The loveliest lunches — especially around the holidays — often happen in a completely ad hoc, uncontained, unplanned way. I had lunch the other day with my lifelong buddy, at what has become a holiday-week tradition (of 2 years standing) — at a Mexican restaurant in town.
Now, our expectations are about as high as a 3M stickie — it’s not a big hurdle for us to jump over. It’s mostly about us doing our usual shtick, the standard chiding, the ironic, iconic laughs over really cheap Mexican food. It is the way.
Now, with our expectations lowered appropriately, we drove down to the place. My friend and I ordered pork carnitas and some sort of beefsteak, in that order. Of course, the thing is, all Mexican restaurants have 100 things on the menu, but all it really is, once you think about, each are just a reorganization of standard items — you have your lettuces, your beans, your rice, your meat item. That’s about it.
Number 17 on the menu is only reliably different from Number 32, because they simply call it something else. It’s like the side room in Chinese restaurants that is never, ever used — the napkins stay the same, the tablecloths grow dust bunnies, but it would be Chinese apostasy to think of using it. We were just in for the cheap Mexican, we were delighted to be disappointed.
The measure of disappointment
They did not disappoint. They disappointed on an intergalactic scale, in the sense that Mia Farrow grew to understand the true nature of her in-laws in “Rosemary’s Baby.”
First, as we all know in finer dining, appearance and presentation are everything. My friend’s carnitas were a true visual delight. For well under $10, he was confronted by a plate of rice, beans and “pork” that looked very much like a kind of first-year med-school experiment, where students need to acquaint themselves with the intricacies of porcine tumors — some fatty, some not, but all redolent of some sort of malignant stomach growth pattern whose cause the students might be asked to discern.
My friend, a spectacular cook himself, dove in with great bravery tempered with the appropriate level of gastronomical trepidation, always game (or, in this case, gamey) for whatever culinary adventure lay ahead.
My dish, I think, trumped his. The “beefsteak” was, as near as I could tell, neither beef nor steak, nor any middle ground in between. For a moment, I had a momentary Proustian thing: For those of us who have been poor, it looked very much like what happened when we were 19 and left a can of Dinty Moore “beef stew” open and out on the counter for a couple of days while we took off for the beach with this chick or that.
The plate at the Mexican? Tiny cubes of something that almost palpably fought to get out of a sauce one could only describe — and describe we did — as something a dog might either a) turn his/her nose up at, or b) decide, after trying to run it through his/her GI system, that it would better reside, after appropriate regurgitation, on the triple-ply living room carpet, in a puddle that would make his/her owners proud, and looking for the wet/dry carpet cleaner.
The groove moment was when my friend and I looked at each other, and said, definitively: “No. Not if we were on a desert island, with nothing but seaweed to eat, can we digest this stuff.” No. As Sartre said, it all begins with choice. We chose.
In minutes, we had our terrific waiter, Roberto, over. It was like: Roberto, you are a charm, but there is no getting over it, this food is just…well, we can’t eat it.
Roberto was convivial, brought new menus, and I said, “Look, I don’t really want to read this again. What’s good?” Roberto suggested some sort of burrito on a wild guess. I thought it possibly repurposed the same beef that was just escorted from our table into yet another configuration.
The lie detector
Nevertheless, I said: Yes, but is it good? Roberto gave us the biggest eye roll I have seen since Sid Caesar had “Your Show of Shows” on in the 1950s. “Yes,” Roberto said. “Is very good!” Now, I was once a reporter, and can otherwise tell a solid lie from anything less than a lie (which, frankly, we would have gone for; it was snowing out, we needed food.)
“Roberto,” I said, “I am guessing you are Catholic, yes?”
“Now, have you been to confession lately?”
“Well, Roberto, you just lied to us, yes?”
A pause. “Si.”
“Now, when you go back to confession, I want you to tell your priest that you did a flat out lie. But, bring the f***ing burrito, anyway.”
Now, Roberto was a sport. The kitchen rearranged more Mexican components into this thing wrapped in a Mexican pastry (I can never remember the names of this sort of stuff) with a ton of onions on top.
Now, it’s a culinary rule: If you are prepping really bad food, the one thing that will consistently and almost universally make it worse is to pour a bunch of onions on it. Even if it might have been wedding cake, and you could have shaved them off, onions on top are not going to make much of anything any better.
Shure’nuff. It was so bad, so tragic, so amazingly awful that I felt bad not only for the burrito, but for Roberto, the State of Mexico, my friend (who tried it), and possibly everything within the known Milky Way, including victims of the Khmer Rouge, who, I was reasonably certain, would also have sent it back. I called Roberto back to the table, and asked him to get a clean fork.
“Okay, you eat it, Roberto,” I said. He took a bite, the kind of brave move that would have made a bullfighter proud, and gave a bigger eye roll than Sid ever would have considered for network TV.
“Is good!” he said.
I said: “Roberto, if you believe in God, he will know you are lying, and this is a plate of the purest shit ever, yes?”
“Si,” he said sadly, with the same kind of forlornness that the fisherman in “The Old Man and The Sea” had after losing his big catch. “Si. Not so good.”
And, there we left it. I think that while Roberto was both happy to have us there, as it started snowing, he was also happy, after the snow started to come in more heavily, leave to go off to our nice next adventure. (At that point, it could have easily included a lovely drive-thru trip to a nearby Burger King.)
The chips were good, however. The salsa…meh! Happy Holidays!
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