Friday, September 5, 2014

Lunch in Hell

“Frijoles negros?”  The Latina lady is short, rather squat, and wears a hairnet. She is wielding a ladle and the Anglo man in front of me shakes his head.
“No,” he says. “Black beans.”
“Si,” says the lady, “Frijoles negros!” Her smile is on the verge of being strained.
“No no!” Says the man. “Black beans!  Back beans!” He speaks louder, like people do when addressing someone not of their shores. I’ve always been fascinated by the widely held belief that if you increase the volume of your voice, people will miraculously grasp what you’re trying to communicate.
The Latina lady loses her smile. The line is backing up; I imagine she’s been there since eight this morning; it’s hot back there behind the counter and her feet hurt. She points to the pan of black beans and enunciates very slowly, as if to a challenged child, “Fri-joles-ne-gros.”
The man too is losing patience. This could take a long time to resolve so I intercede and say to him, “Frijoles Negros are black beans.”
He looks at me, at the Mexican lady, back at me. “Then why the hell didn’t she say so!”
I am having lunch in hell.
This is what happened. My friend Stacey and I were headed for a mom-and-pop Mexican restaurant we both liked but hadn’t been to in more than a year. We drove, parked and… no restaurant. The place had vanished.
We looked around. Close by was something called the Cantina Mexicana, or perhaps Mexicana Cantina, one of the two. The menu displayed reasonable prices for standard rice-and-beans fare. We went in.
It was stupidly noisy, and by that I mean the restaurant seemed to have been designed with aural destruction in mind. Hard surfaces everywhere, perfect for reverberating the clatter of pots and pans. We should have turned around and left, but didn’t. Sometimes you have to suffer for good food. We got in line behind the black bean guy.
I can’t tell you what I ordered, but I do know that it looked exactly like what Stacey ordered, though we’d chosen different dishes. There was a vat of black beans, another of tan beans, and another still of beans of an indescribable color. I pointed to various vats and was given a splash of each dish. White rice, brown rice, what may have been a taco or an enchilada shell, shredded chicken, or was it pork? A spoonful of diced tomatoes and a large plate of corn chips.  
As soon as we sat down, the racket increased. One employee was dragging wooden chairs across the tile floor, two at a time, in what seemed a rhythmic pattern matching the music raining from ceiling speakers. Twenty feet away, the Latina lady was dealing with another Español-challenged American. A child was bawling. No, make that two bawling children at separate tables, as well as one shouting busboy and an eight-year-old catapulting frijoles across the room with his plastic spoon. The food in my plate had run together to form a glutinous brownish mass that tasted somewhat like the inside of a vegetarian burrito.  I went into a sort of catatonic state from which Stacey had to rouse me.
The thing is, I should know better. I’ve eaten in horrible places all over the world. This wasn’t the absolute worst--that was in Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire, and I still shudder when I think of that meal. 
This? It was a close third, or maybe even a second.

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