Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Restaurants You Should Eat At But Probably Never Will

I’m still not done talking about our trip. It’s time now to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. The trip, short as it was, was actually really relaxing. I think part of that had to do with the fact that we were staying in a small town that, though it’s not far from the grandiose gateway to one of the entrances of Mt. Rainier National Park, is decidedly untouristy. It was, and I believe still is, a logging town. It's about midway between Rainier and Mount St. Helens. But you can get espresso, ice cream, beer, and burgers there, and that’s really all that matters, isn’t it?

As far as dining choices, there was a pizza joint called Cruisers, a place called the Blue Spruce Tavern, and the Wild Earth Café, which was really just an ice-cream shop. No Burger Kings, no Mickey Doo-Doos, no Safeways, no Starbucks. In short, none of the things that stress out my soul when I but catch a glimpse of them.

Naturally, my first choice was the Blue Spruce. It had a couple of TVs and two lonely pool tables. Lots of locals were already there. The air conditioning was not on. But they had four or five decent microbrews on tap and smoking was not allowed, and that was good enough for me. A waitress sauntered on over to us as soon we sat down and asked us if we wanted menus or if we had just come for the tacos. For a fleet moment, I felt sort of flattered—she hadn’t immediately pegged us as out-of-towners! She’d assumed that we knew all about the Blue Spruce’s vaunted Taco Wednesdays—three tacos for two bucks!

We blew our cover by asking for menus. She had to return to the bar to get them, so few people (at least on Wednesdays) ever need them. The menu listed pretty standard stuff: cheeseburgers, fried chicken, steak, and, unexpectedly, gizzards. None of it was nearly as tempting as the thought of two-dollar tacos. Such a deal!

We ordered the tacos. “Do you want sour cream?” the waitress asked. “Yes, please.” (I always want sour cream.) After ordering we realized to our delight that out back was a beer garden (so-called) and abandoned our muggy post by the pool tables. The beer garden was really just a fenced-in backyard with picnic tables and a lone blue spruce (the blue spruce, I assume), but I liked it very much. Not far away someone was mowing his or her lawn. It was like being at a barbecue at a friend’s house. See what I mean about relaxing? And by that time, I had my beer (a Widmer hefeweizen, if you must know).

The tacos arrived in a patriotic boat-like carton with a stars and stripes motif to it. The trio of tacos was taking up all available space in the carton and shredded lettuce was overflowing the sides. We were given one plastic fork apiece, two plastic squeeze bottles of taco sauce (one described as "hot" and one as "not so hot").

We had an ample supply of napkins, but I could see that eating was going to be messy. I didn’t really care that I was going to look like a hog at a trough while eating, but I sort of didn’t want to gunk up their picnic tables. You know? I ended up fashioning a makeshift mini-tablecloth out of napkins, which shielded the table from the copious spillage. How ingenious of me. (Not really. I saw that someone at another table had done the same thing and I just copied her.)

The tacos totally hit the spot. I should at this point mention, if I haven’t before, that I don’t mind it when Mexican food is somewhat inauthentic. That is, I’d rather have a crispy taco shell than a flabby tortilla. I like crunch, what can I say? Anyway, these tacos did not disappoint. And the sauce? As my brother would say--better than it needed to be. Both the hot (not really) and the not-so-hot were homemade and very flavorful. I made liberal use of them.

At some point, the waitress came out to the beer garden and made a general announcement asking if anyone wanted more tacos or beer. She just sort of shouted it out. How’s that for informal?

The next night we ate in a neighboring town that promised (according to B's research) not one, but two places with intriguing names: the Huff ‘n’ Puff Drive-In and the Big Bottom Bar and Grill. We never did find the Huff ‘n’ Puff, but the Big Bottom was (as one might expect) clearly visible from the road.

The Big Bottom doesn’t appear to have changed over the past six or seven decades. Since I wish that time would stand still and always love it when I find places that have failed to keep up with the times, naturally, this automatically earned the Big Bottom major points from me. The menu had a bunch of local history printed on it, but, sadly, I have retained almost none of it because I can’t retain information anymore. And I was starving.

I did note that there was an immense elk mounted on the wall. Not just its head either. It was about half an elk. It looked like the thing had crashed through the paneling and then gotten stuck there midcrash. Weird, but kind of cool. (No, I’m not a vegetarian.)

Big Bottom had a much more extensive menu than the Blue Spruce (but no taco special, or anything remotely like it). I was so hungry that most of what was on the menu did not register with me, but I do remember that they, too, featured fried gizzards. What’s up with that? Is it a south-central Washington specialty? I’ve never seen it on a menu anywhere else in the northern half of the United States.

Unadventurously but gluttonously, I ordered a half-pound burger. I ate every scrap of it, plus chips. I was hungry, what can I say? And it was darn tasty. I'd like to think that the beef came from a nearby farm that advertised its beef and hay for sale, but that’s probably wishful thinking. Then again, maybe not.

Yes. I am, in fact, going to write about every restaurant we went to on our vacation. Rejoice that it was a short vacation and that we took advantage of our hotel’s euphemistically named continental breakfast (English muffins and coffee) and that we packed ourselves lunches for the trail. Otherwise this post could truly go on forever.

Anyway, we took a final hike in Rainier on Friday and then headed home from there. We figured we’d stop in an actual real town before we hit I-5, where we’d find nothing but franchise crap. I thought it might be fun to eat in a place we saw along the way that was actually an old-timey railway car, but B thought it would be overpriced and gimmicky. I was irked, but in the end I was glad we kept going.

B had his his heart set on eating in the town of Morton for no other reason than that he happened to know that there was a community theater production of Deathtrap being performed there. In his mind, that meant that we would find good food there. OK.

He was right. Morton is another logging town that has not attracted the attention of Starbucks et al. We parked at the end of the four-block-long (or so) strip of downtown and got out of the car to see what we could see. Right on Main Street there are two places where you could get a massage and two places where you could get your deer or elk processed. There’s a data processing center, where women were hammering furiously away at computer keyboards at 7:00 PM on a Friday night. They have no lives! To add to the depressing, sweatshop-like quality of the tableau, the doors were propped open to let in some cool air, but I woudn't have been surprised to find that they were strapped to their chairs so that they couldn't leave. It was a bit surrreal.

There's also the Deathtrap theater and a restaurant called the Wheel Café and Jubilee Room (“Bikers Welcome”) with a fabulous old-skool neon sign. And then there's Shotgun Freddie’s with a hand-drawn illustration of a rifle-toting Fred Flintstone gracing the window. It claims to have the best food in Morton. And it has karaoke and video poker. I'll pass.

I liked the look of the Alaskan Grill, though, which was not a grill but a pizza place. The woody exterior clinched it for me. Once inside, the solitary waitress (who was frantically trying to handle all order taking, food serving, and table bussing) told us to sit anywhere we liked. We found a table, sat back, and looked around. The place had bunches of fake grapes festooned here and there. A good sign. I like colorful plastic grapes as an item of decor. They remind me of the Italian restaurants of my childhood. As a bonus, these grapes were not cocooned in decades-worth of dust. I always feel a slight urge to "taste" fake grapes when I encounter them. I resisted, but I did squeeze a few of them. They're more realistic than you might think.

“We’re out of pasta!” the waitress announced when she finally got a moment to get over to our table. They were out of quite a few other things, too, but luckily two of their four beers were still flowing, so no problem there.

We kept it simple and ordered a pepperoni pizza. It was very good--again, better than it needed to be. Nice crisp crust and good-quality pepperoni.

I always get curious when I drop into a small town like Morton for a few hours. What on Earth would it be like to live there? I’ve never lived in a small town, and it's hard for me to imagine how I’d manage to survive with such limited choices and without the conveniences I take for granted. But I wanted to stay longer. I would have loved to stay for the performance of Deathtrap (but that would have meant we’d have gotten home at 2 AM).

I wanted to ask the waitress, whom I suspected was also one of the owners, why the place was called the Alaskan Grill. There’s nothing Alaskan about pizza. She looked like she might be a native Alaskan (maybe an Inuit or a Tlingit?). But maybe not. Washington has plenty of Native Americans or maybe she wasn’t Native American at all, but some other ethnicity. I’m not good at judging that sort of thing. But I wanted to know her story and I wanted to know the story of the restaurant.

But she was run off her feet the entire time we were there, so I didn’t ask, not wanting to give her anything more to deal with. While B was in the restroom, I did snoop about a bit, though. All I ran across of interest was a photograph of the cook (and owner and husband to the waitress?) perched on a riding lawnmower. The photo commemorated his winning first place in the lawnmower races at a local logging festival. Lawnmower races! Logging festivals! Quite a find, but it only whetted my appetite for details.

B returned from the restroom, and, sadly, we left. Out on Main Street people were lining up outside the little theater. I’m sure tickets were still available. We should have stuck around.

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