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Copyright © 2001 by Ralph Robert Moore. All rights reserved.
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"wasn't that the best salad you've ever had in your life?"
may 5, 2001
I was in Arlington, Texas this past week on business, and while there I had lunch with my friend Dave.
We used to work together, and in fact his office was right next to mine. I could hear his voice on the telephone muffling through my wall.
About once a month, Dave and I get together for lunch.
It was his turn to pick a place. He chose what he described as a new French restaurant he had heard about, and read a favorable review about. I envisioned a moist meal on white china of crisp-crusted sweetbreads.
I like French food. I like the French. In America, it's popular to deride the French because they respect Jerry Lewis, and because they're unwilling to bend over and kiss our American feet. But I find it hard to criticize a people who invented oral sex, and who care enough about food to have long, black trains run under the moon throughout the night to deliver fresh butter each morning from the farmlands to the cafes of Paris. If we want to drop a map of the world on the floor so that it shatters into organs, France would surely be the mouth. I like mouths. Mouths are so good they're sometimes even better than brains.
Dave drove me to a strip mall, which is not at all alarming. In Texas, some of the best restaurants are located in strip malls. But as we pulled into the parking lot, I saw that the restaurant we were headed towards was called The Cafe du France. That did alarm me, because The Cafe du France, as the name of a restaurant, is right down there with The Cafe du Gourmet Cooking.
The inside confirmed my fears. Essentially, it was a luncheonette, a cramped space with stiff-backed chairs around small, round tables, and a high noise level of business conversations and ringing cell phones.
Flipping through the tall menu, ominously covered in stiff plastic, I suppose so it could be quickly sponged-off in case anyone vomited on it, I saw that nearly all the fare, except for a few salads for the long-eared, were sandwiches, one of which was named, "Oh-La-La!".
We'll talk about the improper use of the exclamation point in a later column.
Not knowing what to do, and wanting to be a good guest, I ordered a sandwich from the first page, which I believe was called the 'Cafe Supreme'. It came with French fries. I'm biting my tongue.
Medallions of grilled chicken breast, served on a croissant with melted Monterey Jack cheese, sautéed mushrooms, lettuce, and the Cafe du France's special sauce.
About ten minutes later it arrived, Dave and me leaning our heads forward over the small, round table to hear what we were saying to each other, trying to lip-read.
It was sliced in half. A hot, messy sandwich that required you to constantly dab at your lips, and left your paper napkin translucent and useless.
It was absolutely delicious. One of the best chicken sandwiches I've ever had.
Mary and I eat out every Friday. Each week, we try a different place.
In north Texas, one of the most highly-regarded restaurants is Pappadieux's. Owned by a Greek family, it serves Cajun cooking. Mary and I love Cajun cooking, from the times we've traveled to New Orleans.
We tried for several Fridays to get into Pappadieux's, but each time the crowds outside were just too large. Finally, the last day I worked from the office where Dave and I shared a common wall, prepatory to working from home, Mary and I managed to get into Pappadieux's just after they opened that day.
The hostess led us through wide open spaces inside, past hundreds of empty tables, the wait staff standing off by the bar, chatting quietly, past the first few seated diners, who were sitting by themselves, talking into their cell phones.
Our own waiter was a friendly young guy who asked us first if we had ever eaten at Pappadieux's before (a month or two later, when I went to a different Pappadieux's with Dave, he and I were asked the same question).
Frankly, I find that kind of inquiry offensive. It suggests Pappadieux's is something more than merely a place to eat. It's an experience.
Believe me, it isn't.
I ordered the shrimp special (shrimp prepared three different ways). Mary ordered the crawfish special (crawfish prepared three different ways). Despite all the incredible buzz Papadieux's generates, and the crowds spilling out onto the parking lot each day, the fact is their food is really not that good. It's Cajun food for people who have never tasted real Cajun food. Their formula for success, apparently, is trying to convince you the food you're eating is great. When I went to the Pappadieux's in Arlington with Dave, my second try, because I couldn't believe a restaurant serving mediocre food could survive simply on hype, and ordered a side dish of their Greek salad, which was far too acidic, and absolutely limp and uninspired, the waiter, removing my almost untouched plate of iceberg lettuce and one black olive, beamed cheerfully at me and asked, "Wasn't that the best salad you've ever had in your life?"
Most of the restaurants Mary and I eat in are cavernous, stand-alone buildings surrounded by filled parking lots, with interior rooms high enough to fly a kite.
For a few years we had stopped eating out, because we simply didn't have the time. So I was curious to see how restaurants were in the new millenium.
Service is much better than it used to be. The waitpersons are almost always young, college-age men and women who get your order right and discreetly watch your table, walking over whenever a drink glass is getting low.
Tortillas are thinner. A lot of the places we've tried, such as Abuelo's, On The Border, Chico's, Don Pablo's, etc., serve tex-mex. Once you're seated, you're served the standard dark clay bowl of salsa. The tortillas you used to get were sturdy enough to hoist a wet tablespoon or so of tomato, garlic and coriander, but lately the chips are so thin they break off as soon as you submerge them. Mary theorizes this is to reduce the number of lawsuits from patrons who claim to have choked on a tortilla fragment. I think she's right.
Garlic potatoes are everywhere. I feel sorry for vampires.
The food itself is blander. Abuelo's was another restaurant/barn it took us weeks to get into. When we did, our lunches were served on the largest platters I've ever seen. It was ridiculous. My white platter was wide as a keyboard, twice as deep, piled with starches. Everything tasted the same, and everything tasted bland.
The waitpersons are far more conscientious about giving you your check when you ask for it, and returning with your change in a reasonable time. One thing we used to hate about dining out was having an enjoyable meal, carefully attended over by the staff, but then having to wait twenty or more minutes after we lit our after-dinner cigarettes before our waiter/waitress would return with the check. Once we're through, we want to leave.
One restaurant we tried in far northern Dallas was called Love and War in Texas.
I was reluctant to go there, because, as I told Mary, if anything goes wrong, the waiter could simply say, "All's fair in Love and War."
But we did.
The first time we went there, we asked to be seated in the bar so we could smoke.
The bartender was in charge of taking our orders. It took him twenty minutes to get over to our table. Since it was lunchtime, we ordered sodas for our drink. They took another twenty minutes to arrive (after we requested them from three different people).
The food itself was good, so we decided to give the restaurant another try, but this time to sit in the non-smoking section, hoping we'd get better service.
We were seated immediately. Fifteen minutes later, a waiter showed up to take our orders. I requested a Coke with my meal, Mary a Sprite. Ten minutes later (a long time to be seated at a bare table), our sodas arrived, only Mary's was plain seltzer water. Ten more minutes to correct it. Our meals arrived. They smelled great. Mary cut into her grilled chicken. It was raw and rubbery, ruby around the bones. I called the waiter over. Told him we were not accepting the meals, and certainly not paying for them. We left. The co-owner of the restaurant jogged out across the parking lot to apologize to us. They had had problems with the supplier they used for the grilled chicken. He wasn't leaving them on the grill long enough.
The supplier they used. Most medium-scale restaurants no longer cook their dishes on the premises. They purchase them from regional food processing centers, and simply reheat them once they're ordered. We've all seen television shows where chefs chop, dice and sauté all the ingredients for a meal, but in actuality this kind of local preparation usually occurs only at the lowest and highest ends of American restaurants. When you go to most restaurants in America, in the $20 to $70 range, you're usually eating frozen or vacuum-packed meals that were prepared days or weeks ago. There's nothing fresh about them. If you've ever flipped through a restaurant-supply magazine, you'll see page after page of black-paged ads for chauteaubriand servings sold by the gross, and rubbery tubes as long as fluorescent lights of processed egg whites surrounding continuous yellow egg yolk.
There's nothing wrong with this practice. All that really matters is the end result, and most pre-prepared restaurant food is actually quite good. Even in the best of restaurants, most meal components are prepared far in advance of your order. If you go into a three star restaurant one sunny morning and order Eggs Benedict, I am willing to guarantee those eggs were poached at least the night before, and left in a tub of ice water in the restaurant's refrigerator to be warmed up for your order.
A few years ago, The San Francisco Examiner arranged for a number of master chefs from China to visit, taking them around town to get their impressions of our fast food. The chefs refused to eat the refried beans from Taco Bell, finding their formlessness and color too suggestive. They tried a number of hamburgers, being especially intrigued by the Big Mac. But they ate it wrong, not holding it in both hands and biting down into it, but instead eating it one layer at a time. Top bun, then shredded lettuce, patty, etc. Afterwards, they were taken to one of the better hamburger diners in San Francisco, and served a hand-shaped, char-broiled burger. Their conclusions? "We thought you expected us to find the diner hamburger to be best, but in fact we preferred the Big Mac."
An honest answer.
The fact is, these past Fridays Mary and I have paid upwards of $70 for a lunch, but we've rarely found meals as satisfying and tasty as a simple $2 Big Mac. There's a reason why McDonalds is everywhere. As with any other successful fast-food restaurant, it's found a perfect formula for a food, in this case the humble hamburger, and is able to duplicate it around the world.
Like the Cafe du France, what it lacks in atmosphere it makes up for in its ability to do at least one thing right. Which is more than most restaurants manage.
My experience has been, after a half-century of eating, that the best food, the really good, soul-satisfying food, is often quite cheap. It's almost as if the cheaper the food is, the better it tastes. I love fresh caviar, the kind that's never been pasteurized, and on occasion have paid a lot of money for it, but it's never been as mouth-watering good as a great pizza.
The best restaurants we've ever eaten in?
The worse area of the country for restaurants?
We lived there for five years, tried dozens of places, but were never able to find a restaurant where the staff knew how to competently prepare a meal. It was scary.
Runner-up is Florida. Although it's surrounded by ocean, every seafood meal we've eaten there over the years came from a freezer. We ate at Joe's Stone Crab in Miami, which is supposed to be the best restaurant in the country for stone crabs (the dish James Bond and Goldfinger famously enjoy in Fleming's novel). We appeared to be the only diners in the restaurant, judging by hairstyle, clothes and ear jewelry, who didn't earn a living selling drugs. The attendants in the parking lot were selling hub caps to each other.
The best area in the country for good food?
New Orleans. The aroma of all that good food cooking in hundreds of holes-in-the-wall hangs in the air as you drive into the city. All the times we've been there, we've never once had to eat a Big Mac.