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 décor. 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!