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Common Foodsense: Putting Yourself in the Kitchen

Case studies are everywhere; you never know where you’re gonna find ‘em. I was driving a moving van in Nevada last week (long story) when my daughter and I stopped for gas in the little town of Wells.

We were about to head back to the freeway with some idea that we’d find lunch in Elko, about an hour west. Breakfast, though, was 180 weary miles behind us and next to the gas station was a nondescript café with a big sign reading Bella’s Restaurant and Espresso. 

Inside, the nondescriptitude evaporated immediately, and I began to wonder what we had encountered here. A handsome wooden set of shelves with decent bottles of wine; big glass containers of coffee beans, and square plates passing by us on their way to customers. Square plates at a diner, eh? Hmm. One of my semiconscious little rituals in any restaurant I go to is imagining what it would be like to work there, and this was starting to get interesting. 

I was sure by now that my espresso would be fine, but I was doubting I’d be able to get a chicken-fried steak.

A parenthetical note for those raised above the Mason-Dixon line: Chicken-fried steak is beef. Here in the literalist North, we call them “country-fried steaks,” as if the explanation—that the meat is breaded and fried like fried chicken—would be too much to handle. 

I used to give my first semester students an exercise in writing menu copy. It was supposed to be both informative and enticing, recognizing the menu’s place as the last advertisement at the point of sale, the most important document in the restaurant, a contract between host and guest, yadda yadda, all the stuff I’ve been talking about for 40 years. The one I gave them had a couple of traps: Chef Salad and Chicken-Fried Steak. You could tell immediately which students combined a limited culinary horizon with an antipathy to research—they’d describe a Chef Salad as a salad made by a chef, and a chicken-fried steak as a steak made from chicken. Thankfully, it didn’t happen too often; just enough to maintain my mild, low-grade cynicism.

At Bella’s the chicken-fried steak is made with prime rib. Any of my students who had done their homework would tell you that it’s almost universally made from cheaper, tougher meat, which has been pounded and jaccarded and otherwise beaten into a state of receptivity; then breaded, then generally frozen, to be eventually finished in a fryer. It’s a cousin on the evolutionary tree of Veal Milanese: a slice from the leg which was taken to the back room by Guido and a couple of the boys and softened up a little. When you start with a tender cut, you’re gilding the lily. 

The rest of the menu has a similar aesthetic. You’ve been told as you were seated that everything is homemade, including breads and jams. The menu begins by reminding you of this, and then proceeds to list a terrifying number of attractive items (terrifying from the perspective of a cook. Somebody has to make all this stuff, and it goes on page after page. And the restaurant opens at five in the morning; of course I’m going to get stuck with the early shift). 

So here we have a sophisticated sensibility reinterpreting mostly traditional fare, somewhat the way Jim Grell did at the late lamented Modern: serve pot roast, sure, but make it yourself and make it cool. I wound up getting the tri-tip hoagie, and my daughter had the corned beef hash (the chicken-fried prime rib is 11 ounces, and, unfortunately, appropriately priced). Their corned beef was hand-cut from a brisket. Both meals were lovely, and either could come with soup, salad, fries, slaw, potato salad, or onion rings. Hand-battered onion rings. I’ll probably get to do those, too, in between the over-easy eggs.

I chatted with our waitress a bit as we were cashing out. I brought up the number of items on the menu, and she assured me that it worked out fine, and that it was integrated enough to control their waste.

I’m not arguing. I haven’t made anything like a statistically valid survey, but I’ve noticed that indies in smaller towns tend to have broader menus than indies in bigger ones. Think about it: a limited supply of customers who want a lot of variety, or in cities, a limited variety to serve a huge supply of customers. The only worries then would be for that elderly exhausted breakfast cook. 

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