Friday, October 30, 2009

A Load of Crepe

Or

How to Start a Successful Restaurant in Flint, Michigan

It was operating as an official business for only a few days when I got wind of The Flint Crepe Company, a roadside restaurant in the form of a “crepe cart.” As I drove to work down Court Street one morning, I caught my first glimpse of the operation. It was two guys huddled around a set of propane fueled griddles making crepes for a small crowd of locals. How cool is that? I thought. Another positive development in Flint.

That was just after Labor Day. Since then, the owners of The Flint Crepe Company, Robb Klaty and Tim Goodrich, have been working around the clock to nurture their fledgling business, and the response and support from the Flint community has been overwhelmingly positive. I caught up with Tim yesterday as he was chillin’ in his van after another successful lunch rush, and I asked if he’d share the story of how his business evolved from dream to reality.

Tim is a laid back, easy going guy, who doesn’t wear his excitement on his sleeve, but his passion for the journey he has recently begun manifests itself unmistakably in his boyish smile and in the satisfaction that fills his eyes. I leaned against the door of his very black van and listened for almost half an hour as Tim narrated a story that had me captivated from start to finish.

Tim and Robb have agreed to let me share their story with you, which I hope you find as inspiring as I do.

THE PLAN

Robb and Tim had only known each other for less than a year before becoming business partners. Tim was working part-time at a local church, and Robb, already a business man, was the owner of a successful lawn care company. They shared an interest in owning a business in Flint, and they shared a mutual friend, who suggested they start a food establishment in the downtown area. Robb had already been thinking about a restaurant that specialized in omelets. According to Tim, “He was now off that idea and thought maybe crepes would work for Flint. Something different. Something which many people seem to love. Something simple with low overhead.” And why not? Who ever thought sushi would make it in Flint? Different works. It’s a good philosophy in the food business. At least in Flint.

THE RESEARCH: PART I

“So we went to Chicago to check the idea out. Closer than NYC, but still with several crepe restaurants.” Tim’s smile brightens as he tosses me this tidbit of information. I can tell he is a man who loves his research. And what a cool idea for testing out your market. But wait, it gets better. They visited 10-12 crepe restaurants in downtown Chicago—on their bikes! In his great story telling voice, Tim simply tells me, “We rode all over downtown going from restaurant to restaurant, seeing what they had on the menu, what we liked or disliked about the food, the décor, etc. We came back to Flint confident that crepes would work in Flint.”

THE RESEARCH: PART II

Shortly after their return, Robb began looking into what kind of equipment they would need to purchase and what kind of location they might secure. Their investigation led them to believe that maybe a crepe cart strategically placed in the downtown area would be the best way to get the business off the ground. Within a couple of weeks, they had ordered a cart, and Robb began the marketing push, promoting the idea on Facebook and trying to get 333 fans to support them (apparently Robb is fond of “un-round numbers.”) To their surprise, they amassed a fan base of over a thousand within the first three weeks. Ironically, that’s about 333 per week.

Tim was in charge of developing the crepe batter and most of the crepe recipes. Here’s the process he engaged in that led to the tasty crepes that now fly off their griddles: “I went to work trying out different recipes, modifying them, giving them to friends and family, and getting input and ideas from those who were interested” Just a week before opening The Flint Crepe Company, Tim and Robb invited several friends to join them for an official crepe tasting evening. The young entrepreneurs were delighted that nearly all of the crepes they created were well liked and well received by their guests.

TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES

After applying for the requisite permits and getting Health Department approval, Robb and Tim settled on an opening day, Labor Day, in the Flint Chamber of Commerce Parking lot. The rationale behind opening a restaurant in downtown flint on Labor Day is brilliant. As Tim put it, “We thought there would be fewer people who would come out on Labor Day and we figured we didn’t want to screw up too badly in front of a lot of people.” It also gave them a chance to get their “crepe legs” and test out their skills on their new and larger griddles.

The choice of location was also strategic and well-planned. It turns out that the City of Flint has an ordinance which prohibits any carts like the crepe cart from doing business in the downtown area. (This explains why the Hot Dog Cart mysteriously disappeared from Saginaw Street). They made inquiries, of course, and tried to resolve the issue so they could run their business and not fear being shut down only days after getting started. They learned “informally” that if they stayed on private property, nobody would bother them. Thus, the Chamber of Commerce parking lot.

Days after getting started, Tim and Robb received a couple of visitors. A Flint police officer and a representative from the City Clerk’s Office notified the new business owners that they were in violation of the city ordinance and “to the extent that the cart was on private property that we were in violation of certain land use restrictions.” Uh oh. According to Tim, the officer and the representative didn’t actually say they were going to do anything about the “violations.” They were just there to notify.

The new business owners were beginning to realize that there were "certain business interests which were not happy about us being there." As Tim and Robb understood it, these business owners were the ones behind the ordinance and were trying to protect their own business interests in the downtown area. But the crepe guys know how to play the political chess game. Tim spelled it out like this: "We figured nobody really had the guts to come and kick us out because nobody wanted to be the one responsible for getting in the way of a new business in downtown Flint." And they were right. A lot of the people they shared this information with, including me, were surprised and outraged that Flint would even have such an ordinance. For the time being, even though they kept hearing that something worse would indeed happen, the crepe duo decided to stay put and see what transpired.



THE NEXT CHAPTER

After evaluating the pros and cons of their location (they were pretty far from UM-Flint and the heart of downtown and customers were complaining that it was hard to find a place to park), Robb and Tim made another strategic decision. Rather than wait for a potentially political and messy controversy to erupt, they would focus on their own business interest and move The Flint Crepe Company to the grounds of The Flint City Farmer’s Market. As it turns out, it was their smartest decision yet in their brief yet determined journey toward crepe stardom. Business was so good their first day at the Market that they settled on this as the spot to close out their crepe cart season.

After only two month in business, Tim and Robb are convinced that there is a market for crepes in Flint. The next chapter of their story has yet to be written, but already they are taking steps to find the resources and open an actual storefront restaurant downtown.

Tomorrow, Saturday, Halloween, will mark the end of the first season for The Flint Crepe Company, so I am calling on all of you to gather your friends and family and come to the Farmer’s Market to help celebrate Tim and Robb’s success and to show them how much our local community loves and supports The Flint Crepe Company. Please share this post widely on your social networking sites or any other way you know how. Since the event is tomorrow, we don’t have much time to rally the troops, but let’s at least try to get 333 supporters to attend. And if you can't find the cart by the following the delicious crepey smells, then just look for the very black van.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

"Bring Out Your Dead!"

One of the things I love most about fall is that it marks the beginning of a butt load of holidays. Starting with Halloween and ending with New Year’s Eve, there are lots and lots of opportunities to celebrate, to drink yourself silly, and yes, to eat. I’m especially excited about the upcoming Mexican Holiday that, to my surprise and disappointment, hasn’t really caught on in middle America: The Day of the Dead.


El Dia de los Muertos, or All Souls’ Day, is widely celebrated in Mexico, as well as by Latin American communities in the U.S. I’ve always thought that is was celebrated on the first of November, but I recently learned that in many regions of Mexico it’s actually a two day celebration. How sweet is that? The holiday was originally intended to honor the dead by building an alter in their honor using, among other things, their favorite foods and beverages.


Now who wouldn’t want to celebrate that holiday? I certainly would. I could even see myself going to my grandfather’s grave lugging a fifth of Kessler’s (that’s cheap whiskey) and a pot of grandma’s baked macaroni and cheese under my arm. She baked this dish to death because my grandfather had no teeth and baking the macaroni for an ungodly long time made it soft enough for him to eat. As a kid, I found it a disgusting, gooey mess, but then again I couldn’t wash it down with a big swig of whiskey the way my grandfather could. But I digress.


Celebrations in this country have strayed from the Catholic influenced, somber variety to whimsical parties that actually honor stuff like dead television shows. Celebrations in larger cities have even taken on the life of Mardi Gras style bashes. Whatever form it takes, celebrating the dead makes me hungry, and what better way to pay homage to this classic Mexican holiday than eating a good Mexican meal? So Stephanie and I did just that. We started the party early by having lunch at one of Flint’s most beloved Mexican restaurants of all time, La Familia Morales.


The weather was absolutely perfect for the occasion—cold, dark, drizzly, and windy. Dead leaves were flying around like big goofy snowflakes, and the ground was already covered in little drifts of yellows and reds and browns. I forgot my umbrella, so Stephanie let me huddle under hers for the six or seven steps it took to get to the front door.


Inside, the place was abuzz with the voices of customers, the staff, and the big colored TV sitting in a small cubby space next to the kitchen that two little kids were glued to. A few Halloween decorations littered the dining room, but off by itself in the far corner, hanging from the ceiling, was the true symbol of El Dia de los Muertos. It was a good looking replica of a human skull perched atop a black cape thingy. It was breathtaking and beautiful.


If you’ve never been to La Familia, then there’s no need to open the menu. Just order the Golden Tacos. They’re deep fried flour shells (and nobody in this town can make these shells better) with a mound of ground beef and cheese and lettuce inside. Simple. Delicious. Ya better order them three at a time! Sour cream is extra, but order it because it’s the perfect topping to this king of Mexican comfort food. I also pour some of the house salsa on mine to give it an extra kick.


Then, keeping your menu closed, order a small side of beans and a small side of rice. Almost everything is available ala cart on La Familia’s menu, so you can order what you want, and if you find it’s not enough, then you can order more. It’s like a Mexican Sushi Bar that way. The refried beans are pretty good, but the rice is the real surprise for me. Let me stop and remind you that the bar for good Mexican rice in this town isn’t set all that high, at least considering the places we’ve visited so far, but La Familia’s rice made me stop and say, “Hey, that’s pretty good.” Stephanie summed it up best though when she said something like “Finally, someone who knows how to make decent Mexican Rice.”


I’ve mostly gotten over my grumpiness about Mexican restaurants charging you separately for almost every ingredient on your plate, but something caught my eye on the La Familia menu that rekindled my cranky-pants attitude. You can order a side of jalapeño peppers for thirty cents. ONLY IF YOU DINE IN! Get them to go and they’ll cost you fifty cents. To my credit, I did not try to figure out the logic of this move; nor did I go off like a slobbery madman ranting and raving to my lunch partner about the inherent insanity of this ridiculous policy. No, I collected my wits and moved on. Better to let it go than to give myself a fatal stroke and risk Stephanie visiting my grave with a deep fried flour shell, some ground beef, cheese, lettuce, sour cream, taco sauce, and a fifth of Kessler’s to wash it all down. Much better.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Do Gooders

My daughter Alexis got hooked on the Backyardigans a couple of years ago. It’s an insufferable cartoon done in computer animation that features a socially awkward Penguin named Pablo, a moose named Tyrone, and three animals I’ve never been able to identity named Uniqua, Tasha, and Austin. Alexis somehow suckered me into getting her a collection of these God awful shows on DVD.

Her favorite episode is called “The Do Gooders,” where the kids pretend to be members of a rough and tough gang, but they’ve traded in the stereotypical gang behavior for a happier, more productive cause: helping others. And of course they sing a song called “We are the Do Gooders" which, because my daughter has watched the episode a hundred plus times, is forever etched in my brain. There’s barely room with all of the Sixties and Seventies sitcom jingles, but it’s in there.

I caught myself singing this stupid Backyardigans song in the truck today on the way to work. In a desperate attempt to get it out of my head, I started thinking about what I might do for my next blog post. And then in a perfect storm of brilliant notion and stupid cartoon song, I hatched an idea. Why not be a do gooder myself. I remember taking issue in my last post with this either/or mentality and challenging everyone to think in terms of solving problems and not just critiquing, or worse denying, them.

There are so many restaurants in the area that some of them are getting lost in the shuffle, and as a result are suffering in one way or another. Most of our Mexican restaurants are doing pretty well, at least the ones Stephanie and I have visited, but other local eateries are not. Others still are fairly new and need the support of our community to ensure their survival.

So here’s my plan: I’m going to periodically write about a restaurant that I think needs help in some way, and I am going to share the story with you. I’m also going to go eat there because that’s about the best thing we can do to support our local restaurant owners. I would challenge you to try these places out as well, since strength in numbers can equate to a big boost for our brothers and sisters in the restaurant industry who are already doing their part to make Flint a strong and stable place.

If you go to one of the restaurants that I profile, and if you send me some words of testimonial/critique/review, I’ll create a collective review reflecting as many of your voices as possible and post it on the blog. I’ll also ask fellow bloggers, tweeters, facebookers, and others to link the reviews to their sites and pages to give each restaurant maximum exposure.
By the way, Matt Bach from the Flint Area Convention & Visitors Bureau included Eating Flint in his Changing Perceptions of Flint report, which he updates ever day. Thanks Matt. I would urge you to contact Matt and get on his list so that you can receive his daily report on what’s happening in Flint, what conversations are happening that involve Flint, and what media coverage Flint is getting. It’s a great way to stay informed. Send your request to Matt at mbach@flint.travel.

So the first restaurant that I’m going to visit and then write about is House of Hunan. It’s a sit- down Chinese place with a really classy décor and very good menu. The food is consistently good, and the prices are quite reasonable. House of Hunan is fairly new, but it’s every bit as good as the King of Chinese restaurants in Flint, The Empress of China. As I see it, though, House of Hunan is facing two challenges.

First, they are located on South Dort Highway, where the restaurant failure rate, it seems, is higher than anywhere else in the county. They opened in the old Big Boy building, and after Big Boy closed at least three other restaurants moved in, and eventually closed. So Hunan has the jinx factor working against it.

The other challenge is that they are located just down the road from Empress of China. It’s unfortunate that two restaurants of this quality—and I believe they are the best two Chinese restaurants we have—are competing with each other in such close proximity. I’m sure that’s not helping Hunan's cause either. I cannot say whether House of Hunan is struggling for survival or not, but whenever I’ve been there, the cars in the parking lot have been few in number.

If you haven’t been there before, try them for lunch first. You can get some good combination specials and try multiple menu items in one visit. If I have enough feedback from you by the end of next week, I’ll write a review and try to get it widely circulated. If not, I’ll record the Do Gooders song and attach it to every blog post I write so it gets stuck in your gray matter the way it’s stuck in mine. “We are the Dooooooo Gooders. We rumble and ro-o-ar.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

And the Prophet Spoke

I finally got around to reading the New York Times article by Dan Barry, “Amid Ruin of Flint, Seeing Hope in a Garden” which has been creating quite a buzz around town. As I read the piece, I’m thinking to myself, how nice; a story about hope in Flint. And then I started reading some response to it on Facebook and other social networking sites.

One source of feedback that I find interesting, and at the same time peculiar, is the Flint Area Convention and Visitors Bureau website Changing Perceptions of Flint (the October 20th issue). The interesting part is that they shared feedback on the NYT article by local residents, some of whom were critical because they felt it “puts flint in a bad way.” Others saw the article as positive, referring to Barry’s treatment of Flint as inspirational.

And one person flat out refused to look at the portrayal of Flint’s image in this dichotomous way. Here’s the full quote: “I’m curious what some of us might define as positive, given that some see this articles’ realistic yet incredibly hopeful assessment as somehow negative. Ignoring our city’s struggle does not make us positive people; facing that struggle and working with each other to improve it, on the other hand, shows actual character and strength.”

I almost fell out of my chair when I read the person’s name who said this. Philip Greenfield. Yes, my partner Philip. If you think about it, though, it makes perfect sense that he’d say something like this. After all, he’s the one who refused to take sides when I wrecked a guys bar and when the guy kicked the shit out of me. Philip’s main concern was saving the piece of meat that, like Flint, had gotten unfairly knocked around.

That was the interesting part of the Changing Perceptions of Flint website. Here’s the peculiar part. The opening lines of this day’s entry read “This is a daily report on Flint and Genesee County, and where it appears in the news, BLOGS, etc. I’ll provide the links and your job is to help create a positive light around Flint.”

Translation (as I understand it, anyway): “This is a daily report on Flint, and I’ll provide the link to Barnett’s Eating Flint blog so you, dear reader, can rejoice in the positive light he sheds on Flint.”

Well, I’m sure you’ll find it as peculiar as I do that not one single word of this four-page report on the state of our city so much as mentioned Eating Flint. It did mention that the Mayor will host a weekly press conference and that Glenwood Cemetery, on Court Street, is hosting fall Tours, but nothing about lunches with Stephanie or tater tot casserole or Flint’s delicious Mexican food. Nothing.

I’ve even used image boosting phrases in my previous posts like “our beloved city,” “the vibrant city I choose to live in,” and “Flint: At least we’re not Saginaw.” My words are practically oozing positive light around Flint, and those of you who read the blog are like hundred-watt energy saving light bulbs brightening up the city as you talk about it with your friends and family. And the blog researcher for Changing Perceptions of Flint doesn’t even know this blog exists? We have work to do, my friends. We have work to do.

The website also goes on to alert readers that “If a blogger is bashing Flint, and Genesee County, go post a positive message. If there is an article about the depressed economy of Flint, go post something uplifting.” At this point, I’m channeling Philip’s wisdom and wondering why we can’t transcend this punch/counter punch mentality and work together to improve Flint, and more importantly perhaps, its image. Wouldn’t that show our collective character and strength in the way that Philip’s prophetic words were most likely intended? (Lord help me when I get home if I’m wrong about that).

And doesn’t Dan Barry’s New York Times article actually do that? Doesn’t it show how, surrounded by both good and bad, a group of neighbors are working together to make a piece of Flint better? Yes. That’s exactly what’s happening. As Barry notes, “East Piper Avenue now has its sidewalks back, along with a vegetable garden, a grassy expanse where a children’s playground will be built, and, close to one of those abutting abandoned houses, a mix-and-match orchard of 18 young fruit trees.” That’s positive, baby! That also shows what happens when we cast off an either/or mentality, roll up our sleeves, and become part of the solution.

This all inspires me to think more globally about how I can use Eating Flint to, among other things, be a part of the solution and not just a critic of the problems. I like how this blog is evolving, with a mix of stories and reviews, and a little bit of good humor, and I'm going to continue to create posts that stay true to that goal. But, in the spirit of brightening the light that shines on Flint, I’m open to other ideas and additional directions. In fact I'm already kicking around a few that I'll share in future posts. In the meantime, let me know if any brilliant notions come to you. I’d love to hear them. You can respon to this post or you can send ideas to my email address, sockboy07@hotmail.com

And if you haven’t read the Barry article or visited the Flint Area Convention & Visitors Bureau site, Changing Perceptions of Flint, check them out. They’re well worth the read.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

"Well do ya, punk?"

Yes! I do feel lucky! My friend Cat Bastet--not her real name--gave me a hot tip this week: Senor Lucky’s in Davison. Yup, back to back Davison excursions, but this time, I feel lucky. And for good reason. Senor Lucky’s has a Keno machine!

If you’ve never played keno or if you've never been to a keno lounge, you have no idea what you’re missing. Servers bring you drinks, you scratch some numbers, pay some money, and then you watch for your numbers on a big flashy screen. It’s the bourgeois version of a bingo hall.

The problem with Keno, though, is that it’s a stepping stone to the harder stuff. When I lived in Reno I didn’t know anyone, so I’d spend Friday nights in the keno lounge chatting it up with tourists and plopping down my numbers. After a while, the thrill wore off and I graduated to the roulette table. The conversation was better, and the drinks were still free, but I wasn’t winning much (Roulette has the worst odds of any game in the casino, a fact I did not know until it was too late). Then my dissertation director taught me how to play the grand daddy of all casino games, Craps. I won at first, but the more I understood the game, the more I lost my ass.

I didn’t even have to go to the casinos to feed my addiction. Gambling in Nevada is also legal in bars, party stores, supermarkets, even laundromats. I knew I hit rock bottom when I found myself going to the grocery store just to play my favorite slot machine.

I’ve since gotten most of my gambling addiction under control, so a few games of keno over a Mexican lunch seems harmless. Senor Lucky’s is actually a pretty nice place. The dining room is far bigger than it probably needs to be, but it’s well lit and lined with lots of windows. I’m a little surprised at how few people are here, considering last week’s massive crowd down the street at El Charrito.

Stephanie and I smile at each other when a server approaches our table within seconds, toting menus and a big basket of chips and salsa. The chips are still warm and the corn flour smell is heavenly. The chips are made fresh in-house and served gratis. SWEET! The house salsa is fresh and tasty as well, and a hot salsa is available upon request. The hot salsa is just OK, but I certainly appreciate that it’s an available option. Maybe our luck is beginning to change.
Even before I open my menu, I head straight for the bar and return to the table with a blank keno ticket. After agreeing to play no kicker, no jack, five numbers, $1 per game, and 10 games, we alternate picking numbers: 57. 50.75. 17. 12. OK. Now I can look at the menu.

The description of the chimichanga is almost too good to be true: A whopper 12 inch tortilla stuffed with ground beef and beans, deep fried, and topped with cheese. Served with beans and rice on the side. I pretend to show interest in one of the combination lunch specials, but Stephanie and I both know what I’m getting. And of course, she goes straight for the enchilada platter. This time, its ground beef.

We decide to roll the dice on the queso dip, and while we’re waiting, I notice that we didn’t win either of the first two keno games. Is our luck about to run out? Well, in terms of the cheese dip, yes. The server sets down a soufflé dish (is this a Davison thing?) filled to the rim with what looks like Cheese Wiz. I can tell by its glowing sheen that I’m going to be let down. The taste is part processed and part fresh. In one of my cooking stints, we used to add water and instant mashed potatoes to the pot of real potatoes so they would last longer and cost less to make. That’s what our queso dip tastes like. Yuk!

The entrees, however, are a very different story. Senor Lucky’s scores big in this department. Like most of the other Mexican restaurants in Flint, Lucky’s food is really a Midwesternized Tex-Mex, but that said, I love my food. The meat and beans are well suited to be served together, and both are worthy of being dunked in hot grease wrapped in their big 12 inch blanket of yumminess. The sour cream/shredded cheese/guacamole topping is nice, but I I’m a little disappointed that my monster chimi wasn’t slathered in a good peppery gravy. It’s the only flaw in an otherwise excellent dish.

Stephanie’s dish is quite acceptable as well. The enchilada shells are flavorful and not sogged down by the wetness of their innards. The meat is well seasoned and plays well with the melted cheese that oozes out the opened ends of the corn tortillas. They aren’t topped, though, with a tomato based enchilada sauce, but garnished, rather, with the peppery gravy sauce that I long for on my own dish. Either way, our food is very good.

Next to El Potrero, Senor Lucky's is about the best Mexican food we've had so far. Their chips are so good, in fact, that I'm putting them on the list of contenders for the coveted TTC Award of Excellence. How could I not? Even as the Cheese Wiz queso began to harden and form a leathery skin on top, my trusty chips broke through without falling apart. That in itself is reason enough to honor them.

My luck continues as I sidle up to the bar and turn in my keno ticket. Stephanie and I got so lost in conversation, I forgot to watch my numbers for the last eight games, so I have no idea whether or not I've won anything. As it turns out, I have. Two dollars. This really is my lucky day!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Meaning of Food

Philip and I rented the movie Ratatouille Saturday night with our daughter, Alexis. We started our movie night by making comfort food for the show. The only rule was that we had to use what was already in the house. No going to the store, and much to my disappointment, no ordering out. We hadn’t been grocery shopping in almost a week, so this was certainly going to be a challenge. We'd seen enough episodes of Iron Chef and Chopped, however, and were pretty sure we could do this.

Alexis made homemade mini pizzas with pepperoni. That was easy. Philip used tortilla shells and cheese powder from a box of macaroni and cheese to make nachos and dip. (That sounds horrid, but with a little burrito seasoning, the cheese dip was actually not bad). And I made pigs in the blanket from a roll of biscuit dough and some frozen Smoky Links.

Sharing food and sharing the process of making food can be a powerful force in our lives. If food were language then for me cooking certainly would be meaning making. The two are intimately connected. They’re inseparable. And above all they’re socially constructed concepts. Coming together around food helps us tap into the communal, tribal, nature of who we are. It also triggers great stories and memories from our past.

As I was trying to keep Alexis from eating all of my piggy dough, a communal cooking memory popped into my head. My dear friend Shaunanne, who lives in northern North Dakota. Our visits are too infrequent but always include a long afternoon together in the kitchen. Planning, preparing, and serving meals together has evolved over the last fifteen years and has come to define a big part of our relationship. I wrote a poem several years ago that attempts to capture a bit of our relationship and the role food has played in shaping who we've become.

The poem also incorporates my fascination with ritual, and what better place to explore ritual than with a holiday dinner. When I was a kid, my parents never made us go to church or Sunday school. The only exception was Easter. My mom dolled us up every year—my brother and me in suits, and my sisters in dresses—and dragged us off to the Lutheran service. Afterwards, we’d meet my dad at my grandma’s and have a giant feast. That was the extent of my religious training.

As an adult, I’ve created my own ritual for holidays, and of course food and friends are the centerpiece. Here's the poem that tries to capture all of that:


The Feast

Out my kitchen window
A crow is dragging scraps
Of duck across the yard—
The skin, some fat, a neck.
Did I mention it’s Easter afternoon?

Heading toward the crocus bed
The crow pulls its duckstuff
Under white and purple flowers
Blooming in this third-month
Mix of snow and sun.

What do you think it means?
I ask my friend, standing near me
Stuffing the rest of the bird
With celery, onions, and oranges.
This is sorrow at its best, she says.

The purist in me wants her words
To mean one thing, but she’s a poet
Staring out my window at a ritual
she knows too well.

Caught in my own ritual
Of sacrifice and sentiment,
Which amounts to drinking wine
And making food for my friends
Because it’s somehow holy to me—

As holy as Christ’s walk with a cross
Strapped to his back, the heavy wood
Trenching a path like a signature—

I nearly miss the crow lifting itself to the sky,
Fragments of metaphor scattered in its wake,
A half-ass resurrection I finally understand.


I miss my friend Shuananne, and I miss gathering with my friends around bottles of good wine and good food. But Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and with it will come another set of rituals, another set of traditions, and best of all another story yet to be told. I can't wait!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Cloudy with a Chance of Extra Charges

I posed two possibilities to Stephanie for our lunch date on Thursday. Casa de Linda, a tiny shack of a place on Dort Highway just north of Longway Boulevard. It seats, at most, ten people. Several years ago it was the Mexicali Café, a pretty good restaurant, but in this freaky 1970’s style, free love, key party, partner swapping world of Flint area Mexican restaurants, it too has gotten around. I’m not even sure where Mexicali Café is located anymore.

El Charrito was the second choice. It’s one of three Mexican restaurants in Davison. The other two are Taco Bell and Senor Lucky’s. It was cold and rainy on Thursday, and Stephanie and I were both having crummy days, so we decided to get as far away from downtown as possible. We chose El Charrito.

Did you ever have someone tell you about the greatest movie they ever saw and that you HAVE TO see it, and then you do and you think, ya it’s ok, but it’s a far cry from the greatest flick you’ve ever seen?. In fact, if movies were judged by the Tater Tot Casserole standard, this movie that everyone raved about would be the macaroni and cheese at Old Country Buffet. Granted, there are usually a few really good scenes that keep you hanging around, but overall, the movie is rarely as good as the overly enthusiastic review you were given. And after you blow a days wages on tickets, popcorn and a drink, you feel a little let down by the whole experience.

Well, that’s El Charrito in a mixed metaphor of a nutshell. Don’t take the Old Country Buffet comparison too literally, because Charrito, overall, is clearly better than that, but you get the idea. I’m sure I’m going to irritate those who identify themselves as Charrito loyalists, but I seriously disliked this place.

Unless you’re an in-the-know local, getting to Charrito could be a bit of a challenge. It might have been a little easier had we not missed a turn or two because we were so wrapped up in bitching about our mornings at work. We made it downtown but had to ask for help from an 80’s looking groupie in a candy apple red pickup truck, who of course knew exactly where to send us. The entrance looks like it’s on a side street (I think it’s Mill Street) because that’s where the only Charrito sign is. That door, however, is locked. The entrance we found is actually on Main Street. Just look for the blue dog dish in front of a window with a flashing “Open” sign.

Yes, a dog dish. What’s even more bizarre is that when we pulled up to the curb, a car pulled up next to us with a little hound dog hanging out the window. And sure enough, the dog jumped out of the car, went right for the bowl of water, and had himself a drink. It felt a little like watching a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.

The lunch crowd was already starting to trickle in when we arrived, and soon after, the dining room filled to capacity (about 20 booths and tables). With three servers hightailing it around the long, narrow dining room, the wait was minimal. We were approached almost immediately with menus and a small empty bowl with a squeeze bottle of what looked like their house salsa. It was.

Our Cindy-Lauper-after-a-long-night-on-the-town looking server offered us a basket of chips, but when we said yes we had no idea we were agreeing to pay almost three dollars for them. Aren’t these things complimentary? I thought chip baskets were the Mexican restaurant version of bread sticks or dinner rolls. That erroneous assumption wasn’t fully realized until we saw the check. Really? And how much is the basket rental for the chips?

Did the basket rental account for the mysterious seventy-five cent additional charge on our bill? No. That charge was for the hotter version of the house salsa, which amounted to a second empty bowl, a thimble full of diced jalapeños, and another squeeze bottle of salsa. This really was turning out to be like a bad trip to the movies.

On to the con queso. What could possibly go wrong with the queso, right? It’s nothing more complicated than melted cheesestuff, with or without a layer of refried beans under it, that you may or may not have to pay extra for. It came as no surprise that this version was served without the beans. Besides, there wouldn’t have been any room in the two-ounce soufflé cup for the cheesestuff, and I’m using that term, cheesestuff, liberally. It looked like Phillips Milk of Magnesia and tasted like paper machete paste. Really folks, this stuff shouldn’t even be on the menu.

Stephanie ordered the chicken enchiladas, which came, like most dishes do, with a side of beans and rice. I ordered the chimichanga, but apparently somebody wrote the beans and rice out of the script. Oh yeah, and the cheese and gravy on top of my chimicanga each had their own special price as well. I’ve rarely had good rice in a Mexican restaurant, so I passed on that and just ordered a side of beans. Good call, as it turned out.

My chimichanga, on the other hand, was stunningly good. It was one big shell filled with well-seasoned ground beef and perfectly deep fried. The gravy and cheese portions were perfect too. This dish, as I think back on my experience, was a little like Meryl Streep acting in a Keanu Reaves movie.

Stephanie’s chicken enchiladas turned in a lackluster performance, but next to the Mexican rice it looked like a pretty good effort. For the second time in as many weeks, the chicken in the enchiladas was really off the mark. Last week, the chicken was waterlogged from the juices it soaked in. This week it was dry as a bone with not even a hint of seasoning on it. Stephanie’s a trouper, though, and has vowed to find the perfect enchilada before we move on to another theme. Until then, we soldier on. I know there’s a star of a Mexican Restaurant out there somewhere just waiting to be discovered.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

I'll have the Prime Rib

“It’s Friday night and I really don’t feel like cooking dinner.” If I say this to Philip in a slightly whiny tone with a bit of a pathetic look in my eyes, he usually bites.

“Well let’s do dinner out”, he suggests.

“Great. How about Redwood Lodge?”

I have a love/hate relationship with Redwood Lodge. I love their food but hate their high prices. In fariness to them, the quality of the food is not out of line with the prices, but this is Flint, where $200,000 houses are selling for under a hundred grand. The Redwood knows which crowd they’re catering to, though, so my little hissy fits about their over-priced meals will just have to go unnoticed. Besides, I’m in a good mood tonight, and our waiter is pouring on some killer good service. I’ll call him Greg.

We’re in the mood for a bottle of big, full-bodied cabernet but none of the selections looks familiar. I ask Greg for a wine recommendation. Because he’s not sure which hearty cabernet to suggest, he tells me he’ll consult with the resident wine expert and be right back. I appreciate that he takes the time and effoert to do this on a busy Friday night. He returns with a small sample of their 2007 Ramspeck (Napa Valley), and it’s awesome! I resist the pretentious urge to sniff the cork—I don’t even know what to sniff for—and simply give it a gentle squeeze. If it’s juicy, it’s fine. It’s juicy. It’s fine.

As we clink our glasses and make a toast, Philip and I become a little more aware than usual that we’re a gay couple in a restaurant whose décor oozes machismo from every knotty pine wall and from all the dead animals hanging from them. To the aging women at the neighboring tables, I’m sure we come across as two very good guy friends having dinner. But because I’m not sitting across the table from my dinner pal, the Grizzly Adams fella near us seems a little uncomfortable. I try to set his mind at ease by pretending to watch the Tigers game on one of the big screen TVs, but Philip is fussing with his napkin and not so discretely ogling the busboy. Greg’s timing is perfect and he slides a giant plate of food in front of Grizzly. For now, he’s occupied and distracted.

Greg lets us linger over a first glass of wine without pushing us into ordering our opening course. I like this move because it’s a sign to me that Greg is more than a flash-in-the-pan server trying to make a quick tip. He’s focused on giving us his A game, and he’s making my “It’s Friday night and I really don’t feel like cooking” night feel like a special occasion.

After a stunning appetizer of seared scallops in a saffron crème sauce and half the bottle of cabernet, we signal to Greg that we’re ready to order our entrees. Redwood is known for its delicious cuts of meat, and since we’re already drinking red wine, the choice is easy. I settle on the Delmonico, a twelve ounce grilled rib eye steak, and Philip orders the Prime Rib.

I giggle a little as Philip decides how he wants his Prime Rib cooked, and after Greg leaves the table, he calls me out on it.

“What was that about? Is my medium-rare meat funny to you?”

It’s not Philip’s rare meat that makes me chuckle, but rather an incident that happened twenty years ago that has just popped into my head.

I was a cook at The Salty Dog Saloon, a popular bar with a menu whose quality would rival that of The Redwood Lodge. I was in charge of pre-cooking the Prime Rib for the Saturday dinner crowd, a delicate task that required cooking a twenty-five pound roast, worth a couple hundred dollars, to just the right temperature. The trick, I found, was cooking it just enough so that you could serve cuts of it from rare to well, all from the same slab.

On this particular day, I pulled the roast out at just the right time, set it on the cooling rack, and turned to leave the kitchen. I didn’t get very far because standing about an inch from my face was this gorilla of a guy with a bad complexion, bad breath, and a very bad disposition. It was the owner of The East Lake Tavern, a rival bar on the other side of town. He was pissed.

Maybe I was involved in a little tiff that broke out at his bar the night before. Maybe several tables were broken, and maybe after a bit of an ass-kicking, my dad and I were physically removed from the premises. Now, as King Kong was breathing stale beer in my face, it dawned on me that maybe I had broken a golden rule: If you work at one bar, don’t ever start a fight in a rival bar. Oops. My bad.

After chewing me a new one for almost five minutes and giving me a stern warning, he turned to leave. The next thing I remembered I was sprawled out on the floor with a giant slab of rib roast on top of me, blood-juices soaked into my clothes and hair. I had just been sucker-punched.

Philip interrupts me at his point with a look of genuine concern in his half-drunk eyes. “Did you save that expensive roast?”

“Really? I’m laying in a mangled heap under twenty-five pounds of hot meat, and you want to know if I salvaged it?”

He reaches for his glass of wine and smiles at me. Greg approaches our table a second later, Delmonico in one hand, Prime Rib in the other.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Palette for the Palate

Ambiance is one of three major factors that, for me, determine the overall quality of my dining experience. I’m not equating ambiance with elegance, at least not for the places I’ve visited so far. The look and feel of a restaurant has to be consistent with the food being served and with the management, by the staff, of the experience. When these factors are aligned, I usually walk away feeling pretty good about my experience. But if even one of those elements is out of whack, the experience will surely suffer.

Case in point: Philip and I were visiting Saugatuck over the summer. It’s a great little Arts community on Lake Michigan with a beautiful beach, and some pretty awesome restaurants. We made a reservation for dinner at The Everyday People Café, an upscale eatery in downtown Douglas. It was written up in the New York Times Food Review as one of the best bistros in the country. Seven different reviews were posted in the hallway by the restrooms, and all of them were glowing.

The ambiance was simple and elegant: White linen tablecloths, minimal and tasteful art on the walls, a crisp clean feel about the dining room. I actually felt like the owners were intentional about matching the décor with the restaurant’s name. Nice touch. The food, too, was outstanding. I can’t remember what I had, but I do remember being impressed with unusual and very successful combinations of flavors, textures, and colors. And then came the service. Well actually, it didn’t come for a very long time. We sat there, two everyday people, for almost ten minutes before our waiter even approached us. Before he even opened his mouth, I knew we were in trouble.

His body language said, “You’re not worth my time. I hate my mother. Somebody stab me in the eye with a corkscrew.” And guess what? His body language was consistent with everything else about him. Nice touch. I guess I should have known not to ask for French and Ranch on my salad, but the super snotty way in which he scolded me for even asking such a stupid question didn’t sit very well with me. In fact, it ruined my whole experience.

Let me be clear that the restaurant Stephanie and I visited this week did not suffer from this kind of imbalance. Quite the opposite. The ambiance turned out to be the one factor that tied everything else together and made for a pleasant experience. I had never heard of Alejandro’s before yesterday morning when someone in my office recommended it.

Located in a strip mall on Elms Road between Corunna and Calkins, Alejandro’s is a happy little restaurant with a happy little staff and a happy little menu. (If you’ve been following my other posts, you’ll find this interesting: they moved from a previous location. We’re batting a thousand in this park! ) The walls at Alejandro’s are painted a Southwestern yellow—not too bright, not too pastel, not at all dingy looking. Paired with a charcoal colored ceramic floor, it sets a warm, comfortable tone that immediately sets me at ease. Unlike the over-the-top color schemes of other Mexican restaurants, Alejandro’s applies a more conservative palette with the use of solid colored table cloths instead of splattering the place with shades of gaudy. It’s amazing how such a simple detail can create such a profound effect.

I find the servers to be neither intrusive nor scarce. Their low-key presence allows me to focus on the surroundings and on the food. And, of course, on Stephanie. As soon as the waitress offers us chips and salsa, Stephanie shoots me that look: “Who’s going to ask if they have a hotter version of the house salsa?” We almost high-five each other when we learn that, yes, there is a hot salsa. And it’s pretty good. The house salsa is more in the sauce family than in the chunky-like salsa camp which, for me, is a sign that this is the real deal and not some Tex-mex imposter. It’s a little heavy-handed on the back pepper but otherwise a good blend of flavors. The mild version is also the base for the hot one, which is bolstered by minced jalapeno peppers and even more black pepper. At his point, I’m scratching my head about the black pepper because it’s competing for dominance, and it shouldn’t be.

The menu is great because it doesn’t overwhelm me with choices but gives me clear direction on what those choices are. The entrees are a bit pricey, but I’m ok with that as long as the food is worthy of the price tag. Steph orders the triple enchilada platter: one beef, one cheese, and one chicken enchilada, with the obligatory beans and rice—probably to justify the cost. My golden taco platter is made with freshly deep-fried flour shells and also comes with beans and rice.
My pleasant little lunch in this pleasant little place is briefly threatened when I see from the menu that cheese on my tacos is $1.00 extra. What? Isn’t cheese one of the key ingredients in this dish? I get grumpy enough as it is that sour cream has somehow become its own taxable item, but cheese? COME ON!

After a short stare at the pretty yellow walls, my blood pressure returns to normal and I get over it. Really? The cheese?

The collective happiness at our table returns when our food arrives and we get our first taste. The enchiladas are great, according to Stephanie, though the chicken is a bit wet from the liquid it had been soaking in; this makes the corn tortilla soggier than it should be, but all in all the dish gets good marks. My golden tacos are also pretty good. I’ve made these many times at home, and I know how easy it is to undercook or overcook the shells. The perfect shell is not too crispy, not too soft. You know you’re in the zone when you see a small puddle of grease under your taco. My Alejandro’s tacos had that puddle of grease.

The obligatory beans are also quite good. Not quite a TTC Award contender, but they are creamy with a slight sweetness to them and topped with melted cheese. Wait a minute. No charge for the bean cheese, but a dollar for the taco cheese? Really? (Serenity now. Serenity now.) The obligatory rice is another story. The black pepper that overwhelmed my salsa is even more intrusive in the rice. Few restaurants in Flint make great Mexican style rice, and it’s never been outstanding at any place I’ve been to. It certainly detracts from an otherwise tasty golden taco platter.

As we’re walking back to my truck, I feel an early October sun rubbing my shoulders. I feel good. I feel happy. I feel like Alejandro’s has something to do with that.