Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Me llamo

I’ll be the first to admit that Flint isn’t the most elegant city in the Midwest. And we’re certainly not the hot tourist destination of, say, Traverse City or Mackinaw Island. If we had an advertising campaign and a big shiny brochure to entice visitors, the sales pitch might go something like this:

Flint: It’s not THAT bad!

Tour the gaudy mansion of Flint’s former Thug Mayor. During the holidays, you can see his big-ass gated lawn cluttered up with low-rent snow globes and blow-up Santas as big as the Mayor himself. Set aside a little extra time and sit in on the proceedings of one of his many lawsuits against the City Council.

Flint: We have a sister city in Russia!

Wanna see the demolition of a million square feet of automobile factory? Book your reservation now. Watch part-time construction workers turn usable space into urban decay right before your eyes.

Flint: At least we’re not Saginaw!

Hometown superstar Michael Moore has also made big contributions to the world’s perception of Flint. I’m sure his 1989 documentary that depicted a local woman skinning and gutting bunny rabbits was not the free publicity city officials were hoping for. I watched that movie for the first time in the spring of 1994. I was still living in Reno, Nevada and had just interviewed for a full time teaching position at the University of Michigan-Flint. I didn’t’ get a very good sense of the city on my day and a half visit, and nobody gave me a tour of the city beyond the walls of the campus compound, so I thought I’d see for myself what Flint was all about. I had to go to four different video stores before I found the one and only copy of Roger and Me in the whole city.

Poor people being evicted from their houses on Christmas Day. An indoor, automobile-themed amusement park (that was only open for six months). Bob Eubanks at the Genesee County Fair (the guy who eons ago hosted The Newlywed Game. A city being brutally assaulted by the auto industry. What’s not to love? (If my first advertising campaign wasn’t ideal, maybe this one would come off as less pretentious, more real.)

I’m hopeful that Michaels’s next documentary, Capitalism, which opens this Friday, will do for Flint what Leaving Las Vegas did for, well, Las Vegas. Flint: We have nothing to live for; run us over with a City Bus. Wait, we lost our bus service in the last round of budget cuts.

And I’m not so sure the restaurant industry in Flint is doing itself any favors in the image department either. We have more Chinese Buffets than we do Baptist churches. If you didn’t know any better, or if you weren't a regular, you’d think Fire Mountain was also a Baptist Church.

Really, the nastiness of the Chinese Buffets has given Asian cuisine a bad name in this town. We do have a pretty good Thai restaurant, Bangkok Peppers and a solid Chinese place, Empress of China, but if you don’t serve free crab legs with a at least a hundred yards of salad and dessert, an acre and a half of entrees, and an ice cream machine with at least three flavors (and for the record, chocolate/vanilla swirl is a flavor), then you’re facing an uphill battle to survive. House of Hunan, a great high-end Chinese restaurant, opened up this year in the old Big Boy building on South Dort Highway, but since it offers none of the extravagances of the 30 or so buffets in town, I’m afraid it’s doomed to fail.

Since I’m exploring Hispanic culture and Mexican food in Flint, I cannot, in good conscience, let them off the hook either. Our Hispanic population is roughly 3% of the total population, but the number of Mexican restaurants makes up 10% of all the city’s restaurants. So I think I’m justified in posing the question: Are you just waiting for Michael Moore to do a mockumentary on how you came up with the names of your restaurants?

Sure, Los Panchos sounds benign. El Nopal has a certain mystique to it. El Charrito even sounds a little sexy. However, for those of us not terribly literate in Spanish but curious enough to know the translations of these names, we’re pretty sure Michael Moore's gonna be knocking at your door and shoving a microphone in your face in the not so distance future.

If the names of Mexican restaurants were revealed to the public in English, I think these places would suffer the same fate as the good Chinese restaurants. Who, for example, would want to eat at The Blanket-like Cloak With a Hole in the Center for the Head?

“Hey Billy. Wanna go out to The Pasture with me for a bite to eat? No? How ‘bout we meet up at The Cactus?”

If you’re really feeling adventurous, then you might want to visit The It’s Not Even a Spanish Word and has no Meaning in English. I hear the food’s gringolicious. This restaurant, El Charritos in Davison, has come highly recommended by several of my readers, so look for it in the not too distant future. I might not bring a microphone, but I”ll definitely be asking questions about how the place got its name.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Moving Targets

I love to eat out almost as much as I love to breathe. Who, after all, doesn’t like to be pampered and doted on while deciding what dish some else will cook for you? Dining out is as much about paying someone else to take care of you as it is about getting a good meal. Granted, the service you get from wait staff in Flint restaurants isn't always the kick-up-your-feet-and-let-us-spoil-you-rotten variety. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it's the hurry-up-and-order-so-I-can-move-on-to-the-next-schmuck luck of the draw.

On a recent visit to Los Panchos on the corner of South Dort Highway and Atherton Road, Stephanie and I were waited on by a server who was much closer to the latter variety. In fact, she came to our table the absolute minimum number of times required: 4—once to take our drink and food orders, once to deliver our drinks, once to deliver our food, and once to give us the bill. It’s a good thing we got there at 11:30 to beat the lunch crowd, because by the time the waitress delivered our food, she had another 7 tables to deal with. That’s 28 more trips around the dining room, if she’s operating at peak efficiency.

In her defense, though, this aging Hispanic woman was the only server in the dining room for a restaurant that has almost twenty tables. And there were no other workers in sight--no manager, no hostess, no bartender, no busboy. This heroic woman, it seemed, was running the whole place by herself. I recently learned that Flint’s restaurant industry employs approximately 13,000 workers. Panchos, at least, could stand to hire a few more.

I’m a little distracted by our server's plight, but I begin my weekly gossip update for Stephanie over a basket of chips and the house salsa, a not very interesting mix of what tasted like doctored-up canned tomato sauce with little bits of fresh cilantro. The consistency is more like that of a sauce you’d serve to make a wet burrito. I didn’t have the heart to summon the waitress to ask if there was a hotter salsa available, so I waited until her next scheduled stop at the table. Sadly, they do not offer an El Potrero-like alternative, so we turned to the nearly empty bottle of Tabasco sauce on the table and dumped it in. The difference was only marginal.

The wait for our entrees was surprisingly short. In about eight minutes, Stephanie’s enchilada plate and my chimichanga plate were laid out before us. At first I thought we’d accidentally gotten each other’s dishes. They both had a pool of refried beans, a scoop of rice, and a garnish of shredded lettuce and chopped tomatoes. My two small, rolled-up tortilla shells, slathered in tomato sauce and cheese, could easily have been enchiladas. The two plates looked almost identical.

A far cry from the lunker chimis at El Nopal, these were little more than ground beef rolled into a shell and deep fried. They were alright, but I imagine that had I ordered the burrito plate, it probably wouldn’t have looked much different. Steph was equally non-committal about her enchiladas. One of my readers recently said that he felt like many of the local Mexican places have carbon copy menus and cookie cutter entrees. I wanted to disagree with him, but I have to admit that the last three restaurants I’ve been to felt a lot like variations on the same place.

Los Panchos, by the way, took up residence last December in the same space vacated by El Potrero. (Pancho’s has a second location on North Dort). With the exception of different colored booths and chairs, it looks exactly the same as it did under the previous ownership. From the outside it still looks like the Pizza Hut that originally occupied the space. What is it about the transient nature of Mexican Restaurants? El Nopal, Tia Helitas, Los Panchos, and El Potrero all opened in one location and then moved to another. I know of at least a half dozen other Mexican Restaurants that fit this same pattern. Is it just me, or is that incredibly odd?

As busy as she was, our waitress did take a few minutes to chat with us on our way out. What I sensed from her, and what I realize more generally, is that not everyone who waits tables, cooks, buses tables, or washes dishes is doing it as a career choice. I waited tables for years as I was putting myself through college, and when I wasn't in school I did it to make ends meet. With rare exceptions, working in the restaurant business is about survival, pure and simple. And survival is something people know a whole lot about in this town. Despite the lukewarm Flint Journal review posted on the wall above the cash register, Los Panchos probably knows a bit about survival too.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Let's go people! We've got a show to do.

My friend Ginny, who owned six restaurants in her career, once told me her secret to running a successful business. “You have to be there,” she said. “At least 85% of the time.” And she was. I know because for several years I worked as a cook and a waiter in her diner. She hired me on the 4th of July, 1987. Anyone in the restaurant business knows this is one of the busiest days of the year, especially for the breakfast crowd. Before plopping down their lawn chairs and beer coolers along Main Street for the big parade, Middle America is filling up on a hearty, greasy holiday breakfast. And on this day, I was responsible for cooking it.

I remember standing in front of a four-burner gas stove ready to take up my position as The Egg Man. (It wasn't a big metal industrial jobby that you’d expect to see in a restaurant; no, this was a Kenmore kitchen stove like you’d see in your grandma's kitchen). Kevin, the guy training me, ran the grill and the fryer, and I was responsible for the stove and the toaster. This was all well and good, but when I went to turn my first batch of over easy eggs, there wasn’t a spatula in sight.

Hearing my frantic cries for help, Ginny came over to me and in a calm voice simply said, “We don’t use spatulas here.”

“What!? You put me on the busiest station in the kitchen on the busiest day of the year and you tell me I can’t use a spatula!?”

“Yup. You’ll get the hang of it.”

And I did. It took a couple of weeks and dozens of broken eggs, but I managed to free myself from what I called the middle man of egg turning. Coupled with my skill at cracking an egg one-handed, I became the Superhero of the Egg Station. By the time I cracked the eggs in the pan on the fourth burner, I turned with ease to the first pan, flipped, and then plated the eggs in one impressively smooth motion. At first I fought the spatula-less approach, but Ginny is a smart woman and there’s money-making method to her madness. When you’re pumping out eggs as fast as we were, every second counts and it really is more time saving to work with just your hands. Ginny knew how to run her restaurant, and she knew how to manage her staff. Had she gone into theatre, she would have made and excellent director.

The owner of El Patrero on the Southeast side of Flint must adhere to Ginny's school of thought. I’ve been to his restaurant at least 25 times and he’s there every time. He’s not just there, he’s working his tail off. And he has a very disciplined wait staff working for him. The kitchen crew must be equally disciplined because no matter how busy or slow it is, the food comes out quickly. I feel like a guest when I eat here, and it’s because this guy knows how to run his business.

El Patrero first opened four or five years ago in the old Pizza Hut on the corner of Atherton Road and Dort Highway. Even before they had a liqueur license they began drawing loyal followers. They closed up last year and reopened earlier this year in a plaza on the northwest corner of Hill road and Fenton Road. I’m not sure what happened, but El Patrero isn’t the only Mexican restaurant to open in one location and then move somewhere else. El Nopal is a case in point. So are the next two places on my “Lunches With Stephanie” list. A kind of transience exists here that I don’t quite understand, but it’s accompanied by an even stronger resilience.
Stephanie and I agree that El Patrero’s food, while pretty excellent at the Dort Highway location, seems to have gotten even better since moving into the new place. Even if that’s all in our heads, the food is definitely worth checking out.

It’s customary, in most Flint area Mexican restaurants, for the host or hostess to serve up a basket of chips and fresh salsa as soon as you sit down--the Hispanic equivalent of breadstick or cracker baskets. My theory is that this ritual is a way to keep you busy, and happy, while you wait for your drinks and food. I also think there is a direct correlation between the quality of the salsa and the quality of food a restaurant serves. El Patrero has a great salsa that’s not terribly hot but creates a nice balance of tomato, onion, pepper, and cilantro flavors. I usually save enough to spoon over my rice because it adds a little extra zip.

If you like more heat in your salsa like I do, here’s a little secret. Always ask the server if they offer a hotter version of the salsa that you’ve been served. Not all places offer this under-the-radar option, but El Patrero does, and it’s awesome! It’s a darker sauce with a smoky chipotle kick to it that I find irresistible. It also tastes great slathered atop their bean dip, which is basically a plate of really good refried beans under a layer of white cheese sauce. Naughty, comfortable, and deeeeelicious!

Like most most places, the menu here is way too big (by about half), but ignore most of it and go right to the “Create Your Own Combinations”. Here you can pick and choose what and how much you want. It’s a great way to sample the menu to see what you like and what you don’t. I’m partial to the chile rellenos, chimicanga, and hard taco combination. The chimi isn’t anything to write home about—ground meat rolled in a flower tortilla, deep fried, and smothered in white cheese sauce—but the chile relleno ranks up there as one of the best entrees I’ve eaten.

The chile relleno, or “stuffed chile,” is traditionally made with a roasted poblano pepper that is then stuffed with cheese or meat, dredged through an egg batter, and fried. Already it meets all the criteria for the Tater Tot Casserole Award! El Patrero doesn’t dredge in egg batter, but the peppers are nicely roasted, and the whole dish looks like it was put under the broiler for a minute or two just before serving. The chile is then drizzled with a white queso and served with a relatively simple presentation. It’s one dish where the star ingredient takes center stage. Lighter than the traditional preparation, this dish has completely won me over. It is, as you might have guessed, the first candidate for the TTC award.

After I’ve polished off my meal—the portions are good but not overwhelmingly large—and the plates have been taken away, the owner almost always stops by to say hi and ask for feedback on the experience. I see the slightly tired, slightly tattered look on his face, and I think of my friend Ginny. Running a restaurant is exhausting and largely thankless work, but when you put out consistently good food, and when you know you’ve made your customers happy, you feel a certain satisfaction and pride about that work. As he shakes my hand and says goodbye, I can tell Mr. El Patrero is pleased with the show he just directed.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Gold Standard

Food has always been my passion. I remember the first dish I ever cooked. I was thirteen. It was an apple crisp recipe out of a Better Homes and Garden cookbook my mom kept in a kitchen drawer. My dad made fun of me and called me Bobby Crocker. My mom tried to be supportive, but I think she thought that wearing an apron and running a five-speed hand mixer would make me turn out gay. I did turn out gay, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't from whipping up my first hot dessert just as I hit the throes of puberty.

After mortuary science, cooking school was my first career choice. Neither option panned out, and in the end I became an educator. But cooking is in my blood. Both of my grandfathers were great cooks, a rare phenomenon in poor, working class families, and my grandmothers, my sisters and my mother are all creators of signature family dishes that I've built into my own repertoire over the years: liver stew, boiled dinner, potato soup with dumplings, shit-on-the-shingles. Yum, yum! The grand daddy of all family recipes, though, is my sister Theresa’s Tater Tot Casserole. It’s made with a conglomeration of ground burger, canned green beans, cream of mushroom soup (how utterly Midwestern), shredded cheddar cheese, and of course a layer of tater tots on top. Individually, these ingredients don't sound very appealing, but mix 'em together, bake for a couple of hours, and you've got the best example of comfort food you'll ever eat.

You won't find the recipe in bon apetite, but in my world Tater Tot Casserole (TTC) has become the gold standard by which all other recipes are compared. I can’t take credit for giving it that label, though. That honor goes to my best friend Jake. He and I shared a basement apartment in Reno, Nevada, in the early 90’s where we were both working on doctorate degrees in writing. I tried the recipe on him shortly after my sister sent it to me. This quintessential California boy had never traveled east of the Mississippi River, grew up on L.A. culture and cuisine, and spoke with an accent that was very different from my own Midwestern drawl, so I had no idea how he would take to such an unfamiliar offering.

It was a hit, of course, and Jake began applying the TTC standard to all other meals. Even mine. “This is good meatloaf,” he’d say, “but it’s no tater tot casserole.” And he was usually right. So it is in Jake’s honor that I am creating the Tater Tot Casserole Gold Medal of Excellence. Since my lunch buddy, Stephanie, and I will spend a lot of time sampling the food of Flint’s Mexican restaurants in the coming months, we will be on the lookout for the single best Mexican dish in Flint, and I will bestow upon that restaurant the Tater Tot Casserole Gold Medal of Excellence.

The criteria will be simple. The winning dish must:

-provide a high level of comfort

-combine distinct flavors and tastes to create a Superflavor (a flavor that is bigger than the sum of its parts)

-contain at least one unhealthy ingredient

-be authentic. No Tex-Mex!

I’ve already had lunch with Stephanie at two places—the subject of my next post—and there is at least one serious contender at this early stage. Now that I know El Nopal still exists, you can bet I’ll be paying them a visit to try the chimichanga dinner that two years ago would have been the undisputed Tater Tot Casserole Gold Medal winner. Their new location, by the way, is on North Saginaw Street, just north of Pierson Road. I’m planning a visit later this week.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Power of Proofreading

As I’m scrolling through the Urbanspoon web site to pick out which Mexican restaurants I recognize and which ones no longer exist, I quickly come across a familiar name: El Nopal. It’s over on the east side, just off the 475 Freeway, and right next to Jan’s bar. Together, the two storefronts are a mere twenty paces wide, if that. Tall grass and weeds grow between the cracks in the sidewalk, and garbage is strewn about the parking lot. El Nopal has been closed for a couple of years now. I’m not sure if Jan’s is still open or not. Since bars seem to be the only places that never go out of business in Flint, I’m guessing it’s still going strong.

I remember one trip in particular several years ago to what was then my favorite Mexican restaurant it the city. I’m walking from my truck in the adjacent parking lot to the front door of the restaurant and I see this guy stumble out of the bar and into broad daylight. It must be 4:30 in the afternoon.

He holds himself up against the side of the building and barfs all over the hot cement. He’s probably in his forties but looks every bit of sixty. As my Aunt Sandy used to say, “He looked like ten miles of bad road.” I know immediately he’s most likely a shop rat. The signs are all there: work boots, jeans, flannel shirt, dirty baseball cap. Probably had a day off or worked a double and spent the day getting shitfaced. It’s a sad but all too common sight.

“Nice,” I mutter at a not so subtle level.

A barely audible “Fuck you,” is all he can muster.

I don’t respond because I actually feel a little sorry for the guy. He’s a mess and we both know it. Better to let him finish his business and go home to sleep it off. I quick-step by the little scene he’s made and slip quietly into El Nopal to get my carryout.

Sadly, the inside isn’t any better than the outside. In fact, it’s worse. Most of the newer Mexican joints are decorated in bright yellows and reds and oranges with splashes of purples and greens to tone down the radioactive look it creates. A couple of Mayan Suns and celestial statues, and you’ve got yourself a pretty nice looking d├ęcor. But not at El Nopal.

The walls are so dingy, they look more yellow than white. Not a soft pastel yellow, but a faded, neglected piss color. Some of the holes in the wall look intentional, like they meant hang something there but never got around to it. Others look like they were made by someone who came unglued and just started throwing whatever they could get their hands on: a coffee cup, a frying pan; one hole is as big as a person’s head. The least they could do is paint a little yellow or orange around it and make an effort to pass it off as a sun.

There are only 5 booths in the whole place. The seats look they were pulled from an old junk yard school bus. One of booths is cluttered with receipts, dinner checks, pop glasses, and ashtrays (so really the place only seats about 10 people). I assume this is where the wait staff hang out when there are no customers. It’s certainly where they hang out every time I come in. On this day, the cook and the waitress are kicked back in their usual spots and watching a soap opera on the Spanish channel on a little black and white TV with rabbit ears.

“Carry out for Barnett,” I announce.

They look at each other as if to ask whose turn it is to get up and do something and who gets to keep watching Days of our Lives with Spanish voice-over.

Finally the girl gets up and shuffles over to the counter. Despite her I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude, and despite the bombed-out look of the dining room, the food is exceptionally good. The chimichanga, for example, is a gigantic tortilla shell stuffed to the gills with ground beef and cheese, deep fried, and smothered in the best brown sauce I’ve ever tasted. Most dinners here are served with rice and a thick, meaty beef stew that could be a meal in itself. The portions are generous and I never had a meal here I didn’t love.

The girl drops my bag of food on the counter and without saying a word holds out her hand for my money. “Would it kill you to actually utter a few adjectives,” I think to myself. The order comes to $8.50. I know because I’ve ordered it a dozen times before. I give her ten dollars and tell her to keep the change. I wait a few seconds for a simple “Thank you, come again,” or “Have a nice day,” but that’s just not in the cards so I grab my food and head for the door.

As I’m heading back to my truck, I almost run smack into a guy who flings the door open to Jan’s bar and storms past me in a huff. I just want to go home an d eat my food before it gets cold, so I don’t say anything. Instead, I peak in the front window to see what commotion might have caused this guy’s little hissy fit.

I don’t’ see any obvious signs of an altercation, but sitting there, plain as day, at the end of the bar is that gastro-challenged shop rat I saw outside only ten minutes before. Budweiser in one hand, cigarette in the other, he’s chatting it up with the bartender as if nothing ever happened. Now that’s hard core.

Urbanspoon lists a street address and telephone number for El Nopal. I recognize the address right away, 1921 Lewis Street, but I’ve long forgotten the phone number. Against all hope, I dial the number in front of me.

“McDaniel Law Offices.”

********ADENDUM TO THIS POST************
As I was spellchecking my post, the spelling of El Napal didn’t look quite right. My printout shows Urbanspoon spells it El Nopal. Just for kicks, I type El Nopal into Google Chrome. The very first entry is El Nopal, North Saginaw Street. And it has a different number. I called it a few minutes ago and the owner, whose voice I remember from the Lewis street location, answers the phone. So I ask some questions:

“How long you been open?”

“We moved from the old place about two years ago, man.”

“Is it the same place?”

“Yah man, but we only do take-out now.”

“Wow! I had no idea you were still in business.”

“Yah, I put signs up in the old widow, but the landlord’s a prick and he took ‘em all down the next day.”

I’m still shocked at what just took place. And it never would have happened if I didn’t proofread my post!

Friday, September 18, 2009

"Just puke it out!"

10:00 am

Blogging is really hard! (try to hear that in the whiniest way possible). I'm a writer by trade, so I've grown into a writing process that's kinda counter to the idea of blogging. Once I get an idea in my head, I kick it around for awhile, anywhere from a few minutes to a few days, usually while I'm engaged in some mundane activity. I flesh out my best ideas for writing projects while I'm running laps at the gym. (As much as I eat, I do what I can to counter the affects on my gut and my ass). I plug in my headphones, but don't turn the music on. I just leave my Ipod shuffle clipped to my sweaty shirt. Everyone thinks I'm singing along to the music in my head. But really I'm talking out the ideas for my writing project. It's the only time I can talk to myself aloud without being taken for a crazy man who should be gulping down his meds but obviously isn't'.

11:15 am

I pretty much mapped out a general arc for the blog in a couple of trips to the gym, which gives me some basic parameters within which I can work. The problem is getting the individual entries out of my head and onto the page. I'm a firm believer that writing is all about revision. Getting the ideas out is the easy part. But fine-tuning your thoughts and crafting them into something pithy or smart or funny is a whole 'nother kettle of fish.

11:45 am

So I've had to make some adjustments if this blog is ever going to get off the ground. I'm taking advice that Allen Ginsberg once gave me in a creative writing class. He said, "First thought, best thought. Just puke it out." Considering my very first blog entry took a week to write, and my second one took almost that long, it's time to start throwing out words and let them fall where they may. No more neat and tidy prose that's planned out ahead of time, reworded, reordered, or revised. It's spontaneous Me from here on out.

12:30 pm

Like a nicotine addict who just quit smoking, I feel an uncontrollable urge to go back and edit what I've already written. At this point, I can't even go back and read it because I'll get sucked in and want to do a complete makeover. I'm going to lunch so I won't be tempted.

(Hey, that only took two and a half hours!)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Lunches with Stephanie

I'm a college administrator at the University of Michigan-Flint, a position I took after spending a dozen years in the classroom as a writing professor. Teaching is my first love, but taking a break from it to pursue new challenges has been a wise move. And since eating out is a part of my job, I love it even more. I especially love taking job candidates out to dinner. I almost always know by the time we're five minutes into the meal whether the person is likely to get the offer or not. Needless to say, the experience can be very engaging, or it can be extremely awkward.

I chaired a search committee in 2004 to hire a second writing specialist in the English Department, and I took the final candidate out to dinner. Stephanie was a rising start in the field, had interviewed well all day, and I already knew she was going to get the offer. I wanted her to come here in the worst way, so my task was to convince her, over dinner, that she wanted t come here. She already had offers pending from other schools, so I knew I had to put on my A game. I pulled out The Red Rooster.

Established in the 1940's this is one of the finest old school restaurants in Flint. It's the only place that still does table-side cooking, and the food is always outstanding. There are no windows in the restaurant, but it's well lit and tastefully decorated. The waitstaff is totally professional and everyone knows when to dote on you and when to leave you alone.

My friend Jan, who was also on the search committee, joined Stephanie and me, and between the two of us, we knew what we had to do. We ordered drinks. I ordered an Absolute Seabreeze and Jan ordered a glass of wine. To our delight, Stephanie followed Jan's lead and also ordered a glass of wine. By the time our appetizer and second round of drinks arrived, I was in full sales pitch mode: Our students are some of the best in the state, the university takes great care of us with yearly raises and full medical benefits, you can set your own schedule, and on and on and on. I could see Stephanie's excitement growing.

"So how about a nice bottle of Cabernet with dinner?" I asked. "To celebrate the end of a very good day." I was secretly trying to get her oiled enough to just say "I love this place! I want the job!" We polished off our entrees and the wine over stories about how Jan and I came to live in Flint and how much we loved living and working here. Stephanie was all smiles. I didn't know when we walked out to our cars and parted company, if she would actually take the job, but I was pretty sure we just showed her one hell of a good time.

Stephanie eventually took the job. Our mutual love of eating out led us to periodic lunch dates, and over time evolved into weekly dates. We've had lunch together pretty regularly for the last six years, and religiously (every Thursday) for the last three. Last year, from January to May, we decided to pick a theme to guide us through our weekly lunches, sort of kick it up a notch, make it a little more of an adventure.

We brainstormed a lot of choices but settled on restaurants that had Keno machines. That's right, we would only eat at restaurants where we could gossip about our colleagues while playing 10 games of Keno. The drawings were two and a half minutes apart, which gave us plenty of time to catch up, eat our lunch, and hopefully win a few bucks. We saved our winnings, and spent the $18 on our last lunch of the semester.

This year, at least for the next 26 weeks, we have chosen a new theme: Mexican restaurants. According to, there are 57 Mexican restaurants in the county, but I know that not all of them are still in business. Join me as I chronicle my lunches with Stephanie and report on the state of affairs from places like Los Ponchos, El Patrero, Cooki's Taco House, El-Especial, La Familia, and a host of others. My secret desire is to find a Mexican Restaurant with a Keno machine. How do you say "Jackpot" in Spanish?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Crying Bob and Bernie

I took my first restaurant job in 1978 as a busboy at the Anchor Inn in Manistee, Michigan, a small greasy spoon in a small fishing/factory town on Lake Michigan. What an eye opener that was for a sheltered teenager like me. I met an alcoholic who came in drunk every day, complained about his miserable life, and at some point began bawling like some little kid whose candy bar fell in the dirt. He called himself, "Bob. Just plain Bob." The waitresses and I dubbed him Crying Bob, a name he always lived up to.

I also met Bernie Patulski, a delusional acid-head who believed he was Jesus Christ. And he looked like Jesus, too. The first time he walked into the restaurant, draped in a flowing white garment, standing in front of the illuminated Specials of the Day board proclaiming to be the Son of God, I actually thought I was witnessing to the second coming. His story about being trapped in the belly of a whale was compelling. Since I wasn't very intimate with Scripture, it was lost on me that it was Jonah and not Jesus who actually held claim to that fish tale.

I eventually worked my way up to waiter, and then on to cook. This is where I learned how to crack an egg with one hand, how to make a square omelet, and how to cook anywhere from one to a dozen meals at the same time. These are skills that have stayed with me and that I use in my own kitchen adventures at home. After outgrowing the monotony of line cooking at a local diner, I moved on to become a cook at Big Boy, then Burger Chef, The Birdfeeder (another local diner), and The Drydock (an upscale dinner joint with less than upscale customers). Through it all, I learned a great deal about the restaurant business. But I learned even more about the human condition. Put the two together, and you have the perfect recipe for a Blog like Eating Flint.

Despite the horrendous reputation my adopted city has developed over the years--murder capital of the country, the bastard child of General Motors, the most undesirable city on the planet to live in--Flint really is a flourishing metropolis. Did you know there are 7 theatre troupes in the city, more than a dozen art galleries and museums, and a staggering 482 restaurants--this includes the entire county, of course, but that's one restaurant for every 200 people? This may be a city that always seems to be down on its luck, but we love to eat! And we love to eat out. If you're a golfer and want a guaranteed tee time, then hit the course between 5:00 and 7:00 in the evening. Everyone's gone out to eat and the golf courses are as empty as the eating establishments are full.

What I find unique about dining out in Flint is that most of the locally owned places have embraced the city of Flint and their establishments help create a collective identity that most outsiders rarely see but that locals find as comforting as a plate of Angelo's Coney Island gravy fries at three o'clock in the morning. Coney Island Diners, by the way, make up the backbone of Genesee County's restaurant industry. And each of the more than 50 diners has its own unique identity. Atlas and Colonial on Corunna Road are known hangouts for college students. Tommy Zs, Angelos, and a handful of others host the after-the-bar crowds. After it burned to the ground, the Olympic Coney Island rebuilt and the name changed to the Olympic Grill, an attempt, I think, to create a more upscale Coney Island dining experience. A contradiction for sure, but as the poet Walt Whitman once wrote, "So I contradict myself. I am vast. I contain multitudes." Like the transcendental poet himself, our Coney island diners contain multitudes, and from every walk of life. It's were the shop rats, the academics, the unemployed, the retired, and the families converge. It's where first dates happen. And not infrequently, it's where homecoming and prom couples come for dinner.

But Flint boasts an expansive menu of other dining options as well, and each one creates it own unique family portrait of Flint's people: Middle Eastern, Indian, Japanese, Italian, Soul, Thai, Mexican, lounges, even an award-winning brew pub. My goal for this blog is to share the cuisines and cultures of Flint's diverse and dynamic restaurant scene and to help my readers see the Flint that I see every day, the vibrant city I choose to live in, play in and, of course, eat in! The mainstream media have made my city the poster child for what's wrong with America. What we're spoon fed by the media isn't always accurate and too often sacrifices contextual truth for out-of-context sensationalism. Telling Flint's story, and telling it around the dining room table, is my way of inviting the world to sit down for lunch or dinner with me, to get a close up look at the diverse and colorful people who call Flint home, to understand why we are so protective of our beloved city, and to break bread with some of the kindest, most generous people you'll ever meet. So pull up a chair, fill up your wine glass, and let's order!