I tried out for the tennis team when I was in tenth grade in high school so I wouldn’t have to join the football team. Under no circumstances was I going to dress up in some padded, colorful outfit just so some can’t-pass-the-ninth-grade hairy thug with out-of-control anger issues from Traverse City could throw me around like a rag doll, bury me in the muddy-grassy ground and get my pretty outfit all dirty. An angst-ridden, sexually confused teenager has his limits, and mine was playing football. They’d just have to get along without me.
Not that tennis went any better, mind you. I’m just not an athletic person. Sure I played crab soccer in sixth grade, but I had no expectations of eventually playing for the minor league Cadillac Crustaceans or eventually making it to the majors and scooting my ass around on a wheeled piece of plywood for the Louisville Lobsters. I wouldn’t realize it until years later, but there’s a big difference between grade school sports and high school sports: the onset of puberty and that powder keg known as testosterone. And while nobody ever bothered to tell me at the time, playing high school sports demands, in addition to superhuman levels of testosterone, that you understand three basic concepts.
#1: Know what the hell you’re doing. Had I listened to my tennis coach instead of making fun of his bald head adorned with a colorful sweatband that made him look like Saturn, I would have known that he was talking about mechanics. But because I didn’t, I never mastered the most important part of the game, the serve. Instead of gracefully tossing the ball in the air and turning my body and racket into one giant flyswatter—an act that would have made the ball land at the feet of my cowering opponent—I did something quite different. It was embarrassing enough that the ball sailed over my opponents head, and usually over the fence behind him, but I flailed around like a drunken octopus whenever I tried to make contact with the ball.
#2: Be good at everything, not just one thing. If only I could stand at the back of the court and hit forehand shots all day, I’d be playing with Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. My aim was good. I could actually put the ball in play and keep it from sailing into the back fence. Until someone hit me a soft shot and I had to charge the net. Oh sweet mother of pearl, that was ugly. I never quite mastered the finesse with which this move was executed, moving quickly into position, standing there with your racket still, and waiting for the ball to come to you. Instead, I looked more like, as Robin Williams said in The Birdcage, a psychotic horse running toward a burning stable. And because I’m not very good at quick stops, I’d usually find myself tangled in the net like a dopey moth in a spider web.
#3: It’s not a performance until you put it all together. Like a one-person symphony, really. It’s not enough to understand the backhand, the forehand, the serve, the charge, the, the lob, the overhead smash, or how to keep score for that matter (what self-respecting person would even play a game where to keep score you have to use words like love and deuce; before anyone scores, the game stands at love/love. Really?). To be a good tennis player, to win the game, you have to know when to lay back and volley, when to charge the net and put one away, and when to use the one-handed backhand or the two-handed backhand. It’s when you learn to put these elements together in the right order and with the right timing that you’re actually giving a performance.
My guess is that the current owner of Rio’s Coney Island, on Davison Road between Franklin and Dort, did not play tennis in high school. Stephanie and I didn’t intend to eat there last Thursday. We were on our way to another place on Center Road when I caught Rio’s out of the corner of my eye. We actually drove past it, waffling as to whether to turn back or keep going. I’m not sure why we decided to go back, but we did.
From the minute we walked in, I had an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. We both did. We knew we had been here before, and as we waited for our server to arrive, we figured it out. This used to be a family restaurant, though we still can’t remember the name. The dining room was split down the middle by a half-wall with booths on each side, and a doorway led to an add-on room, facing Davison Road. There were no customers on that side. And there were only two other tables with customers on our side. In the middle of lunch hour.
I’m guessing the owner of Rio’s never played tennis because the three golden rules that apply to that game are easily applicable to running a restaurant, and to my disappointment, the overall performance that we paid for wasn’t very impressive. Here’s why. The food was good enough, the place was clean enough, and the service…well the service was like one of the tennis moves I never mastered. And that’s my point; Rio’s gets the basic mechanics of running a restaurant. The food, the atmosphere, the service. It was all there. Some of it was done well, some not, and that’s why I felt more like I was at a practice than at a performance.
The competition for customers among Coney Island diners in the area is fierce, and those not on the top of their game are going to get eaten alive. If I were a restaurant coach, the first thing I’d help Rio’s with is their service. The waitress had the mechanics down. She brought us menus, took our order, brought our food, and delivered the check. But she was only marginally attentive, unengaged, and she acted like it was a bother to wait on us. I’m usually forgiving of wait staff sins because I’ve been there and know that it’s thankless work. (If you’ve never read the book Waiter Rant, I highly recommend it). But with only two other tables of customers in the whole restaurant, our waitress could have at least made an effort.
The food was a combination of good forehands, ok volleys, and a touch of my old serve. The Flint Coney Dog that Stephanie and I shared, for example, was quite good. The bun was as warm and soft as any we’ve had so far; in fact it was one of the better ones. The sauce was appropriately greasy and pretty flavorful. I was even able to identify a few ingredients, like cumin and chili powder. My palate is becoming more finely tuned because I was able to distinguish this Koegel Coney hot dog from the Koegel Vienna dog from previous weeks. This one is sweeter and less tightly packed in the casing than the more refined Vienna. (Good grief, I sound the Frazier Crane of Coney Dogs).
The Navy Bean with Ham soup was also pretty good. From the first bite we knew it was made from scratch. The celery and carrots were fresh and al dente, and the beans were cooked long enough to release the starches and contribute to a perfectly thick broth. The one element that was missing and could have put this soup over the top was the ham. Instead of using a smoked chunk of pork, which would have infused the soup with that unmistakable smoke-cooked flavor, this soup contained precooked pieces of sliced ham. They added little flavor to the soup, which seemed like a bit of a waste.
I think it’s even more important in the local Coney Island diner game than in tennis that you do everything well, or at least a majority of the things. And this is where Rio’s really has to step up its game or sooner rather than later it’s going to be watching from the sidelines. The entrées, to be more specific, were uneven and average with not much to distinguish them from any other diner in the city. Stephanie ordered one of my diner favorites, the fish sandwich and fries. The fries were actually thick cut steak fries, which I wish more places would serve. They’re meaty and they hold the heat better than the thinner cuts, which means you’re not eating cold potatoes half way through your meal. The fish sandwich, which Stephanie liked well enough, was two not-too-skimpy pieces of cod in a not-too-thick batter, deep fried on a burger bun. By making one simple change, Rio’s could easily turn this sandwich into a fan favorite: put it on a more attractive bun and let the colorful lettuce and tomato accent the fish instead of being hidden by it, a piece of advice one of my many cooking coaches once gave me.
I ordered the cheeseburger (with grilled onions and olives) and a side of onion rings, partly because I saw one being delivered as we arrived, and partly out of pity that the burger tends to play second fiddle to the darling of the diner, the Coney dog. My burger was just ok. A bit on the dry side and sloppily presented. The cheese, however, was melted on top of the burger and on top of the grilled onions and olives, sort of like a well placed backhand. The onion rings drew mixed reviews. Stephanie thought the ones she ate were ok. Mine tasted mushy. The grease, the soft batter, the limp onions. Not good dawg. Not good.
We lingered a bit after our meal and caught up on the week’s events, but I was distracted and bothered the whole time by our experience here. On the surface, it met most of the minimum criteria for a passable dining experience. But the individual parts never came together to make anything more than a lackluster performance. And that’s what troubles me about Rio’s. It’s already facing an uphill battle because of its location and the nondescript building that it’s housed in. Beyond that, there’s little to distinguish it from the dozens of other Coney diners around Flint. Rio’s has been on Davison Road for three years, but I’m afraid if it doesn’t step up its performance, it’s going be game, set, and match for this contender.