before that they had just been hit with a ‘50' health score! Betty’s Bar and Grill, not a filthy place, but described as clean by no one, has a ‘93'! This explained the high staff presence, all cleaning odd corners of the restaurant, and their lack of breakfast meats, as they had a one day grace period to get it back up to respectable operating standards. I suspect they did nothing to notify us of this situation, but it’s possible we were just too out of it to notice, I mean there really wasn’t anyone else in there now that I think of it.
The real question though, is was it as weird as I thought it would be, dining at a Waffle House and taking the 2 minute trip back home? Had I done so at 7PM after a day of clean living, I could only imagine myself feeling stumped and perplexed at the rapid degradation of my mind which allowed me to do such a thing. After a long night ending in a major injury and hospitalization, its no surprise we ended up there, there wasn’t even debate about it, we all naturally came to the conclusion that’s where we’d go to at least make an attempt at getting back to normal. Sleep came on strong after my short journey home, and although it was only days ago it seems as far away as my first visit. So to answer my question, no, it wasn’t that weird, it wasn’t the space time continuum shattering event I expected, Waffle House has changed for me since my first trip, and looks like it will continue to from now on.

El Tapatio

Saturday August 28th 2010
El Tapatio, 4801 Nolensville, Nashville, TN

I thought I was there. I thought for sure I was ready. My first time with tongue was at the infamous Midnight Tacos in Los Angeles, I tried a bite of my friends burrito lengua just for the experience, so I’d know what it was all about, and was taken aback by the pleasant relatively normal flavor and texture it had. Not at all what I’d expected. That was a few years back. Last week we find ourselves in the Salvation Army parking lot on Nolensville, fully expecting a visit to the store, and instead we got distracted by a small taco truck that also shared the lot, and ordered some food. To refresh my memory, to give it another shot, I got a tongue taco, and as expected I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m not exactly sure how it was prepared, possibly fried, but it tasted amazing, and I found myself wishing that I’d manned up and gotten a whole tongue quesadilla, cursing my pork choice, longing for more of that succulent tongue taste. That’s what had me convinced it was my newly discovered love.
El Tapatio on Nolensville came recommended from this really weird spaced out psychedelic dude who was hanging out at Crom’s house one night telling a story about how shocked and blown away he was when a thickly southern accented waiter and owner of a diner he visited told him he could “go out back and smoke on my deck if you’d like”, until he finally realized what the guy was actually saying. It was a nice place inside, bright, spacious, weird Mexican paintings and old movies playing on the television. We were served a complimentary bowl of extra chunky guacamole and freshly made tortilla chips, warm to the touch, lightly salted, delicious. And I knew exactly what I wanted to order, tongue quesadilla.

My future disappointment should be prefaced with the knowledge that the night before there were some friends in town, we stayed up late partying, and the three or so hours I’d been awake so far, the only thing I’d managed to work into my already sensitive stomach were two large glasses of black iced coffee. It was a gastrointestinal meltdown that could have benefitted from many other things before it could have benefitted from this, this entire buffet on a plate, this six person gut busting party platter of beans, rice, peppers, pico de gallo, radishes, chips, guacamole, and lest we forget the tortilla plentifully stuffed with cheese and tongue.

Actually I believe that this would probably be a more authentic way of preparing tongue, again I have no idea how they prepared it, but it was much more tender and juicier than the other I’d had which had an outer crunch to it. It’s flavor was much stronger as well, conjuring up non-existent memories of having my face bathed by a cow. Where as the tongue in last weeks taco had a pretty nondescript appearance, it could have been anything, and maybe it was something else, this was unmistakably tongue, chopped up into cubes, taste buds looking up at you, layers of muscle tissue visible in the cross section. I got through a quarter of it before I asked myself, “wait a minute, do I like this?”, and the answer was no, I didn’t. I finished another quarter out of personal obligation and waste concern before I had to throw in the towel. “At least Scott Otis is coming into town tonight, he’ll finish these.” we said as the large remaining portion was scraped into a styrofoam box.
Really, I was sad, because I thought tongue was maybe my new thing. I could make a tongue pizza, learn how to cook it myself, there were all these exciting prospects that suddenly got shut down when after eating the same tongue a proud Mexican would enjoy, I felt disgust and shame. I thought back on it, “was it just my fragile stomach, sore from a tag team beat down courtesy of coffee and beer?”, and honestly I didn’t think so, it didn’t help, but unfortunately I don’t care for authentically prepared tongue. I will however return to El Tapatio for another selection, it seemed like quite the nice place. No hard feelings.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Miss Saigon

Thursday August 19th 2010
Miss Saigon, K & S Plaza, Charlotte Pike, Nashville, TN

Here in this shopping center on Charlotte Ave, a rivalry exists. For where stands authentic Vietnamese restaurant Kien Giang, also stands authentic Vietnamese restaurant Miss Saigon, shooting each other evil eye glances across the parking lot until the day one ceases to function. Having tried Kien Giang, experiencing varying degrees of success and failure, we thought it only fair and in our best interest to give Miss Saigon a shot as well to see what we were missing out on.
What we found upon entry was an empty restaurant save for one table of two college nerds discussing their thesis papers and social tribulations. I know this because despite having literally every other table in the restaurant (of no modest size) to choose from, we were sat directly next to them. I know they like to keep people in specific sections for convenience sake and to avoid confusion, but it would have been very hard for us to get swallowed up by the crowd and forgotten in this case.

We ordered one BBQ pork Bahn Mi sandwich and a bowl of Pho each. The sandwich was of a different style than any Vietnamese Bahn Mi I’ve ever had, the bread wasn’t the typical crunchy French baguette I was used to, instead it was served on a light brown roll, much softer, with the appearance of Portugese sweet bread. For no good reason, I didn’t want to like this place, and seeing the sandwich the way it was, so different and all, made me think I didn’t. Until I bit in. My prejudicial feelings had to be put to the side, it was good, quite good, no need to discriminate based on bread choice in this case. I mean bread is one of the most important ingredients in a sandwich, possibly thee most important, and they took a real risk straying away from the tried and true, but they pulled it off goddamn it.
Then came the Pho. Still harboring some skepticism towards Nashville Pho, I proceeded slowly, guiding the ladle of broth to my lips with a tractor beam of cooling breath, bracing myself for the possibility of complete repulsion and involuntary retching brought on by an inferior craftsmanship. Unnecessary! Based on first taste alone I would rate their broth better than Kien Giang, and better than I expected. My issue however, was that I got totally skimped on the meat. The struggle of breaking my Pho Ga (chicken) routine was easy, they left me no other choice because it wasn’t served here, so I went with the rare steak Pho, where the meats supposed to cook in the broth. Not only were there very few pieces, but it also wasn’t that rare, and it was like 1 or 2 more dollars than Kien Giang.

If you want to get into a real debate about it, a real head to head, Miss Saigon is quieter than Kien Giang, as in stark silence, where as the inane babble of joke game shows will plague you at Kien Giang, really it’s a matter of mood and opinion. Based on my one visit (which granted might not be so fair) Miss Saigon has a tastier broth than Kien Giang, but Kien Giang offers you more food for less money, and they’ve got cheaper beers. It’s a tough call really, and I was going to say I couldn’t make up my mind, but then I asked myself: if I awoke standing in the center of the parking lot, ten bucks in my hand, starving and confused, head darting back and forth between the two eateries, equidistant to both, which would I run to? And I couldn’t even say it out loud, but I had a vision where I ran with arms outstretched, the facade of Kien Giang coming closer and closer. There you have it.
As I stood at the front counter waiting for my change, I reached into a complimentary bowl of fortune cookies. “I’ll grab two.”, I thought to myself, “One for me, one for the lady.” It came as surprise that they came two to a pack, but I got over it quick and started my walk outside. My second surprise came when I saw how little effort I had to put into opening this dual cookie package, it was energy efficient, sliding open with a mere stroke of my hand. The way I like to eat a fortune cookie is by cracking it in half, removing the receipt, and going for it, so my third shocker came when the cookie, stubborn as it was, refused to break like all its siblings I’ve known throughout the years, and instead flexed with an impressive elasticity. Against my best judgement, I decided to chow down, exposing myself to a sour and chalky, yet gum like dough, toxifying my mouth, ruining the lingering taste of the meal I had up until now enjoyed. So my advice is to try the place out, but give the cookies a squeeze test before you accept.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Gerst Haus

Saturday August 14th 2010
Gerst Haus, Interstate Dr and James Roberton Pkwy, Nashville, TN

The Melrose Billiards was an establishment I would frequent from time to time for use of their shuffleboard table kept in the molding game room towards the back. Usually just one beer would be purchased from the un-enthused, un-conversational, frowny faced bartender, who although he must have noticed, cared not in the least about the rest of the beers we snuck in via backpack through the back door. Inconsiderate times. The one purchase I would make to justify my time on the shuff table would be a Gerst. A strange beer with a strange name, who’s origins always escaped us until, while circling around the stadium area downtown one day in attempt to free our incarcerated friend, we noticed the Gerst Haus. A German sausage house ripped from its Deutschland soil and deposited near the interstate in Nashville, TN.
Crom spoke wonders of their schnitzels, wursts, krauts, dense potato based sides, and live polka band, all of which he took in on his birthday while I was living out of town. With my birthday only days away, and Rat Bastard rambling on about RV’s in my kitchen fresh off a red eye from Miami, the Gerst Haus seemed like a good place for a mid afternoon celebratory detour. Old Vanny made the rounds, picking up the crew from their various living quarters in West Nashville, until at nearly full capacity she whisked us onto the interstate and took us to the Gerst Haus’s general vicinity.
Although my only time spent in Germany was in an airport shuttle driving from Nuremberg to Munich after our plane was diverted due to foggy landing conditions, the Gerst Haus seemed authentically German in comparison to my hour and a half journey. It was pretty dimly lit inside, outside light refracted off stained glass panes that decorated the top of the windows. Everyone needed extra deliberation time on the menu, it was expansive and expensive, we all ended up spending like $20!?! We sipped these “fishbowls” of Warsteiner while we waited, but some went for the Gerst.

I absolutely love Bratwurst, but I wanted to try something new and ended up siding with the Knackwurst dinner. Two full Knackwurst sausage links, made of a beef and pork combination, with sides of Spaetzle and Sauerkraut, and two pieces of rye toast. The Spaetzle I was told was a potato dish, and I believed it while eating it, it was reminiscent of a Gnocchi, and had the texture of some type of curds. In reality I guess it’s a heavy blob shapen egg noodle, which they topped with a brown gravy. I mixed it all together with some of the horseradish and beer mustard, heavy but excellent.
The Knackwursts were encased in a tight skin with a juicy pale meat mash inside. Honestly they were just okay. Maybe I’m not a Knackwurst guy, but I think it’s more likely that the Gerst Haus doesn’t have the best ones. Especially after trading a piece for some of Crom’s Bratwurst, I realized how grave a mistake I had made. The Brat was amazing, soft and crumbling beautifully flavored meats, prepared without flaw. Whereas the Knackwurst had a tougher outside that didn’t rip uniformly, appearance and taste wise resembling a pre cooked Kielbasa you’d find in the grocery store. It’s not like I didn’t eat it or anything! I dug into those puppies, mixing each bite up with a bite of rye and what I thought was a heaping helping of Kraut, until once the sausages were about done I realized my Kraut bowl was still pretty much full. I’d eaten a lot of it. I don’t know what they expect you to do with that much Kraut. I tried a few spoonfuls of it straight, but something was missing, what was it? Oh yeah, anything else.

We attempted to wrap up the occasion, but Rat insisted on ordering some fresh pretzels, foolishly declining his side of beer cheese. “I don’t need any beer cheese.”, he said. ???. And so the rest of us reclined with hands on stomachs, breathing a little heavier, spectating upon the dual pretzel post Bratwurst dinner and fishbowl consumption, which furthered our feelings of over satiation.
The ride back wasn’t as chatty, and when we got back home Rat instantly laid down on the carpet with his guitar case as a pillow and launched into a helicopter snore. The gravitational pull of my bed was irresistible, and under its trance, I was sucked in, waking up three hours later, having to re-reorient myself to the day.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fattoush Cafe

Monday August 9th 2010
Fattoush Café, 18th and Charlotte, Nashville, TN

Back when I first lived in Nashville, I discovered this place after a particularly busy afternoon spent doing $12 psychology experiments at my home away from home, Wilson Hall, on the Vanderbilt campus. Not feeling as sharp as I’d normally like to, after staring at the computer pressing the Z and M buttons in rapid succession for three hours, I took a couple wrong turns on my way back home and ended up a little further down Charlotte than usual, right in front of the Fattoush Café. Loaded with $36 of that funny study money, needing a mental re-set, and genuinely loving Mediterranean food, I checked the place out. A renovation was underway. Protective plastic sheeting hung all around the dining room, shielding us from the drywall dust and paint fumes that lurked beyond. The floor had been completely destroyed. Almost no one else was around. I liked it that way, and made it a regular stop on the way home from the psych experiments, having a $5 gyro in peace, and enjoying the positive antics of the owner/cook who was always exceptionally friendly, and insisted that you don’t take your food to go, hoping someone would walk by, see me, and realize it was ok to eat in there.
Almost two years later, things are different. Renovations are complete, they’ve got palm trees, beaded curtains with palm trees on them, a nice slick floor, a new paint job. And not for nothing, it seems to me to be quite a popular place these days, there were all kinds of people in there, enjoying themselves.
The owner guy, who does a lot to keep himself busy, is a real character, and apparently a sly fox with the ladies. I sat at a table off to the side after ordering, just looking around the room passing time. A couple of women, business professionals, finished their lunch, and while one went to the back to throw their trash away, the other stood by the door.
“Thank you so much.”, the owner said to her.
“Oh, thank you. It was great!”, she told him.
By this point, her friend was halfway across the room, and it was then that she felt his gaze. It had to have been a strong stare, because she took a sudden notice to it, and jerked her head up, meeting eyes with the owner, who quite smoothly right in their interlocking moment said, “Bye bye beautiful.” And not in some friendly uncle kind of way, dude was serious. Just after they left a young blonde, likely a student, came in. He already knew her order, and instructed her to sit in the seat closest to the cash register. She had books all over the table and was feverishly writing notes down, she might have actually gotten some work done if it wasn’t for the dude interrupting her every minute or so, telling jokes, reading her papers, telling her how good the food was going to be.

Normally I got the Gyro here, which was always awesome, but this time I switched it up and went with the Beef Shawerma sandwich. Thin strips of beef, stuffed into a pita with some cucumber chunks, Tabouli, some sesame tzatziki sauce, and a bunch of small green leafy vegetable things, names unknown. One of the green vegetable things, or something in there, was extremely bitter, which I’ve had in falafel sandwiches before and tried to pick out, but I just let it go this time. And another ingredient had a very strong spice to it, not a hot spice, but a dominating flavor that rose to the top of everything else whenever you bit a piece. I couldn’t really tell everything that was in there, because the thing was so damn sloppy. I made the mistake of unwrapping the paper around it, and it just gave up, slumped over onto my tray spilling its contents everywhere like a drunken hobo who’s finally found a place to pass out. My plastic utensils and handful of napkins proved absolutely necessary. It was actually one of the most complexly flavored things I’ve eaten in a long time.
I don’t want to give the impression that the owner guy is a creep, he’s not, he checked on me to see how my meal was as well, and went out of his way, stopping what he was doing to say ‘thanks’ and ‘good bye’ when I got up to leave. He’s a good guy who wants people to feel comfortable in his restaurant and know that he appreciates their business. Which I do. It’s been nice seeing their transition from destitute construction site, to popular lunch time hang out.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Kien Giang

Thursday August 5th 2010
Kien Giang, K & S Plaza, Charlotte Pike, Nashville, TN

My introduction to it was not in Philadelphia, but it was there that I ventured into the world of Pho. Ventured so deep in fact that eventually it became what I would classify as a habit. Trips quickly became bi-weekly, indulging in peaceful silence over a spa in a bowl. A hot and therapeutic food, the edible equivalent of hitting the steam room after getting a back massage with one of those absurd mud masks on. Cleansing. If I’d ever gone as far as to complete any type of exercise routine, I’d expect a rewarding feeling to follow, a feeling identical to the one experienced post Pho completion. Pho Ha in South Philly really was almost the sole thing that made moving to Nashville sound like a bad idea. How could we abandon it? What would we do without it? Research was done into the availability and quality of Pho in Nashville before a serious decision was made.

Kien Giang is in an elevated Asian themed shopping center on Charlotte Ave, not too far from my house. Of course we didn’t know how far it was from our house at first, because we ate there pretty much upon arrival in town, before a house had been secured. They call it prioritizing. With hopes set high, very high, I can only describe that visit as ‘sad’. I received a small bowl of Pho, truly small, not the cauldrons I was used to, with a murky broth, heavier flavors, overseasoned, and with skimpy portions. I’d had happier days. My desired feeling of elation was never achieved and continued to go unsatisfied for over one month, while my withdrawl symptoms grew in intensity, refusing to subsist.
A second chance was given. I ordered the large chicken Pho, a pair of vegetable spring rolls to share, and a Tiger Beer just to have some sort of consolation in the event I was again treated to a disappointment. I admired the decor: A wall mirror with a black outline of the New York City skyline, Twin Towers right in the center, with the dark silhouette of a Panther crossing in front of it all. Painfully visible bold numerals fastened to the walls next to each table, making it clear to everyone, the table numbering system they had put into place. And a television, broadcasting the show ‘Wipeout’.

After a slightly longer wait than expected (not to give them too hard a time, there was only one waiter after all), the Pho was finally delivered. Cautiously, apprehensively, I investigated the bowl. The chopsticks were sent in first for a quick probing of the contents. I brought the noodle nest up to the surface for closer inspection, shaking free a few trapped chunks of meat in the process. The portions looked alright, the broth was considerably clearer than before. Spoon in hand I went in for a taste, nervously expecting a salty, overly bouilloned liquid, begging for a re-heating. But then I found myself going back for a third taste, a fourth, until I was sucking down noodles and mixing in Sriracha just like I’d remembered. And the Tiger beer, what a treat. Beer and Pho is a combination I wasn’t used to with the liquor laws in Pennsylvania being so old fashioned and all, but if you think about it, it’s pretty obvious they’re going to go well together. The finer things usually do.
From what it looks like I’d caught them on an off day before. No one was really eating in there, the employees were all sitting around watching TV, the food sucked, and now it was pretty busy, the Pho was good. Now it ain’t no Pho Ha, but it’s an acceptable substitute that with time I’m sure I’ll learn to love just as much, but maybe in a different way.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Las Ricas Tortas

Tuesday August 3rd 2010
Las Ricas Tortas, 4930 Linbar Dr, Ste #2, Nashville, TN

Has anyone noticed a recurring theme as of late, where my meals are barely able to be enjoyed because someone keeps slipping me a mickey of shocking heat, inhibiting my focus, leaving my attention no other place to fall? Well, if you haven’t, I sure have, and its getting old I tell you, old.
We set out to find Las Ricas Tortas, a place that had come recommended by a few co-working acquaintance types, with little knowledge of its location except that it was somewhere behind a Hooters. There was a little trouble finding it, driving up and down the same stretch of road, never quite making it as far as needed until we figured we’d gone too far in the wrong direction. Eventually I had to admit defeat and seek guidance from the technology possessed by the modern cell phone, which led us straight to Hooters.
What lay behind it though was not as we’d hoped, a big Las Ricas Tortas sign, a clear view of the building. Instead we were set loose in a maze of vacant industrial parks and dreary apartment complexes pulling u-turns, donuts, figure eights.
Once located, there was a moment where we reconsidered, and tried to decide if we really should go in or not. I don’t know how either of us expected it to look, but definitely not like this. Its bright, brand new sign, spelled out in wacky lettering was a deterrent, it reminded me of a Smoothie King, or an El Pollo Loco, or some other B level chain. But we’d come all this way with this place in mind, so we went in.

It was while waiting for my food when I made my first mistake. A trio of El Yucateco hot sauces were over on the side of our table. I’ll never forget this brand, because the first time I tried it I’d mistaken it for a much milder hot sauce I’d had somewhere else and proceeded to drown my taco in it, fully realizing my mistake moments later. One of the bottles, a variety I hadn’t seen before, came with a warning; XXX EXTREMELY HOT was written right on the label. This was odd to me, because the other kind that was so unforgiving to me before came with no such warning. I guess curiosity got the best of me, and I just had to try half a spoonful of it to see if they were serious. The moment the sauce rolled off the spoon and laid upon my tongue, it hit me, of course they were serious. Why would they be kidding? Further examination of the bottle revealed the phrase “Original Mayan Recipe”. Be careful of this stuff, it’s out there.
A pastor con queso torta especialle is what I had. Tortas are something I rarely order, this was maybe only my second time having one. I figured since it was in the name of the business, it was the thing to have. It proved to be alright, a rather average sandwich roll filled with seasoned pork that had a nice crisp and chew to it, large chunks of frying cheese, and minced jalapenos. What exactly did it I’m not sure, but halfway through the thing, yet again, I was floating aimlessly on another plane of thought, the heat turning knobs in my brain that were meant to be left alone. Was it the El Yucateco Mayan recipe? That seemed like it had warn off with the aid of my large horchata a good minute or two before I had actually started eating. Was it the jalapenos? Or the seasonings in the pork? Or the containers of sauces I had helped myself to at the sauce bar? I couldn’t tell you for sure, but there I was again spending my cash (I won’t say hard earned, it was earned quite leisurely), on food that creates an invisible sauna-like force field around my body, impenetrable to assistance, that only weakens with the passing of time. Looks like that’s how it is for me these days.
Based on the recommendations we’d received I expected more than what we got, not to say that it was a bad place, just average. It being a good distance from my house and regular stomping grounds, I don’t see it being a regularly visited place, but if I happened to find myself stranded on the side of I-24 by the Harding Place exit, or applying for a job at the Hooters, or looking for some sketchy focus group office inside one of those industrial parks, I’d probably swing in for something to eat.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

International Market and Restaurant

Saturday July 31st 2010
International Market and Restaurant, Belmont and Bernard, Nashville, TN

The place appeared to be closed when we showed up. I tugged at the door several times, to no avail. I could even swear I heard the clicking of a locked deadbolt hitting the doors frame as I pulled. We peered into the windows, searched for a list of hours, when without warning the door was flung open from within by a small Asian woman who struggled to keep it from slamming closed against the pressure and suction created by their enclosed entryway. “Try harder next time.”, She told me. A good general tip.
In the back of the second room, partially hidden by stacked boxes and overstocked storage, is their cafeteria. To get to it you pass through two areas of dining tables, walls decorated with bedazzled rooster cutouts and Thai tchotchkes, intermingled with various shelves and coolers, making up the market half of the business. The cafeteria set up is quite typical, bringing back memories of school, hospitals, maybe jail for some. The major differences being quality and type of food, and pleasant, attentive, helpful service, the kind you just don’t find at the previously mentioned places.
Many options to choose from. Lots of colored slops, impaled chunks of meat, darkened noodles. I ended up going with the Pad Wan Sen (a dish of thin noodles, bean shreds, chicken, and egg), the green curry chicken (with which the server managed to sell me some white rice, claiming that I “might need it”), a curried vegetable egg roll, and to ease it all in there I mixed myself up an Arnold Palmer at the soda fountain.

The Pad Wan Sen was an impulse selection which ended up being good, a little sweet, but good. It’s just that after starting in on the curry it became more of a retreat, a relaxing vacation home on my plate, a place to get away from all the stress at the office. Rather than a tasty dish I enjoyed at my leisure, it was only an antidote, it’s where I sought refuge.
Green curry, hot on its own, had added to it bamboo shoots, chicken, and the overkill addition of an unidentified hot green pepper cut up into slices, floating around on the top. I instantly became very aware of the shape of the inside of my mouth, it became highlighted by the heat and began to feel like a separate entity. I was spice high, stuck in a tunnel vision trance, my mouth became the sun with the rest of my body and mind revolving around it.
This resulted in the immediate decimation of the Pad Wan Sen and the white rice, the rice my server had been so right in suggesting. Each tiny piece of it, each neutrally flavored absorbent white sponge was necessary to my cure. Bless that rice! By the time I’d moved on to the curried vegetable egg roll, I couldn’t tell if it was spicy or if I had just permanently permeated my taste buds that way.
How over sweetened the lemonade and iced teas were made the Arnold Palmer more like a carnival dessert, reminiscent of a melted slushy, than a refreshing drink, but cold liquid of any kind was just about the only thing I had on my mind when I came to terms with the fact that I wasn’t going to win this fight, and threw my gloves down with the curry bowl still a third full. A champion had been named and it certainly was not I. I sucked on left over ice cubes while I mixed up another foul drink at the counter, waiting for the cashier to stop screaming at someone in Thai in the back room so I could give her my 25 cents for the refill. I ended up just leaving it on the counter.
Did I enjoy myself here? Well, the place looks cool inside, its nice to hang out there, cafeteria dining is definitely a change of pace, I just cant help but think my American Yankee roots will need to be severed before something this spicy is a regular satisfying meal to me. Chicken fingers and grilled cheese were my meals of choice until my late teens, I kept it mild for a while, so what’s basically a soup of devastating seasonings does have its consequences.