My Dinner at Trough in the Box
One of the pleasures of being on the road is that I like to find off beat places to eat. I rarely if ever look for the fanciest place to eat and I don’t drink, so I love looking for places that are unique. For instance, I once found a drug store on the West Side of Chicago that served tamales from behind what had once been its soda fountain. A friend also took me to the original place that inspired that “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, Pepsi” skit that John Belushi used to do. Until then, I’d never realized that the skit was an amazingly literal take on reality. In Wilmington, North Carolina, I found a restaurant that served both hummus and sushi where both were actually quite good. I still remember being beckoned into a barbeque shack by an old man in overalls in Tennessee. He sold meat by the pound and the customers were expected to bring their own containers. Of course, those are the good stories.
On the other end, there are the dozens-maybe hundreds- of doughnut shops that sell Chinese food on the side. My friend Teriyaki Donuts has a whole website devoted to them. In the west, most independent doughnut shops are owned by Southeast Asians, usually Cambodians. You make your doughnuts before dawn, then I think they figure you sell other stuff later in the day. The two grease smells do not belong together.
In Washington D.C., I once tried a Sudanese place that was half restaurant and half hang-out for local middle-aged Sudanese men. I’m not even sure they had a menu and I’m reasonably certain that no one there much cared about the food. Still, I figure even if the food’s not good, I at least get a story out of hitting one of these places instead of some place that has its logo on its cups and napkins and a national ad campaign.
Last week, I found myself in Willits, California, the Northern California town that happens to be where Sea Biscuit spent his last days (no I’m not implying that the restaurant I did choose tried to serve me remnants of famous race horses). I’d once stopped at a Thai restaurant there parked inside a cowboy bar, but this time I only had nine dollars on me because I was having a problem with my credit card. If you want to know something odd about me, I’ve never had a credit card. I use a debit card, which has the minor problem that you have to remember to put money back into the account being debited. I managed to go on a two day trip with no debit card and no checks. I’d lucked out because I stayed in a hotel the night before that had a complimentary dinner and breakfast. I was in Willits at dinner time, the next day, with nine dollars cash (thanks to checking all my pants pockets and the odd spots in my gadget bag for loose bills. I figured that Thai food in the cowboy bar was probably out at that price.
My choices were down to finding Mexican or some sort of hamburger stand. I picked what looked to be a Mexican restaurant on the side of the road just before the end of town heading south All the other shops in the strip mall were closed, a bad sign, and the parking lot there was mostly empty, but I had seen the lit neon that said “Mexican Food”.
I got inside and quickly discovered that it wasn’t a restaurant per se. It was a Mexican grocery that had a few tables. The lights in the grocery store were dimmed and they had maybe five folding tables each surrounded by an assortment of folding chairs. Each table was topped with a jar of salsa, that had chunks of green onion and other substances floating in it. That’s normally a good thing, but the chunks looked liked they’d been cut with either a very dull knife or a machete. Next to the perplexingly purplish salsa, they had a bottle of commercial hot sauce. I’m reasonably certain that this is almost always a bad sign in a Mexican restaurant. The other simple rule in Mexican restaurants is that the kitchen should smell good, like chiles, melting cheese, and chopped onions, with maybe just the scent of lard holding it all together. This one maybe got the lard part right and it was right next to the butcher counter. As I walked back to the bathroom, I noticed an older Mexican woman in a hairnet stirring refried beans that looked like they used glue as a major ingredient and some guy who looked like a NAFTA truckdriver tending the grill. Obviously, I’d been warned.
I got back to my table and took note of the only two other customers in the restaurant, an older man and woman who were working through something that looked like a combination plate. Both had an oversized can of Arizona Iced tea and they didn’t much seem to notice me other than the fact that as I walked by the woman gave me an unpleasant look. The couple clearly wasn’t Mexican. If anything, they looked like they came from some place in the hills where everyone is named Jethro and Daisy Mae. The man was wearing overalls, a checked wool shirt, and one of those baseball caps that has the name of a company that makes farm equipment on it instead of some team. That may have been the woman? Both were rounded, hairy, graying, and resembled trolls. They curved their bodies around their meals and talked rather loudly though one of them wasn’t terribly coherent. Willits is one of those places where there are a fair number of people who live in the hills only to appear in town periodically. I could vaguely smell perspiration even though my table was at least six feet away. My problem was that I’d already ordered a burrito, I had nine dollars, and I was really hungry.
My burrito came and just as I was about to take a bite, the woman let out an enormous belch. She then held out her arms and let out a breath. I looked up, but as far as she was concerned I wasn’t there. Seconds later, there was an even bigger belch followed by maybe four more. Mrs. Chancelucky would have said something if not the couple at least to the waiter. Either that or Mrs. Chancelucky would have left. Unfortunately, Mrs. Chancelucky isn’t with me and I’m very unassertive in my non-online self. Well, I’m also just curious at this point and have this stereotype in my head of hill people maybe carrying guns. Anyway, I stay on at least partly because I’m wondering just how weird this can get.
The husband starts talking, but he’s completely incoherent. What I can make out is something like “I don’t understand, what’s happening, babble, babble, grunt.” The woman says something like “Whoa, I don’t know what’s making me do this?”
She drinks some Arizona Iced tea and they somehow continue to eat. I, in the meantime, have somehow had a couple bites of my pastor burrito despite the ambiance. When you’re figuring that the people at the next table are either drunk or retarded or maybe both, those aren’t exactly good choices.
A belch or two down the line, the woman comments that the man should not have gotten that drunk at the casino. It would have been a better night if they hadn’t had to leave. The only two growth industries in this part of California are the cultivation and sale of cannabis and opening Indian casinos. The man responds with something between more babbling and crying. It does occur to me that this couple likely didn’t walk here. Once they leave, they’re going to get into some sort of motor vehicle. I start rooting for the woman to be driving and for it to be retarded not drunk.
At this point, I’m staring at my plate. I’m too afraid to look up at them. It’s one thing to read about eating with a group of trolls in say Harry Potter, it’s quite another to be in a restaurant and paying for the privilege. Believe it or not, I have had one weirder dining experience than this. I was once at a restaurant owned by a Korean couple in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in DC. I was the only paying customer along with an African-American man by the beverage refrigerator who turned out not to be a paying customer. The owner realized the man was trying to steal beers, so he grabbed him, made him sit down at a table, while he called the DC police. As this unfolded, he locked the door to the outside and a crowd of African-American folk began to line up around the glass window by the doorway until it wasn’t necessarily clear that anyone could leave the restaurant. They were yelling things like “Let my man go! You can’t arrest him. He can’t hold you captive like that.”
The DC police arrived and went to the owner to talk to him about whatever the problem was. The thief started protesting that “He had no idea why he was being kept there by the owner.” For some odd reason, the policemen turned their back on the detainee while they got the owner’s side of the story. In the meantime, I’m eating my not very good food while wondering if I’m about to die in a race riot of some kind. The alleged thief notices that the policemen are looking in the other direction and that they forgot to relock the door when they came in. He runs out the door and the crowd helps prevent the police from running after him. I wait a few minutes for the crowd to disperse, pay my check, but don’t tip, and leave. I felt terrible for couple who owned the place. They barely spoke English and had obviously unwisely gotten into the restaurant business in a place where they had no chance to make it work. That said, I never went back there again and I’m pretty sure it closed a few weeks later.
Back to Willits and the troll people. Eventually, they finish their meal. Mrs. Troll burps one more time then announces very loudly that she had to go tinkle. My waiter, who is probably all of nineteen and who has a pronounced accent, comes by to ask me, “How is everything?”
Even though it’s my chance to say something, I figure, “What’s the point?”
After several minutes Mrs. Troll gets back from wherever she tinkled. I’m hoping that it was the bathroom as opposed to the dark space between the butcher counter and the kitchen. She helps Mr. Troll get up out of his chair, not a small matter. They put on their coats. I glance at their table which contains the wreck of abandoned Mexican food not yet converted into alternate fuel by Mrs. Troll. They go to the counter to pay their bill where I’m amazed to hear Mrs. Troll tell the owner of the grocery store, “The food was excellent and we’ll be back soon.”
For a moment, I tell myself. “Mmmmm….Jason Mesnick and Molly Malaney really do look different when they’re not on tv. Just kidding there Jason and Molly. I hope your relationship works. Fwiw Mr. and Mrs. Troll seem perfectly happy.
So, here’s my confession. I actually ate my whole burrito and even tried their salsa. I had to pour the bottled hot sauce on too, but it’s amazing what being hungry and only having nine dollars can make you do. I even left a tip this time.
Labels: strange dining experiences