Starlite Diner - Moscow, Russia

             Biting into the burger, I felt a tear in my eye. Outside, cars hummed through frozen air along Strastnoy Boulevard near Moscow’s center. M. watched me bite into the burger with anticipation. She’d brought me to Starlite Diner because she wanted to see how a real American reacted to this simulacrum of Americana. Moscow was her home. It certainly wasn’t mine.

            Nestled next to Tchaikovsky concert hall in Aquarium Park, Starlite Diner doesn’t so much stick out as appear by surprise. To get there, M. and I caught the subway and braved a brief, frigid walk. Through puffs of ghostly breath, I spotted the diner, looking as if a tornado had carried it straight from Kansas and plopped it here in the wintery heart of Moscow.

Constructed from materials shipped all the way from Florida, Starlite Diner is a piece of authentic Americana. Right down, or up, to the neon sign — a shooting star with the name emblazoned in both English and Cyrillic — perched on its chrome top.

M. had wanted to take me to the Starlite Diner for weeks, but something had always come up. Now, on this Saturday morning two days before my return to America, after three solid months of negative temperatures and a thimble of cumulative sunlight, I was getting a taste of home.

I ordered a burger called “The Really Big Shawn,” consisting of three patties, chili, cheese, jalapenos and bacon resting upon a bed of fries. The menu suggested I bring an appetite for it. I did.

My second bite of the burger brought more cheese, mild chili and smoky bacon. I chased the burger with fry after crinkle-cut fry and saturated the lot with hearty pulls on my vanilla milkshake.

It didn’t feel as though I was simply eating a burger. It was much too good for that. I was releasing pressure from the almost constant difficulty that had characterized my stay in Russia. My stay thus far had only been three and a half months. Three and a half months of sleeping on a modified couch in a flat with five roommates, walking to and from work in the oppressive, half-light of Moscow’s unyielding winter, always having a little less money than necessary, eating the same cost-cutting meals and being cut off from extensive human contact by an impenetrable language barrier. Not that I’d had any illusions going into the situation that it would be easy. But, originally, I thought I could cut it. And, in total, it wasn’t even the worst situation to be in, mostly uncomfortable. That’s why the tear, the relief at the thought of home, came as such a shock.

            M. asked me how it tasted. I told her with grunts, surreptitiously wiping the tear with my napkin. She’d been a fantastic guide and good friend to me the months I’d spent in Russia. We’d gone to Gorky Park in the rain and toured the stern grounds of the Kremlin and Red Square. She had deep knowledge of Moscow’s history and tended to show her city in a brighter light than what it appeared to me, an outsider. Obviously, having grown up there, Moscow was her home, and she loved it.

Outside, snow fell, each flake evenly spaced; I couldn’t have told you if it had just been snowing that day or for weeks. It was the type of snow that one simply had to bear, which fit rather snugly into the greater Russian spirit, it seemed. From learning more about Russian history: life under the tsars, life under communism and now life under Putin, burdens to be lived under appear to be a birthright. But given the weather, the culture and the political climate, Russia — as far as I saw through the people I met — is a place where people bear hardship not even as a matter of course, but joyfully, snickering behind hardship’s back, as if to collectively say “you think this is bad?”

            The Starlite Diner itself was started by an enterprising American, Sean Mckenna. With all the American and European ex-pats living in Russia, he’d guessed there was a market for good, wholesome Americana, and been right. The interior is as art deco as one would expect in any Johnny Rockets or local stainless steel dining car. The menu is the same laminated poster-sized litany of items, with lots of pictures and ample English. The seats are the same squeaky plastic linoleum and the waitresses all wear aprons and dresses straight out of Happy Days. From outside, it most certainly feels out of place when considering it beside the concrete scowls of most other Soviet-era Russian architecture. But the weirdness soon fades, as the flawlessness of the execution brings even a dyed in the wool American like me back to a place like home. And that’s why I was sad.

            I was sad because I wanted to go home. The sad part not being the feeling of longing for home, but the realization that I really, truly yearned for home.

            Never before had a country broken me like Russia did. And I don’t want to chalk it up simply to Russia. It was a perfect storm of components, every part of my life there had been difficult in some way. And thus, the easy familiarity of Starlite Diner got the better of me. I thought I was stronger and that made me ashamed. I came to Russia because I knew it wouldn’t be a cake walk, I knew it would be colder and harsher and more difficult than, say, Amsterdam or New York City. But I didn't expect it to actually be so hard. And it made me feel both in awe of the people like M. who not only lived there but loved it with a fiery, passionate devotion, but small and weak in their presence.

            To the Muscovites I worked with the cold was never that cold. The long workdays could have been longer. The grey, sunless sky was much more dense last winter, and the winter before? Don’t even speak of it.

            Russia taught me my limits — how much closer they were than I had expected.

            M. had told me more than once that Moscow was the greatest city in the world. And to her it was. She’d grown up there, knew her way around, spoke the language, and relished in the difficulty that the weather brought.

            Living in Maine now, I think I understand what she felt. I know what it means to live in a place considered inhospitable by many. That’s part of the allure. Actually, it might be more than simply a part. Everyone likes to feel tough.

            Perhaps if I’d been slated for a longer stay I would have gotten through it. I would have hardened to the surroundings and kindled some rough happiness in my frozen chest. But that’s not how it worked. I was broken and I left, tail between my legs, defeated by something I still don’t understand.

            Starlite Diner was a panacea: everything I could have needed. M. probably knew that and that’s why she brought me there. I ate everything on my plate and everything in my glass. I wolfed it all down while crying a single tear of lonely patriotism.

That tear was surrender. That tear was weakness. That tear was my broken spirit crawling out, slain, decrepit and pitiable — for all to see. I don’t even think M. noticed.

 


FOOD:

3.5

Good old fashioned legitimate Americana. Well made shakes, fine burgers and more options than you can shake a vintage Chevy stick shift at.

PRICE: 

Pocket Rubles

Moscow is damn expensive almost everywhere you look. This is a rare deal that really feels like you’re getting bang for your buck (razzmatazz for your ruble?).

AMBIENCE: 

Beaver Cleaver

Gosh golly jee jiminy jillikers.

SERVICE: 

спасибо

Moscow, like Portland, ME, has not collectively mastered the art of serving patrons. HOWEVER, Starlite has great service. Check plus.

EAT OR SKIP: 

Eat

If, for some unknown reason (special agent shenanigans), you are in Moscow, go to Starlite for a healthy, hearty dose of home (if that is your home… traitorous spy!).  Anyway, yeah Starlite is great. Go there and be happy, or sad, your choice.

 

Empire Chinese Kitchen - Portland, ME

Marti stumbled onstage.  Upon touching the polished wood his thick-soled prescription shoes let out a hideous squark. Draped in an ill-fitting suit, his shirt half-un-tucked, his tie askew and a distinct mustard stain on the crotch of his black pants he turned to the audience with a mole-like squint.

            The audience roared. Nearly one hundred thousand of them were packed into the stadium to see Marti perform. The house lights had come down and only the varnished brown stage, Marti and his instrument were lit. Camera flashes popped from the darkness of the crowd. Marti sneezed wetly into his tie and then scratched his boat-like posterior.

            To say that Marti moved with ungainly slowness would be an affront to both words. He was a hoving slug of a man. His instrument lay across the stage, glinting like a dentist’s tools under the harsh spotlights. Upon reaching center stage, Marti got tangled in his own feet and toppled like a warm tower of cheese. Instantaneously, a severe, black-suited man with commanding eyebrows appeared from the wings and helped Marti to his feet. The clapping had died to just a thunderous din, hoarse voices shouting Marti’s name from every nook and cranny of the packed amphitheater.

            Upon getting Marti upright, the severe man melted into the wings.

            Marti’s skin had a sickly pale sheen of grease. After wobbling to some sort of steady standing position, he flashed his teeth at the audience. They were tiny, each with ample breathing room in its space in Marti’s gums. At Marti’s direct recognition of the assembled crowd, pandemonium took hold.

            Marti waved a grotesque claw of a hand, nails yellow and long, and the top nearly blew off the place.

It was time for Marti to perform.

            Marti took what seemed to be his first steps in the direction of his instrument. His hands shook and sweat had formed two black half moons beneath his arms. Like the visible stink that emanated from Marti’s ovoid frame, the giddy anticipation in the place was palpable. They had come for Marti, and here, in all his glory, Marti was.

            With a languishing plop, Marti lay himself on the cold metal of his instrument. Its seat was form fitted to fit Marti’s ungainly proportions.

If one expected — finally seated in his instrument — an eerie calm to descend on Marti’s stricken, shaking face, they would be wrong. He continued to fidget and generally look miserably nervous. Something appeared horribly wrong. Yet the audience seemed either not to notice or actively love Marti’s discomfort, because as soon as his ghastly rump touched the shining metal of his instrument’s seat, the collective roar became a howling typhoon.

            Marti lay there, bathing awkwardly in the adulation of the audience as the severe man appeared again. He lifted a colander-like apparatus from behind the instrument and placed it on Marti’s grease-slicked head.

At last his fidgeting ceased. The instrument began to hum and the audience dove into a buzzing silence.

            From its center, the chair and Marti himself began to let off a hazy glow. Slowly, steadily the instrument began to pulse with ethereal light. The audience fell completely silent and their faces were illuminated into glowing ovals of anticipation. Marti’s torso, or the region just above it, shook with a terrible violent whiteness before disappearing. Marti and the chair had vanished.

The audience gasped. But then, beneath their exclamations and whispered excitement, a low note pierced the turmoil.

It was beautiful.

            The note rose and snaked its sibilant way through the air, as if sung for each individual specifically. Simply one note blanketed the stadium, immaculate in its pitch and timbre. It made you feel heavy, pushed down into your seat with the beauty of it. As the note trailed off and the stillness of the theatre was nearly complete, the visions exploded into view.

            Pure thought made manifest: primal views of the neuron’s potential, not of a specific idea but of the kernel of an idea, not a happy vision but a vision of happiness incarnate. Sights, with now glorious sounds emanating from them, glittered on the stage and with each pulse of their unthinkable shape ruined the crowd with the ecstasy of their presence.

            Marti’s mind had made this. This shifting, coagulation of joy that now entranced the entire audience and millions watching remotely. There was no execution by Marti involved. Pure and simply put, these were the potential of Marti’s thoughts. A vision into the unknown realm of could, where the power of his untapped dreams were allowed to escape.

            At first, many tried to play the instrument, including men of incredible caliber and executional skill in every other realm of life. Piano grandmasters, writers, doctors and the highest-minded physicists all had tried their hand at it. But what the instrument amplified was not execution, but the opposite. So those with little, those losers, those outcasts, those good-for-nothings found that their talents far outstripped society’s elite. Beauty sprung from barren soil, not fertile ground. In other words, the machine ran on potential, not execution.

            Tears of joy painted the audience's cheeks. Spouses hugged, children held their parents clothes, lovers squeezed each other’s thighs, all sobbing and laughing at the purity of an emotion so perfectly raw. Like transposition into the very heart of both their sweetest nostalgia and highest triumph, the people were engulfed in the sight and sound that Marti’s mind expelled. The tones were more meaningful than any instrument plucked or blown. The sights were more arresting than the birth of a first child or the naked back of a newfound love. There was no Marti and the audience during the nearly three-hour show. It was simply individuals by themselves, alone with not what they thought they wanted but with what they needed at a fundamental level. Marti presented them with what they had been denied by the very structure of their minds: purity, clarity and unmitigated happiness. And it was not a cheap empty happiness but a lasting appreciation of the full, tragic beauty of our brief station on this floating rock and the significance and impossibility of us all being here at this exact point in time, striving valiantly — together and alone — to find meaning in nothing.

            At last, the stage went silent. Every member of the audience sat mute, basking in the afterglow of their mutually departed bliss. Marti lay in his chair, fidgeting, sweat ringing his waist and crotch. The severe man slipped beside him and removed the helmet. With ungainly gyrations, Marti wiggled himself out of his seat. The crowd remained in stunned silence as Marti wobbled to the center of the stage. Marti bowed, revealing an ominously dark stain on the seat of his pants. A mile away, a flock of crows were startled from a pine tree at the explosion of cheers.

            A retinue of security guards rose from below the stage, holding the frothing masses back. Marti hobbled away from the instrument, now lying inert and sodden. He only fell once before disappearing behind the silk curtains of the stage.

           

 

FOOD:

3.9

Well-prepared and flavorful, this is Empire’s strong suit. The dishes each have a unique feel and match their price in terms of sophistication. Really great stuff.

PRICE:

Early in the Month

It’s not expensive, per se. But it won’t be your go-to spot when the well is starting to run dry.

AMBIENCE:

Wood Enthusiast

Wood, bamboo, other types of carbon. A spare, cohesive space with just enough decoration to give it an authentically hip feel. Very nice job.

SERVICE:

The Catch

This is what spawned the review. In its raw, conceptual form, Empire is everything you want: great Chinese fare, cool atmosphere, reasonably-ish priced. In execution, it all falls apart. I’ve been to Empire at least five times in trying to give it the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, every single time I’ve been there something has gone wrong. My first experience was of being stranded by the bar without service for a two-hour meal in which my appetizer of choice ran out after I had ordered it. Second time was much the same as the first, much waiting by the window seats. Third time I tried sitting in the main dining area and there was literally an aphid in one of my dining-mate’s noodles. Fourth and fifth were a bit better but still included basic misses like not getting utensils before our food, long waits, missing servers and water that stayed empty the whole meal. I don’t want you to think of this as purely the servers’ fault, it’s not. This seems like a fundamental flaw in Empire’s very structure. Something needs to be worked out with either the food preparation or the communication, because as it stands, food takes way too long and is way too inconsistent. I want to like Empire so much because the food and ambience are so great, but there is no escaping the vortex of unhappiness that has been my experience dining in.

EAT OR SKIP:

Eat

I’m not going to say skip it, because I know it’s great. I didn’t even mention the concert venue upstairs, which is also awesome. Empire is a great place it just really needs to get its act together before I go in there to eat again.

 

 

Silly's Restaurant - Portland, ME

Dear E-mail Subscriber,

 

I'm excited to announce Clown Boss Inc.’s newest line of high quality office gags and gifts! Our team of Hee-Hee-searchers has been hard at work to bring you Clown Boss Inc.’s best offerings to date. We hope you enjoy our comprehensive catalogue of yuck-tastic items.

 

Sincerely,

Dick Dogpile

C.E.O. Clown Boss Inc.

 

 

Clown Boss Inc.’s Summer Offering:

 

CEO Bell Collar

“Hey, check out this video of a dog humping an exercise ball!” *dingling* *dingling* “You know what? Let’s go over those numbers one more time.” Never worry about a surprise visit again. With the CEO Bell Collar, everyone’s on the job — as far as the CEO knows ;)

 

The Dog Ate My Excel Spreadsheet

Fudged the numbers? Need an escape from the reality of a sinking bottom line? This e-pooch will take care of any dour document! If the bean counters in back are asking where the records have gone, just say “Oops! The DOG must have eaten them!”*

 

*The Dog Ate My Excel Document is not a valid legal defense as established by Clown Boss Inc. VS Great North Savings And Loan

 

Workin’ Hard or Hardly Workin’ Office Hammock

Trade in that Herman Miller Aeron for something a little more… relaxing. With complimentary cube hooks and drywall screws, this hammock can go up anywhere. Made of the finest sailor’s twine, our hammock is spill proof, tear proof and stretch proof. If only it were sleep proof! Make every day feel like Saturday with the Workin’ Hard or Hardly Workin’ Office Hammock.

 

Prank Slip

What is that at my desk? Is it a pink slip? Did I just get fired? Oh Jesus, this is awful; this is terrible! How am I going to get my kids through school? Money was tight already since Sheila got laid off from her second job and the medical bills to get her ankle fixed were already looming and where will we go? Oh no oh no oh ho ho! It’s a prank pink slip! Clown Boss Inc. you’ve done it again! What fun!

 

Farting Business Card Holder

It’s a pleasure doing BRAPness with you! The Farting Business Card Holder will have potential investors holding their sides and shaking your hand at the same time!

 

*BESTSELLER* Clownin’ Around Powerpoint Expansion Pack

Featuring sound effects like goose honks, baby coos, Bronx cheers and over fifty different kinds of laughter, this pack will spice up any Powerpoint presentation! Plus, with new transitions like Pie in the Face™, Clown Rips the Screen™, Seltzer Spray Wipe™ and Boioioioing™ viewers won’t want to wait for the next slide!

 

“Broom Parking Only” Novelty Sign

Have a female coworker or boss that’s a bit of a bi— we mean WITCH?! Hang this novelty sign in her office for a lighthearted way to show her she could bear to loosen up a hag hair or two! (“Broom Parking Only” Stencil coming soon!)

 


Squirtin’ Security Cam

Catch a crook — or your co-workers — WET handed! Replace you security cams with these watery watchers.* Don’t worry, they’re motion activated for equal opportunity soakings.

 

*Squirtin’ Security Cam contains no video equipment. Not a suitable replacement for actual security cameras.

 

“Beware of Dog” Food Label

Worried about coworker’s getting after your precious snacks? Slap on this hilarious sticker to keep them OUT!

 

Three Stooges Sexual Harassment Seminar Series

Who better to explain the nuanced details of proper office conduct than Larry, Moe, Curly and their buffoonish pal Shemp. Over the course of these six gag-packed VHS tapes, the stooges yuck and slap their ways through lessons like: Why Does She Wear It If I Can’t Have a Feel?, Guys Don’t Wear Dresses, Right?, and Woop Woop Woop Woop Woop Nyuck Nyuck At Office Functions is Inappropriate.

 

“I’m With Stupid” Designer Tie

Hand sewn by the fashion experts at Charles Tyrwhitt, this gem will give everyone in the office a lighthearted ribbing. Made with premium fabric, this is fashion that gets funnier every time you wear it or your money back!*

 

*Refund not guaranteed

 

“Liquid Breakfast” Travel Mug

Tired of coming to work with a warm beer? Pour a cold one into this handy travel mug for all your A.M. imbibing needs. The hydra-cool™ liner means your beer stays colder and fizzier longer. Never shotgun a hot Budweiser by the dumpsters again! Plus, its average travel mug contours make for inconspicuous highway drinking. Like we say in our infomercial: If your beer’s in here, you’re in the clear!

 

Foul Scented Faux-breze

Designed to look like any old “Fresh Linen” Febreze, this gag spray is sure to get anyone gagging. Mist some chuckles with scents like, BBQ Toots, Hot Road Kill and Pipe Burst. Stick it in an office bathroom or better yet, your boss’ private commode. Powerful Febreze technology means this is one joke that’ll last for days.

 

Wacky Stretchy Montblanc Business Pen

Signing important documents just feels better with the Wacky Stretchy Mont Blanc Meisterstuck Solitaire Royale Business Pen. Over three feet of wobbly, jiggly smooth-writing hilarity.

 

Water Cooler Joke-A-Day Calendar

Give your co-workers something — other than your social skills — to laugh about. This hilarious set of 365 jokes from one-lining yuck master Henny Youngman is sure to have them howling. Spit out chestnuts like, “The food on the plane was fit for a king. ‘Here, King!’” and “My Doctor grabbed me by the wallet and said, ‘cough.’” After a couple weeks of Henny’s knee slappers, your coworkers will be lined up at the water cooler to hear the next, “Take my wife, please!”

 

See anything you like? Contact our shipping specialist Nerma Grotongue at clownboss1985@geocities.com with your desired item(s).

 

 

 

FOOD: 

3.5

Fully loaded is probably the best term to describe Silly’s cuisine. The Birdhouse in My Soul is an open-faced chicken sandwich with lettuce, tomato, guacamole and bacon crumbles. Then there’s Good Will Fishing, which is basically a fully-loaded fish taco with all the fixings like mango & basil coleslaw, scallions, red peppers avocado and more. And these are just two of probably fifty or more items. The menu is extensive and thought out. Definitely a place that rewards repeat customers. Though their strong point is their milkshakes: pictured above is the Hippy Hippy Shake, a chocolate, malt and peanut butter (yes, actual peanut butter) filled shake, topped with pretzels. Pure madness.

PRICE:

More food less $

Pretty much every meal is big enough to take home so it’s basically two meals for the price of one.

AMBIENCE:

Kitschy Hodgepodge

The atmosphere is unique in a transporting sort of way. Step into Silly’s and you are IN Silly’s. Colors and odd furnishing choices abound. It holds up to its name, but in the best possible way.

SERVICE: 

Good Times

I’ve had a hiccup or two when going there late (close to their 9:00 closing time), which is totally understandable. At peak hours the service has been solid. They're a fine, cheery bunch.

EAT OR SKIP: 

Eat

Silly’s is simply a fun, tasty Portland staple. Since it’s a bit out of the way, I don’t get there as often as I’d like. But when I do make my way to Silly’s that day is a good one.

 

Otto Pizza (Revisited) - Portland, ME

Yeah sure there are a lot of people who have been wrong ever.

 

In 1927 H.M. Warner — then the CEO of Warner Brothers Entertainment — said, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” In 1943, Thomas Watson — then the chair of IBM — said, “I think there is a market for maybe five computers.” In 1962 Decca Recording said, “We don’t like their sound and guitar music is on the way out.” This was in reference to signing an unknown band called the Beatles.

 

So, yes people have been wrong. Resoundingly and boldly wrong. Consider me one of those people.

 

Upon access to new information, I have found that a view I once held was not completely formed. It was based upon a wealth of experience, gathered over an ample period of time. However, one single dinner has thrown my entire previous viewpoint into question.

 

The fact was that I didn’t particularly care for Otto pizza.

 

The fact is now that I both really enjoy Otto and am a certified dingleton.


 

My gripes were based upon my experience with Otto’s slices and takeout pizza: the crust was either damn chewy or just brittle and dry as all get-out, and in addition the overall amount of toppings going onto each slice seemed to be declining.

 

Harsh criticism? Certainly. But in trying to be objective VS all the other pizza I had ever eaten, this was the most honest information I had on hand.

 

Also, this is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Otto. I actually frequented Otto fairly regularly for a slice, it being the most refined pizza Portland has to offer.

 

Then, just last week, I actually bought a full pizza to eat in at Otto. See, I had only had Otto by the slice — even when eating in — and also had only sampled takeout. These forays into the world of Otto pizza were satisfying but less than stellar.

 

However, with a ricotta, mushroom and sausage pizza steaming in front of me, I felt a sweat come on. It looked absolutely incredible. Cheese blanketed the pie. The sauce glistened. The mushrooms and sausage gave off heady waves of fresh aroma. It looked like it had been pulled from the brick ovens of some Italian deity: Zeuseppe, or perhaps Athenardo.

 


It was a work of art. 


And the taste? Melt-in-your-mouth ricotta. Savory mushrooms mingling with tart and sweet tomato sauce. A crust the likes of Mario Batali would applaud: browned, crisp exterior with a pillowy soft interior. True and utter mastery.

 

And as I shoveled slice after slice down my fibbing gullet, I realized that I had to right the wrong I’d committed. Which is not to say that my previous beliefs were unfounded. But simply to say that my due diligence had been far from done.

 

So here is the rectification: the slices and the take out of Otto? My opinion still stands. Sitting in at Otto and getting a fresh, made-to-order pizza? Now you are in business my friend.

 

I was wrong Otto. I did you wrong. I apologize for my wrongness. In my error there was no truth and now that truth has been rectified.

 

Your pizza, Otto, is exceedingly good when fresh. When slightly less than fresh, I must again be honest, its caliber is reduced. Maybe this accusation can be leveled at  most pizza places, but never have I experienced a more apparent dip in overall deliciousness than at OTTO.

 

Wow, that made Otto sound bad again. But seriously. Otto is great on the reg. The brittleness of the crust is but a single part of their slices: their toppings still rock, the sausage and Vidalia onion will remain my go-to into infinity and they’re a great restaurant to drop in for a bite. The exception is that if you get a full pizza made to order and eat it as it has literally just come, steaming, from the oven, it is so much better than great. It is transcendent.

 

That’s my apology, full and all. Otto — and your proprietors and your employees — forgive me for my transgressions. I will be back for your pizza. And so, I hope, will many others.


(For those who like seeing people eat their words, click here to see the full previous review of Otto's Pizza.)

 

 

FOOD:

4.1 Stars

(Previously 3.7 Stars)

That’s right. I’m rounding Otto out to an uneven 4.1 out of 5 stars. Takeout and slices remain at their previous 3.4-ish, while eating in with a whole, fresh pie comes up to about a 4.5 (really it’s that tasty). Round ‘em out? Comes out to about a 4.1. What? You know basic math and you think that’s wrong. Yeah, come over here and prove it! Prove my gut wrong with your dirty numbers.

PRICE:

Boutique

It’s not cheap, but if you’re coming in for the real thing, it’s even more worth it.

AMBIENCE:

Comfortable Nook

I dined in the smaller bar section this time around. Simply a narrower version of Otto’s main room. Low light, dark wood and tile. Melike.

SERVICE: 

Mamma Mia

Again, top notch service. Doesn’t sound like much, but in Portland — as I’ve come to find — this is actually a fact of note.

EAT OR SKIP:

Eat

Eat there. You can also get slices or takeaway, but if you want the true experience of why Otto exists in Portland, Maine, get that whole pizza fresh. So fresh.

Ohno Cafe - Portland, ME

Praise be to Breakfast Sandwich #1!

 

ALL: Praise be!

 

His holy matrimony of savory and of hot and of sweet is the divine trinity that binds us.  And so too does it bind today’s sermon.

 

Let us pray.

 

ALL: Thy bun be crisped. Thy meat be fresh. Thy egg be unbroken until it is. Amen.

 

Please rise. In the name of Breakfast Sandwich #1 of Ohno Café we give thanks.

 

*PAUSE*

 

Please be seated.


 

Today, we turn our holy praise to the three divine qualities of Breakfast Sandwich #1. For in each — in its own way — lies the Truth.

 

On the mountaintop did not the prophet Elizaeus find the bagel? And into that bagel did he not put the egg? And upon that egg did he not lay the prosciutto and the cheese.

 

ALL: He did.

 

And it was good.

 

Firstly, we praise the savory. It represents the necessity in our lives. Without the savory our egg sandwich would simply be sweet and hot which is an abomination and should be smote.

 

ALL: Smite it, oh Lord.

 

The egg and the prosciutto and the cheese imbue the holy creation with its savor. It is the basis of all that is venerable and good in our Sandwich.

 

Though make not the first mistake, in thinking that savory is everything! It is not all of life! And this mistake — the notion that savory is all there ever need be — is the folly of so many.

 

I have walked among the wretched masses that take unto their mouths sandwiches unfit for the eating: those microwaved, frozen, abominations. Jimmy Dean! Tyson! Smart Ones! Thy names burn my tongue.

 

Though hear me! We must not hate those that dine upon these poor excuses, but pity them! They have chased the savor downward and worship a false idol! For they know not what joy they miss. Like Saul, the scales cover not their eyes but the taste buds of their tongues!

 

This is why, like the savor itself, we must gently salt the wound of their pride. It is our divine right and duty to put them on the true path, the righteous path to Ohno absolution.

 

ALL: And so we shall.

 

Secondly, we praise the sweet. Delivered within the joyous gift of syrup that calls us to remember the innocence of our youth. But as always, we must be careful in its amounts. When I was a child, I acted as a child does. Now that I am a man, I must act as a man. We do not douse the sandwich with the syrup! It is the sparing sweetness that gives our savor more power.

 

A bit of childishness in man is no fault, but never too much. This is the lesson of our maple-glazed prosciutto.

 

As it was said by Saint Jerome, “He is both the sweetness and the savory. The carrot and the stick of butter. He is all.” And so we must remember that in everything is there soft, easy beauty and hard truth.  

 

Third, we praise the Tabasco. The Lord said, “be not afraid of Tabasco! It is but the soft lash of my love.”

 

ALL: We will endure.

 

For what else is hot? Where else do the fires never cease? Of course, Tabasco is but a reminder of the depths below. It is the reminder that sin is everywhere! Even in the Lord himself! After all, how sweet does sin burn?

 

He knows us more deeply and fully than we may ever know ourselves, and that is why he reminds us of our fallible nature! It is no coincidence that the sting of the heat lingers long past the taste of his glory!


 

For I myself have sinned! Yea, even a holy prophet can find himself indulging the devil in his tricks. Indeed, Sandwich #1 can only be got from Ohno and that is right. That is good. But should not such simple ingredients: egg, cheddar, Tabasco, maple syrup and prosciutto, on a bagel, be able to be made by a man such as I? But no! Our hands are not fit to combine such a meal. For I tried!

 

ALL: *GASPS*

 

Yes I tried, in the folly of my past, I tried. And indeed, it brought me to ruin. Over-hot prosciutto. Maple-soaked buns. Burnt egg!

 

ALL: Lord have mercy.

 

This is not our place! And the Tabasco is but the gentle reminder in each bite. No! It is our sacred duty to lift up the breakfast sandwich! The one true lord is the source of our joy and we must rejoice in Him alone.

 

ALL: And so we shall.

 

Let us pray.

 

ALL: Holy, Breakfast Sandwich #1. Give to us the goodness that is your savor, the patience that is your sweetness, and the guidance that is your heat. Amen.  

 

Now please join hands as we sing Hymn Number 83 “Glory (Hallelujah) Thy Number is One”

 

(VIGOROUSLY)

Ris’n from wheat and egg and meats. Glo----------ry Number One.

King of all ye breakfast treats, Glo----------ry Number One.

 

Born each morn of holy toil, Glo----------ry Number One.

Rest his girth ‘pon bed of foil, Glo----------ry Number One.

 

Spice of earth! (Jalapenos He)

Sweet of trunk! (Oh Maple Tree)

 

Glo----------ry Number One.

 

ORGAN INTERLUDE

 

Gift of Ohno, gift of light, Glo----------ry Number One.

Bulwark of yon daily fight, Glo----------ry Number One.

 

Eat’n with everlasting love, Glo----------ry Number One.

Divine sup from high above, Glo----------ry Number One.

 

Spice of earth! (Jalapenos He)

Sweet of trunk! (Oh Maple Tree)

 

Glo----------ry Number One.

 

And now turn one to the other and exchange your love as Breakfast Sandwich #1 would wish.

 

ALL: Good morning to you. And to you.

 

 

FOOD:

4.3 Stars

I know I focused almost exclusively on Breakfast Sandwich #1 here, but it really is that good. Certainly my favorite breakfast sandwich in town by a fair margin. However, the other offerings at Ohno are worthy of praise, Breakfast Sandwich #2 for instance, which is full of avocado, tomato, smoked gouda and turkey.

PRICE:

Just some dawl-ahs

About ~$5 buckaroos, will get you pretty much any breakfast sandwich. Not the cheapest, but certainly not expensive for what you receive.

AMBIENCE:

Bodega

Made for takeout but there’s still enough space to sit inside and enjoy the nearly ever-present hubbub. Though you may see approximately everyone you know.

SERVICE:

Ring ‘er Up

Pretty much all you do is order and wait, so service doesn’t really factor in much.

EAT OR SKIP:

Eat

Just, yes. Ohno Café is such an excellent stop if you want a memorable breakfast bite. Again, even if you normally don’t fancy Tabasco, get the Breakfast Special #1. It’s just so good. The weekends won’t be as quick as weekdays, as the lines can get a bit heftier, but this is no NYC Cronut. You’ll get your food and it will be good.

 

 

Lockhart's BBQ - Royal Oak, MI

VOICEMAIL TRANSCRIPT: 12:42 AM JUNE 14 2014

BEGIN MESSAGE: 

Hey, Barbecue! It’s me. I was just calling to say… last weekend was great. So great, Barbecue.  OK so full disclosure, I’ve been drinking a little and I just wanted to tell you that it was so good to see you and it was great. Wow, I’m totally messing this up already. I’m sorry. I mean, OK, that’s all. OK I’m going to shut up now...

I’m... Umm... OK.

Bye!

END OF MESSAGE


 

VOICEMAIL TRANSCRIPT: 12:48 AM JUNE 14 2014

BEGIN MESSAGE: 

But seriously, Barbecue? Why don’t... You should come up to Portland! I mean, you’d love it here. All my friends would be like... Pffff… You don’t even know, people would think you were, just, awesome. 

I mean we had such great times in Michigan, when I was there. So many lazy Saturdays and two-beer lunches and like... all the time we’d hang out and it would be so easy... so natural.

Yeah, I know! I decided to move I’m an idiot. Why would I expect you! Barbecue! To follow me?! So stupid! I just... I’m… I want to be WITH you and...

OK that’s it, that’s all I was—

END OF MESSAGE


VOICEMAIL TRANSCRIPT: 1:36 AM JUNE 14 2014

BEGIN MESSAGE:  

Hey there you! I want you to know—

 

*SOUND OF CARS PASSING*

 

— it Barbecueeeeee!

 

END OF MESSAGE 



VOICEMAIL TRANSCRIPT: 1:59 AM JUNE 14 2014

BEGIN MESSAGE: 

OK so I know you prolly think I'm crazy but... Barbecue I just wanted to say one last thing... 


*LOUD GULPING*


I just wanted to say… I wish that we were—


*MUFFLED BURP*


That we were together!

See because the other Barbecue here, they’re not like you. They’re just not the same. I mean, they’re trying and you know… You know! You’re just so…

Barbecue I love you. I just have to say it and you can take it or leave it but I love you and now that you know that…  You’re just so perfect. I mean, you’re spicy and you’re savory and you’re so tender but then the sauce: tart, sweet, tangy. I’m sorry Barbecue, you’re… I dream about you!

I don’t know, could you call me back if you’re awake? Or… I’m sorry… You know what? I’m sorry just forget it. Just… yeah.

END OF MESSAGE

 

 

VOICEMAIL TRANSCRIPT: 2:21 AM JUNE 14 2014

BEGIN MESSAGE: 

— maaaaaazinggggg graaaaaaace! How sweeeet th —.

 

*MUFFLED GRUNT* *TWIGS SNAPPING*

 

Ow… ah… what…

 

*HEAVY BREATHING*

 

*INTENSE RUSTLING* 

 

Bush has prickers…


*MORE TWIGS SNAPPING* 


END OF MESSAGE

 

 

 

VOICEMAIL TRANSCRIPT: 2:43 AM JUNE 14 2014

BEGIN MESSAGE: 

Ummmm… I’m…

 

*GENTLE CRASH OF WAVES LAPPING AT THE SHORE*

 

I’m on the beach right now.  I… You probably hate me… 

 

*SNIFFLES*

 

I can’t live without you… Why can’t you just come here?! It’s so easy! Everyone… Everything would be so awesome…

It’s not about you and me it’s about everything, Barbecue! We would be so great together up here! If you just came here for real and I just… Thinking about you on that plate back there I… Barbecue I need you!

We need to be together and now I’m standing in the ocean Barbecue! Here I am. I walked down here and I think I’m just going to walk in and keep swimming out. I don’t know. If you just call me in the next ten minutes I won’t walk out. But if you stay silent! If you don’t call me back then… Then…

Barbecue! Just…

 

*GUTTURAL SOB*

 

BarbecuuueeeeeEEEEEEEEEE!!!


END OF MESSAGE

 

 

VOICEMAIL TRANSCRIPT: 10:15 AM JUNE 14 2014

BEGIN MESSAGE: 

Hey, Barbecue, it’s Brett. I don’t know if I called you or something last night…  I had a couple drinks. But I was just thinking we should totally hang out again soon. OK, cool. Just call me back when you get a chance. Bye!

 END OF MESSAGE

 

 

FOOD:

4.5 Stars

Outside of Austin, TX, this is some of the best barbecue I’ve had. The burnt ends are super smoky and flavorful. You could cut the beef brisket with a fork. Not to mention that the sides are just obscenely tasty: pickles, collard greens and the Corn Bowl (which is a bowl of fresh, smoked corn that seriously tastes like pop corn).

PRICE:

Medium

A solid lunch with a beer will cost you ~$20. But, for the quality of the barbecue, this is not too much at all.

AMBIENCE:

Pit Boss Chic

Sturdy, wooden tables, exposed brick and a huge smoker, open to the hungry eyes of the dining masses. It’s a cool, expansive space dedicated to barbecue (with a couple TVs for checking in on the important sports happenings of the day).

SERVICE:

Midwest nice

Great service every time I’ve gone. This past foray was no exception.

EAT OR SKIP:

Eat

Absolutely. Sure, when it comes to Michigan, barbecue isn’t the first delicacy to come to mind. But time and again, Lockhart’s satiated my need for properly prepared barbecue. Sure, Slows Bar-B-Q might have the more looming reputation, but for my money, I’d pick Lockhart’s every time.

 

 

Joe's Smoke Shop & Super Store - Portland, ME

           A man named Nate is contemplating whether or not to enter Joe’s Smoke Shop. From across the street, the squat, brick façade of Joe’s appears to be aflame, sunlight striking it with early summer violence. Nate is a new resident of Portland, Maine. He is — as the locals call it — from away.

            Joe’s Smoke Shop is one of the few remaining shops near the heart of Congress street to retain the semblance of a Portland that once was. Not that that particular version of Portland was any better or more charming than the Portland of today, simply that it was closer, more pure, to the origins of Portland. Nearer to the source of its Maine-ness, Nate could say.

            Herein we find the crux of the paradox. Does Nate himself become more of a Mainer by entering Joe’s? Or does Nate stay out of Joe’s, allowing it to retain more of its native vibrancy?



            He wants to go into Joe’s. He has heard about their fine fare.  Delicious breakfast sandwiches, meatball subs with melted cheese and, indeed, even tuna subs, equal to any grandmother’s recipe, all available at a reasonable price. These treats are accompanied by a beer and wine selection deemed modest at very best. Despite all these realities, Nate still wants to enter the store. He wants to feel slightly more entrenched in his adopted homeland and going into Joe’s Smoke Shop certainly feels like an avenue to do that. Indeed, it very much is. But, because of his non-native heritage, any small bit of actual native Maineness he experiences in Joe’s — be it accent, custom or simply the stock (whoopee pies, all-dressed chips, lobster rolls and the like) — so too does he leach that bit of uniqueness straight from Joe’s itself.

            This is a zero sum game of Maineness. This is a microcosm of unique culture everywhere. Each foreign culture began as a separate dish of unique flavor and appeal. Now, thanks to globalization, in all its forms, our earth is rapidly becoming a vast melting pot of culture. Societies and social norms, mixing and mingling, imparting bits of their own experience onto bits of other until, in time, the globe will be a singular grey place, with neither nooks nor crannies nor pockets of difference: uniform, uninteresting, unchanging, eternal.  

            The danger of cross-contamination, thinks Nate, of dissolution and dilution is no joke. It is simply too slow for anyone to really wrap their head around. Entering Joe’s is not simply a dilution of the native Maineness that exists inside Joe’s, it’s a broaching of the future’s trust. Though, here we could get into the paradox of the need for capital investment for a place to survive and what that means for the culture of the place itself, but let it simply be said that to preserve a native place, it can only, truly, be frequented by natives, or those who are of equally interesting stock.

            The only way for Nate to have both his cake and the pleasure of eating it would be to find the ability to adopt Maine’s cultural mannerisms and mores with an insane and preternatural quickness. Only if he hunkers down, listening to the lexicon, mimicking the speech, mannerisms and even quirks of the establishment’s proprietors and employees can he hope to preserve it, as one preserves a national park by carrying out what they take in. Of course this means he becomes a spy, a turncoat against his own cultural upbringing, taking up the standard of a different master. Only if he does this does he preserve the dividing lines between Maine culture and his own.

            But can he do this? Can he betray his own past for the purpose of upholding another’s? What about his own upbringing? What about his own brand of wildness?

            Should not we all become a more potent distillation of ourselves, picking up nothing of the outside world and following only the savage and illogical inner truths that develop only in the most remote of isolation? Would that make our world a loony bin of differing opinion and understanding, if everyone simply chose not to adopt any other’s ways? Would two people be unable to connect anymore? Would it simply be an unmoored rumble of ships passing at various times of night, unable to call out to each other or offer help in the blackness of the raging sea?

No.

            Before the natives of Joe’s were wilder ancestors still. Generations upon generations ago, unimaginable people, they were, even more interesting and inscrutable than present incarnations of that age-old bloodline living up in Caribou or on the frosty shores of Togue Pond. Imagine the thickness of their accents, the coarseness of their furs and the oddness of their traditions. Despite all these oddities, they still interacted with one another, traded and made friends. Friends enough to eventually be wrangled into calling themselves Mainers after all. Accepting a label to their homebrewed quirks.

            Brutes, they were. Twelve feet tall, able to feast on Maple trunks like spits of asparagus. They loped through the woods like wendigos, bathed in riverbeds, drove moose before them like sheep. The women carried babies four at a time, knit clothes from the quills of porcupine and slayed deer with simply a stern gaze.

            These were no wimpy peoples. It takes a rough kind to make it through the long winters of Southern Maine, as it stands. So, one must strain to imagine these indomitable stones of people. They must have been harder and more jagged than the very landscape itself.

            Now, the plight becomes clear. Does Nate go inside? Does Nate flaunt his own weak brand of culture before these living ancestors to giants? Does he silently weaken the raw origins of native Maine with his pale arms and nearly hairless legs?



            Or does Nate go out and become his own self? Does he go and find for himself the origins of his own bloodline? Does he seize the nearest (willing) woman and run with her, pell-mell, into the deep woods, fashioning for himself a sovereign nation, which will birth its own fiendishly unique offspring? If he were a strong man, thinks Nate, he would do this. If he were a unique man, thinks Nate, he would do this. But, what Nate doesn’t understand is that inside of each and every one of us lurks a uniquely strong man.

            Each one of us has the seeds of ragged authenticity, dormant inside. In a society with any sort of pressure to conform — which is all societies — the seed will remain inert in nearly all of us. Certainly, there are people made of such rugged stock that, like a ragged weed, their inner seeds grow and flourish no matter the conditions. But for the majority, the seed slumbers, preserved inside, quiet and useless.

However, we must only give that seed space and time. Simply space and time. With only those two gifts, a seed of weird, wild inner oddness can grow. Anyone, if serious about their isolation, can become the source of a river delta of a bloodline that fans out, hewing raging torrents through the sedimentary rock of society itself!

            But that is for the wilder sort, mistakenly thinks Nate. In the moment, Nate just wants a tuna sub and a six-pack of beers for later. So Nate chooses to go inside as any one of us would do. He chooses to preserve nothing, depleting Maine’s reserves charm for his own benefit. Better that he give them his money, he thinks, to preserve some semblance of what they are, than allow them to founder, which is a fine point, but a sad one nonetheless. And so, without further hesitation, Nate steps into Joe’s Smoke shop and all is as it will and must become.

 

 

 

FOOD: 

3.0 Stars

It doesn’t look like a place where you’d find gourmet food. But the food is damn tasty in its own right. Sure, they’re not using locally-sourced, catch-of-the-day ingredients, but Joe’s is fine in a pinch, especially when the cash flow is running dry.

PRICE:

Dollars and cents

Joe’s is, if nothing else, an excellent way not spend money. There is a reason why many of the clientele do not appear gainfully employed. Joe’s has a niche and it nails it.

AMBIENCE: 

Scary Gas Station

Not that it’s dirty, it’s actually pretty damn clean. It simply has a hint of scariness. One does not feel particularly welcome in Joe’s, no matter the time of day or night.

SERVICE:

Made to Order

The cooks behind the counter are quick and kind. One woman (I have yet to catch her name) who’s behind the counter most weekdays at lunch, reminds one of a friend’s mom. Great service in my experience, despite everything the exterior and interior would lead you to believe.

EAT OR SKIP: 

Eat

Muster up your inner Mainer and check out Joe’s. This is a great Portland haunt that will serve you up a tasty breakfast/lunch, quick and cheap. Also, if you need beer or wine, there’s no easier stop if you live even remotely close to the West End. I know what most people will say, “Joe’s is creepy!” Yes. Joe’s is creepy. But Joe’s is also proficient in its areas of business. Please, if you go into Joe’s, don’t think about what could change. Joe’s is a crazy, less-than-attractive place in the midst of finer dining spots like Boda and Pai Men Miyake. Simply be a paying ghost. Go in, experience a still-remaining wacky nook of Portland, pay some money and get the heck out.

 

Taco Escobarr - Portland, ME

In the faint moon shadow of the cactus, he waits. A shape of silent repose, he sits shrouded in a single soil-stained rag whose tattered ends caress the earth. Dreaming, or at least trying to dream, of feasts long past that can only now be served in the banquet hall of his mind. This is the burden of he who lingers.

 

The mesa—where the dead dry mud fissures beneath even the lightest foot—is his home. The visions do not come, yet. His stomach snarls in impotent wrath. Nestled into the cool earth, he labors to shake loose the husk of his physical form. In this place—the mesa that abuts the sea ahead and the black valley behind—the spring of life can only burst from within. All else is gone.

 

He gazes out at the darkness beneath his eyelids. It starts as a search, scouring the haunted flashes of fake light. Then, as always, faintly, as if from afar, the aromas appear.

 

No rock or thistle of this desolate land rivals the scents recalled by the mind of our dreamer: warm, pliable tortilla, buttery lengua, crisp spines of cabbage and vinegar intermixing with the smooth tang of cilantro. Then, the one he knows too well, the inorganic nip of festive polypropylene lights—thousands of them—hot and pervasive.  This is the place of the feast. He has found it.


 


Nostalgia overwhelms him and the power of it jolts him from reverie. Along the razor’s edge of the horizon, an indigo sun falls out of sight. The dreamer clutches his threadbare blankets as the specter of his breath appears.

 

He’d never expected to dream of it, the taco place from a different lifetime. In fact, he’d thought his own memory unable to reach that far into the vanished past. It had come unbidden, unexpected, yet with a vicious force ,unrivaled by other visions,  had it thrust itself upon him.

 

Surely, this meal would shake the mind’s heavens.

 

Eyes closed, he tries again. The aromas surround him in a rush. More, this time: thick, savory beef, pork and pineapple and fried white fish. Masterfully, with the subtle motions of his mind, he delves deeper into the meal.

 

From the unseeable kaleidoscope, a shape coalesces. Square. Tall. A table, black and smooth appears. The dreamer sits before it, perched on naught but empty space. He runs his hands over the rubber guards that line its edge. A stool slides below him and the touch of it is as a baby’s skin against a mother’s lap. He sighs. As if from the ground, sibilance creeps into his ears, the sound of comrades, friends and strangers locked in easy dialogue. Their muffled laughs and jovial gasps pull walls up from the very ground. His mind is letting go of the other place, the vast tomb of reality. In mesh with itself, his mind feeds off its own creation.

 

Mariachi corpses on the walls rest in jolly caesura. A muscle-bound luchadore explodes from trompe l’oeil brick, a maiden in his crooked arm. Lights, yes, the smelly lights themselves, march across the ceiling, their green and yellow and orange glinting in countless rows. Yes, this is where the acrid smell is from: the lights. But that smell is already in the back of his mind as he thinks it, shoved there by the appearance of an obsidian pillar before him.

 

Could it be? Glistening and smooth, it rises like a miniature Olympus, stretching to meet the heavens, uno cerveza. Negra Modelo. Casually jutting from its rim, a slice of lime. Of its own accord, the lime squeezes down the neck, sizzling at it plops into the ice cold quaff. With dream-numbed hand, our man reaches to grasp it. And grasp he does, like the drowning man the hand of his brother, he holds it firm, feeling the dew of its crystalline sides cool his fingers. He lifts, pursing his lips to kiss the drink in that blissful moment of connection that is every first sip. The bottle mouth rises to meet his, tectonically slow in its glorious arc. The dreamer’s eye is wet, he holds back a sob as the bottle grows closer, close enough to smell the foil of its neck, the lime melding with the frothing drink and then a gunshot.

 

His eyes open, and he looks to the west. Fire. Smoke rises in plumes. It can only be the banditos of the new world, raking the countryside for provisions. Looting and burning all they pass, these moral-bare men and women, a malicious forest fire, diligently consuming whatever is left of the earth.

 

Our man snorts, miffed. He has watched them come and go many times, hidden like a chameleon among the sanguine boulders of the mesa.

 

He readjusts his position and closes his eyes once more. In an instant he is seated at the table. The refreshment is empty; sweat rings glitter at its base. But glory. But beauty. But holy of all holy. Now a meal rests before him: tacos.

 

A platter of tacos sits steaming, in fact, soft shells laying flat beneath bales of seasoned lengua, tangy cabbage and thinly sliced radish. Their earthy scent fills his nostrils, intoxicating his starved mind.

 

Hot sauces reveal themselves as his gaze rises beyond the plate. He chooses one, deep brown and thick. Carefully, with trembling hand, he portions out spots upon the filling. Melding with sour cream, the redness of the sauce is revealed in microscopic dots.

 

The dreamer folds a taco and lifts it from the plate. Juice, light and steaming, drips from the opposite end, pattering to the plate.  The crack of another gunshot sounds out, followed by a dog’s muffled bark, this time closer. They are coming.

 

Our man’s meal quavers, his vision threatening to fade at the distraction, but he holds it firm. He opens his mouth until it becomes a yawning cavern. The meat’s intoxicating smell, one he remembers too well, is only a memory and thus as sweet as his mind can make it.

 

The pace of his dream slows with every yearning second. The food’s parabola stretches for miles until he and the bite are an ocean apart. Still, the man dreams and the mouthful of sustenance advances, surely and unyieldingly, it searches for his waiting maw.


 

The banditos are getting closer. He can hear gruff voices mixing with the grating cackle of women. The squeaking joints of their carts rattle across the untamable sand.

 

Why would they be coming here, thinks the dreamer, holding the two parts of his mind separate so as not to lose either. One watches the progress of a taco infused with that most delicious spice: pure hunger. The other’s worry grows.

 

There is no reason for them to come to the coast. There is nothing here but the turbulent union of rock and sea. No matter, thinks our man, what I must do is clear. I must finish this bite.

 

There is nothing left upon the soil for anyone, even the banditos. Perhaps they know that. Perhaps they’ve come to march into the sea in one final, ritualistic dousing of their ever-burning flames. Perhaps they are simply aimless, wandering like our dreamer, without purpose. Whatever the cause closer, they came. Closer still.

 

In the feasting part of his mind, the dreamer is almost at his journey’s end. The taco hovers, an inch, less, from its destination. A single bite, that is all he wishes for. One  simple gift to himself from the endless bank of his memory. He can give it to himself; he knows he can. He must simply let all else fall aside.

 

He dives full into the dream. The mariachi skulls look eagerly from the walls. All other tables are empty now and simply our dreamer sits solitary in the place. The lights above twinkle and sway in a phantom breeze. With grace and care, the taco slips past the threshold of his mouth, steam fills his nose and his taste buds prickle in anticipation. His jaw shuts on a mighty bite, its savory fullness finally trapped in the ravenous gullet of his mind’s creation.

 

It tastes pretty good. I mean, thinks our dreamer, yeah this is fine. It’s not the best taco he’s ever had. I mean, like, compared to other tacos it’d be like a seven. But it’s not a bad taco. Solid.

 

With this final thought, the yips of the banditos are upon him. It is too late to run. Our man keeps his eyes shut and lets what may happen do so.

 

 

FOOD:

3.0 Stars

Both the tacos and enchiladas are solid. The ample options for filling, from seasoned chicken to battered fish to pineapple-y pork Al Pastor, are tasty. Nothing to stop the show but a good legitimate meal.

PRICE:

Friday Lunch

With a beer you’ll be around the $20 mark with tip. Entrees hover around $10. Not unreasonable.

AMBIENCE:

United States of A-Mexico

Aside from the B-Movie posters in the bathroom (which are legitimately awesome) the rest of the décor is cool, if not trying a bit hard. Also, the lights that are strung up from the ceiling legit smell. It goes to the back of your mind pretty quickly. But in a place made for eating, that hot, beach-ball smell of party lights isn’t necessarily the most appetizing.

SERVICE:

Fool Me Twice

Escobarr’s biggest problem. Not the servers themselves, they tend to be quite nice, I'm talking the actual pace of the meal. I’ve been there, twice now for lunch, when, being one of three people in the place, it’s taken over an hour to get food. I suspect it’s a lack of chef-help, or something behind the scenes, but this place seriously needs to figure something out, because nobody has that much time for pretty-good Mexican. Especially with other, superior, options close by (Taco Trio, El Rayo).

EAT OR SKIP:

Skip

I would have said eat if the service, of late, had not been so weak. Other than that, Taco Escobarr is a perfectly legitimate Mexican spot that’s taken great strides in recent months to make itself up to par with local standards. But sweet mamma, do they need to do some hiring in the kitchen.

 

 

Robot Restaurant - Tokyo, Japan

Sit down, please. Or, if you’re already seated, readjust. Get comfortable. Because the following review of Robot Restaurant requires a firm grounding to properly absorb.

 

Robot Restaurant. Oh sweet, sweet Robot Restaurant. If one were to break the title into its proper shares, it was 98% Robots, 1% Restaurant and 120% quaalude-induced madness.

 

Despite being located in a light-bedecked Shinjuku alleyway, its location is not hard to find. There are literally people riding robots around a roller-rink. To reach the actual venue, one goes down at least five flights of steps—that appear to have been decorated by a grenade filled with Ed Hardy designs—to a basement performance space. Patrons sit on glowing bleachers, opposite each other. The “stage” is in the center of the low-ceilinged, gadget-bedecked room. There are screens approximately everywhere. I apologize for the lack of pictures here, my group was running late and the sensory overload of the Ed Hardy explosionstairway had rendered me nearly useless.


Before the show began, I didn't know what to expect. By the time it ended, I still didn't. Let me explain.

 

 

Above is a Piano Valkyrie. That is a job title I made up. I don’t know what is on this man’s business card. But, when a professional pianist dressed in chrome armor plays on a roving, glowing platform, I think it’s safe to call him a Piano Valkyrie. You may also be wondering, “what are those two gentleman looking at?”

 

They are looking at this:

 

 This is a singer in sexy, spiky armor. That is all.


Not pictured, are the violinist and jazz flautist who accompanied this soulful love ballad. “What was the song about?” you ask. It was about my inability to parse the reality of what my eyes were telling me. Certainly, there were words, notes, even a nice melody. The content of the song? As far as I could tell, it was about me screaming in a high C and looking at my dinner-mates to make certain we were all seeing the same thing.

 

You may be wondering where the “restaurant” angle comes in. Indeed, there is a meal available. You may reserve a bento box (read: an assortment of Japanese food-items that would only act as distraction to the shenanigans unfolding before you). Beer is also available—so very available.

 

And by available, I do not mean that it's freely dispensed at the bar. No no no. Beer is toted around by a keg-wearing young woman. Don't read that last sentence again. Please just trust that your mind comprehended what was just written. Now look below, to find your reading skills vindicated.

 

 

LOOK

AT

THAT.

 

Yes, you are indeed ogling a woman wearing a keg on her back. Leave it to the Japanese to come up with a better way to serve beer. Beer on tap on back. Tap that back up. Barback. The taglines nearly write themselves.

 

After the musical twinkle knights had finished, the next act, as logic would require, was robot boxing.

 

 

Robot boxing happens to be exactly what you think it is, except without actual robots. Two men dressed in robot suits duked it out as a young woman shrieked something into a microphone. Lights flashed. Sound effects reverberated. Beer disappeared.

 

And here's where it begins to get hazy. Not the show itself, but the story that was unfolding. And it is an actual fact that there was supposed to be some sort of a storyline weaving these disparate parts into one strait-jacket tapestry. How, you ask, did they make sense of a sparkly knight band followed by robot boxing?

 

They didn't. 


In fact, here’s the synopsis of the next chapter of the story as well as I understood it: the forest creatures were living happily until robot warmongers from space came to enslave them. This part involved giant spiders. There were pterodactyl riders. Also, at one point, there was an appearance by Kung Fu Panda. I apologize for not having photo evidence of this part of the show, but when one sees Kung Fu Panda ride in on a giant cow, one does not take a picture. One simply sits and treasures the feeling of their brain turning into a plush Hello Kitty doll.

 

Then, the battle being won by the forest creatures, women came out and rode a giant woman robot.

 

 

At this point, it’s not worth talking about the context or the idea, because the pictures tell about as much as is possible to glean from whatever whisp of a storyline they were following.

 

Let’s turn, then, to the more philosophical interpretation of what was witnessed. What is Robot Restaurant? The question can either be answered simply, or with moderate length.

 

The simple answer: it’s a laser-robot saturated, noisy, sparkling, impossibly fascinating dinner theatre performance.

 

 

The more involved answer: Robot Restaurant is the passionate vision of one addled degenerate savant, fully realized. Behind the spectacle of the costumes, the robots, the lasers, the seven hundred (or so) LCD screens covering the small basement space, is a mind-numbing amount of technical coordination and logistics. There had to be a minimum of 50 people involved in the show, from singers, to fiddlers to dancers to robot riders to robot controllers to glow-stick-hander-outers to generally insane people yelling English words without meaning.

 

 

The previous point actually deserves a brief digression. The dialogue seemed to be all in English. I say “seemed to be” because there was no actual way to discern what anyone was saying. Apart from the occasional exuberant “Yeah yeah!” or “Okay!” nothing was clear. What was clear, was that they were indeed speaking some form of English. This means that neither the Japanese nor English speaking attendees could comprehend the explanation for how a spectacle this deliriously illogical was allowed outside of an institutional space.

 

Look, there were lights under my feet. 

 

Whose god sanctioned this?

 

For all its oddness, though, this is not a venture hastily slapped together. Robot Restaurant was lovingly crafted to be exactly in line with one single vision. That that vision seems the result of a life filled with anime, Pocky and crystal meth is inconsequential.

 

I would tell you what was happening in the above photo, but you know as much as I do.

 

Of course a conclusion must be reached. How, indeed, does one sum up such an experience. Giving it full thought, the answer is that one doesn’t. Robot Restaurant isn’t impossible to encapsulate, it’s simply not meant to be thought of that way. Meaning, it’s meant to be experienced.

 

If one is ever in or near Tokyo, it behooves them to visit. Because, simply, there is nothing like Robot Restaurant. In fact, at this point in time, there cannot be something like robot restaurant anywhere else in the world.

 

The business pitch for such a production, at least in America, would be met not only with blank stares but actual malice. Moneyed executives would throw paper Starbucks cups at you. Large security guards would shake their heads as they escorted you from office after mahogany-tabled office, your bag of action figures and glow sticks clicking at your side.

 

That being said, if Robot Restaurant continues to make money—as the packed show I was a part of seemed to denote—then maybe, just maybe, Robot Restaurant will make its way to Western shores. We can only cross our fingers and pray to giant lady-robot Jesus.

 

 

FOOD:

* Stars

Eat before you go. The bento box is not bad, simply unnecessary.

PRICE:

Worth Every Yen

The ticket is $40. The beers are $5 a pop. The experience is unforgettable.

AMBIENCE:

Basement Best Buy TV Section Bleacher Rave

A cozy alcove of glowing floors and chrome trim deep under the streets of Tokyo. Somehow, the perfect ambience.

SERVICE:

Beer Keg Girl

To get beer, you flag down a girl with a keg on her back. Contemplate this.

EAT OR SKIP:

Robot

If you, for any reason whatsoever (maybe besides a funeral), are in or around Tokyo, Japan, go to Robot Restaurant. Even if you are not near Tokyo, go to Robot Restaurant. Maybe even if you are simply at a funeral, go to Robot Restaurant. Do not hold the funeral at Robot Restaurant. Simply go afterwards.

 

 

The Briefest of Hiati (Hiatuses?) Haiti. I hate myself.

I apologize for the late announcement, but Drunch will be taking a brief (2 week) hiatus. To the tens of twenties of discerning and devoted Drunch fans, I offer a humble appeal to your patience. Rest assured, Drunch will return with renewed vigor and fortitude. 


As consolation, I’ll be posting photos—here and there—of my heinous sojourn to the East. 


すみません. 行ってきます.


Love,

Drunch