Thursday, March 07, 2013

Dinner at Mad Max's

I decided I wanted some authentic Mediterranean food, and drove to my favorite restaurant on the lower West Side of town. I don’t know the dynamic – if the husband and wife owners are respectively Italian and Greek, or what – but it is labeled a pizza place. 

It has a name suggestive of ethnic Italian. I’ve eaten lasagna, pasta with Alfredo sauce and chicken, spaghetti with meatballs, and pizza there. And the food is delicious. But at least half the menu contains Greek foods. Decided to branch out into the Greek dishes.  I’d never been disappointed, and this day was no exception.

The building is a former Hardee’s and still has the overhang drive-through look on the parking lot side. My daughter hurried inside ahead of me so she could use the restroom. By the time I got to the front door, two young men between 18 and 20 strode to the front door and arrived before me. 

Both wore oversized baggy clothing – shapeless pants, crotches hung halfway to their knees, wide legs concealing the body’s form, giant shirts hung like shawls from their shoulders – and had multiple facial piercings. The lighter-skinned of the two also had facial tattoos and beautiful black hair that fell in ringlets, framing his angelic Mediterranean features. He reminded me of a Greek god.
What Other Customers See

What I See
Each guy manned one of the two doors, and held them open for me. Both lowered their gaze in an age-old gesture of respect. It was gallant, it was mannerly, it was chivalrous. The ritual was familiar, comfortable, welcome; men respecting femininity. I thanked them and smiled, making sure to catch their eyes and hold their gaze for just a spit second to acknowledge my appreciation.

It reminded me of a version of Romeo and Juliet I once saw where the actors were clad in West Side Story type costumes and the language was modern.

The disc jockey on the radio station played a perfect selection of 1970s favorites. And the volume was cranked up loud enough that the most hard of hearing customer would enjoy the music. It wasn’t painfully loud – but it just barely missed earning that label. This is not a venue for cozy conversation over a meal.

I ordered lamb kabobs over basmati rice (it wasn’t labeled basmati, but that’s what it was). Instead of Greek salad, I had a regular garden salad. I’m not a fan of olives and I’m not even sure I’ve ever had feta cheese. But exposure to shish kabob during my marriage to a Middle Eastern chef solidified my love for the simple but satisfying (if prepared properly) dish. 

I figured it was a crapshoot – I am dubious when it comes to trying anything out of the ordinary in a public restaurant – but I was willing to give it a try. I figured the worst they could do was to have tough untasty meat. How can you mess up grilled onions, green peppers, and tomato chunks? And rice, rice is fairly foolproof.

Across the street is a former gas station now blocked off with portable barriers. If we were out West, you’d expect to see tumbleweeds blowing around in the parking lot, it is so forlorn. Long ago at that same location, I pounded out a dent in my father’s maroon Chrysler Newport with a rubber mallet. 

The men there showed me how to tap the trim strip back into line. I had cut too close to a parked car while parking, and caught not only the decorative trim on the side, pushing it out of place along the track, but buckled in the fender panel a little bit. The damage was hardly noticeable by the time I finished.

Behind the former gas station are a row of cookie cutter company houses, probably built to accommodate chemical plant workers when World War I’s demand for chlorine and sodium hydroxide jump-started industry here. The Valley boomed as chemical plants popped up like dandelions and the naturally found local salt brine provided one last flurry of employment which lasted until a few years past the nation’s withdrawal from Vietnam. 

We went from being the world’s largest producer of salt at one time to the nation’s largest producer of chemicals to the dubious honor of the United States’ fastest shrinking city.

Behind the houses looms a dark ridge covered in leafless trees – it is winter – which accurately reflects the somber mood of this area. Trees themselves remind us of once-thriving life. The bare branches and dark brown coloration reminds us we are in a dormant phase. 

The inhabitants are always stood over or intimidated by some larger-than-life force, whether Nature or faceless industry or outside-owned coal companies. The beauty of Appalachians is that we endure regardless of outside influence.

The door to the back room was directly behind the booth we sat at. Slot machines fill the room; money and hope are pumped in and mostly disappointment returned. I told my girl how in the old days, before wagering machines were legal, how there were “games for entertainment only.” Poker machines that ate quarters but also took fifty-cent pieces. 

If you were in the know, you used only fifty-cent pieces. The owners got all the fifty-cent pieces back from the guys who owned the machines. Not only that, but you got to keep any winnings you earned as long as you played with fifty-cent pieces. You had to know to do that, but I knew. You also had to let whoever was running the place know you were using fifty-cent pieces.

I told her about parlay cards (a form of wagering  done for entertainment purposes which paid off under the table), and she told me about the modern version – fantasy football betting. I held a series of jobs in the 1970s where I was either the only woman or one of few women in the business, and parlay cards were popular at the places I worked. Since I had a knack for choosing winning teams, the guys asked me to mark their cards.

The waitress brought our food – my kabobs, and a huge Caesar salad for my daughter, complete with homemade croutons  – and we dug in. The lamb almost melted in my mouth, it was so tender and the marinade they used was delicious. I looked over the menu to decide if we wanted anything else and noticed the beer cost less than the soft drinks we ordered ($1.75 versus $1.79). I don’t drink beer but I figure that’s a pretty good price.

We ate what we could without stuffing ourselves, and put the leftovers into Styrofoam containers to take home. Daughter got a slice of baklava ($1.25). I didn’t try it but she said it wasn’t the best baklava she’d ever had. I laughed and wondered if there was such a thing as bad baklava. 

Then I told her how my mom used to make it. The Lebanese ladies in the neighborhood liked her – she had a sort of generic ethnic look and could pass as Lebanese, Syrian, Italian, Hungarian, Native American, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, practically any nationality – and they taught her how to make baklava.

I remember her layering sheet upon sheet of phyllo pastry, paper thin sheets so delicate you can’t imagine being able to handle them without tearing, and brushing them with melted butter. Layer after layer. Mom said fifty layers but she could have been exaggerating. It was a lot, however many there were. 

She’d cut the pastry into two pieces. Then the nut and honey filling, topped by the other half of the sheet of phyllo pastry stacks. Syrup is poured over the entire pan of baklava after it bakes. Makes my mouth water thinking about it.

Looking back on the experience, I realize many people would feel intimidated by the surroundings of this restaurant. The urban decay is prevalent; the whole area is dystopian, post-industrial, kind of Mad Max at Thunderdome-ish. 

If they had braved the area and parked, the guys at the door would have scared them away -- not because the young men were a threat, but because they adorn themselves differently than mainstream society.

Once inside, the volume of music may have compelled them to leave. Nobody meets you and seats you, you choose a booth or table and sit down. In fact, you don’t see employees; they are busy in the back performing other duties. So chances are high that most people would leave, or leave after a few minutes of sitting and seeing no staff. 

And it’s a shame because they would have missed some damned fine authentic Mediterranean food. Their loss.

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