Saturday, January 02, 2010

Food on the Road

Tuesday night. First day's drive over, somewhere in New Jersey. With the wind chill, it's bloody zero degrees out. I'm pumped to be setting out on my road trip to Oaxaca, but on my plate is -- nothing! So the task is to put something on my plate. The old boy's gotta take on some nourishment.

I leave my warm, slightly downmarket fifty nine dollar hotel room and hit the all American strip mall strip to see what might be the least offensive meal I can find.

I end up, of all places, at the local Applebee's. It's sort of a sports bar on steroids inside. The cute little Jersey gal who seats me has the most elaborate combo of mascara and eyeliner I've ever witnessed. She's overtly overly friendly, as per the Applebee's training videos, no doubt, but I just want to say, "How the hell did you get all that stuff on your eyelids?!". She shows me to a tiny high table with a tiny high stool, bares her teeth one last time and sprints away, spouting salutations as she goes.

Now I'm confronted with a high tech panorama of sports programming on six or seven enormous flat screen TV sets. A quick scan of my tiny round table turns up some sort of small digital box, giving me the ability to turn up the volume on the TV of my choice (each is tuned to a different station, of course). Football, basketball, ESPN, more ESPN, CNN, FOX "news", and more. I'm a bit tired from the road, trying to grok this new digital wrinkle, when my waitress arrives and begins pitching her script at me.

She is by degrees more earthy, warm and genuine than the amazing eyeliner/mascara hostess girl, in fact she's a sort of robust Amy Winehouse (only sober). My new best friend, she runs a dizzying sales pitch by me to drink and eat enough to stagger an adult rhino, and get it pretty drunk too. I plead with her for a few minutes to look the menu over.

Everything on the menu is bigger than my head. By a lot. I'm hungry, but fuck I'm only one guy! Allow me to insert a little aside here. I've been living in the city of Oaxaca, Mexico for a bit over two years. I might be biased, but I believe Oaxaca has the best food in Mexico. The plates are meticulously put together -- a lot of thought goes into creating the right combo of foods on your plate, complimentary items that enhance each other. They are beautifully served in portions that are filling but not overwhelming. The cost is such that you can always order more if you need to.

For example, take La Biznaga, a Oaxacan/fusion restaurant in central Oaxaca, about a half mile north of the zocalo (the town square). I like to order a salad that includes red leaf lettuce, a garnish of fresh seasonal veggies, and some grilled salmon. It's delicious and filling, but not overwhelming. Sometimes it's enough. If not, I can always order a Sopa Azteca to go with it, a tomato based tortilla soup with avocado in it that is truly delicious. It has a strong flavor of tomato and peppers, but still there are a bevy of delicate flavors competing for my attention. I'm no professional food writer, I'd be lost trying to identify the complicated flavors of the Sopa Azteca at La Biznaga. Every sip of the hearty soup is pleasing to the depths of my soul, no lie!

Back to Applebee's in New Jersey. Now, I know it's not fair to compare a chain restaurant/sports bar in the U.S. to a hipster, slightly upscale restaurant in Oaxaca. But I can't help it. I'm already doing it! Let us continue.

Amy Winehouse's sober sister comes back to take my order. I inquire, "Can I get this here spinach/shrimp salad without the bacon?" Her look says it all. She's thinking "Dude, with your skinny ass, I should double the bacon on this salad"! Since she is wicked nice, she does not say this. She will bring me the salad, but she is gonna leave the damn bacon on it. Fuck!

OK, so I can pull the bacon off. They bring the salad. It's actually really delicious. Que sabrosa! The shrimp is huge, plentiful, and grilled. It occurs to me that the fixation on serving piping hot food in the U.S. is a sort of fetish. I've been eating lots of lukewarm/room temperature foods in Oaxaca. OK, it seemed weird at first but it sort of grows on you. Now, I dig it. What the hell, maybe I've gone native.

Time to eat the shrimp/spinach salad! I put the bacon aside as I'm able. I'm sure I ate some. Yes I am a vegetarian, but I just thanked the immortal soul of the poor pig and probably ate a few morsels of his big butt.

This damn salad was still like five times the size of my cabeza (head)! I was ready to slide off my chair and take a long nap after eating the son of a bitch. So, sober and friendly Amy Winehouse returns, to offer this nugget of wisdom: "That wasn't very much food, you need coffee and a dessert!"

I didn't, but I tipped her twenty percent, so she would know that I loved her.

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