Thursday, July 6, 2017

Mourning My Favorite Restaurant

In the ‘80s, I basically had a choice between being a techie and a hippie that could do tech. I came of age in San Jose, during the first Silicon Valley boom. Due to some malparenting, I emerged with some poor social skills and no education credits beyond a high school equivalency certificate, so I was messing around with community college and working primarily as an in-house phone operator for a tech company. 

My friends in the Valley were making crazy salaries at tech start ups. They lived in suburban houses, four to six of them in a house, because we didn’t have enough housing in Santa Clara County, and only people with crazy salaries could afford the crazy rents. They were also constantly getting laid off and having to re-learn their jobs.  My hippie friends, in contrast, lived in cheap funky old apartments in Berkeley and Oakland and San Francisco, where there were thriving scenes in art and music and writing. I opted for the latter.

I started out with the science fiction subculture in the East Bay, then I flowed over to San Francisco, and lucked out getting an apartment which is rent controlled. It’s also in the yuppie neighborhood, which means I spent a couple of decades being despised by the super politically correct types that were gentrifying the Mission, but since I’m surrounded by excellent restaurants and foghorns, it didn’t affect me a whole lot (curiously, that accounts for at least one of my assumptions that I’m probably pre-blacklisted as far as the corporate publishers go – neighborhood loyalties are hardcore here in SF).  And it’s sort of moot now, because those Santa Clara County salaries kept getting crazier and crazier, until they were moving into our funky apartments and gentrifying us out of their way.

Lots of the artistic types moved to the East Bay, where they now hate San Francisco with the same fervor with which they approached their politics and intra-neighborhood feuds. Some of us – those who bought houses, or who have rent control, or who selected exactly the right startups to back – are still here. It’s not that laid back hippie town any more, though. That place where lazy hippies could get by, where starving artists could subsist on cheap pasta and red wine, where folks could live humble organic hand-crafted anti-consumer lives – that place is gone. 

Lately the restaurants are evaporating. Which is tough, because I get very attached to restaurants. I’m very picky about which ones I like, and I score them according to a complicated formula that accounts for ambient sound and price and spiciness. I’m partial to Asian and South Asian food – Thai, Vietnamese, Hakka, Szechwan, Hunan, Japanese, Burmese – this is the soul food I grew up with, the stuff that made my haole mom shudder. The high rents are scaring them away, however, and it has become a common occurrence to head to a favorite place only to discover an empty storefront – or, even worse, some grim hipster place that serves kale salad amidst plain black panels of despair and weathered wretched wood.

I have a special place in my heart for Indian food, especially when served amidst cheerful colorful Indian decor. It mainly comes from a relationship I had with a guy named Jim, who worked for a guy named Dinesh, who was from India. We were always going to Indian restaurants, where Dinesh would evaluate the dishes for spiciness and authenticity. At first it was way too spicy for me, and I was always chasing everything with water and soda and mango lassi, and then I got accustomed to the spiciness and now I only notice if it’s too bland. 

And when I say “Indian food” I extend that sentiment west to Pakistan, where they do curries I actually prefer to Indian-style ones. Pakistan has a complex culture, I’ll leave it at that, but aside from all the religion and politics and history and stuff, I adore their food. They’re right in the middle of the Delicious Cuisine Belt that runs from Greece to Burma and features marvelous things like protein in spicy cream sauce, and spicy yogurt and cucumber salad, and meat scorched in spicy yogurt marinade, and hot delicious flatbreads, and super spicy vegetables, with rice pudding for dessert. I could eat that stuff all day no matter what it’s called. 

In America, Indian food is traditionally served buffet style. I have no idea why. I have eaten it a la carte often enough, but like many Americans, I’d rather have a little taste of seven things than a lot of two things. I’ve become accustomed to eating it that way, because that’s how most places serve it.

I’m not much of a cook, myself. I can do simple things like chicken salad and scrambled eggs, and I tend to leave greater culinary feats up to the professionals. I earn a living with these ten fingers, and I don’t want them burnt and sliced, thank you very much. I go to restaurants.

After I come up with an internal score for a restaurant, my visit frequency will reflect it accordingly. My low scorers: every three years or so.  My highest accolade: every week, without fail.

I visited Mela Tandoori for their Indian lunch buffet for several years on an “every week, without fail” basis. Oh sure, if I was on vacation, or if it was Thanksgiving or something, I’d skip it, but if I was nearby, I was there. Even if I wasn’t feeling well and could only choke down a little daal and naan. And maybe some of that spiced eggplant.  Oh emm gee, the spiced eggplant. It was a weekly respite from the harsh lighting of my office, a mini-vacation in a land of spicy color.  It was more than a lunch buffet: it was a celebration.  

I even put a reference to them in my author bio – the bit about eating tandoori chicken every Thursday.  Because a great love between a diner and a restaurant is a remarkable thing, to be treasured and memorialized. 

Today I went to Mela Tandoori and discovered they had discontinued the lunch buffet. And the spiced eggplant will never again be mine.  Unless I go there for dinner, so it could have been much much worse, at least they haven't vanished like another thirty nice restaurants I could probably list off the top of my head, and I'm crossing my fingers and hoping they weather their changes. 

My soul is desolate.

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