I was dying for some Thai food that would make my eyes swell and my forehead sweat. The kind that lets you know three hours later how often you pick your nose. I wanted SriPraPhai, or any of five neighborhood places that make me cough from the ambient chili in the air when I walk inside to pick up my order.
But I was in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, where my ethnic choices are limited to nachos at a bar and grille, fried cheese curds and pretzel nibs (if those count as German,) or gelatinous Chinese from a restaurant that recently moved into a space occupied by a furniture store. Funny, there’s a jewelry store in town that inexplicably occupies a gaudily ornate and out-of-place Chinese Pagoda. I’ve always thought the two businesses should trade digs.
On my way to a lonely complex of box stores that rise like ominous commercial silos from the pastures along Highway 43, I spotted a promising option: “Noodles and Company.” I fantasized that it was a Phở restaurant as I drove past. Sure it was in a sanitized strip mall with a loopy corporate looking sign, but in Cedarburg one would put up a sign if they were selling weed out of their basement. It’s standard issue.
First, I went to the Michael’s hobby store, the only place within 20 miles to buy art supplies, salivating in anticipation of peppery noodles. In the aisles, kind ladies politely smiled and I charged past them machine-gunning head nods back, crazed by a jones for hot chilies and a fear of the dopamine-sapping low that overcomes me when I stay inside a large craft store for more than five minutes. Taylor Dayne’s 1987 hit “Tell it to my Heart” was playing, giving me even less time before I cratered. I overpaid for some matte medium and exploded out the building in under three minutes like a ten year old coming up for air after grabbing thrown pocket change from the bottom of a pool. I aimed my mother-in-law’s SUV, with its personalized plates announcing her by name, D-O-R-E-E-N, and headed for “Noodles and Company.”
Surprisingly there was a line. And there were siracha bottles on each of the well-spaced tables. Two promising signs. A teenager who would be played by Paul Dano in the movie about his life gave me a lukewarm smile with his fingers poised over a keypad to enter my order. Not a promising sign.
The menu featured “Bacon, Mac & Cheeseburger,” “Wisconsin Mac and Cheese,” “Beef Stroganoff,” and a couple of perfunctory pan-Asian style dishes, “Bangkok Curry” and “Japanese Pan Noodles.” I honestly thought Beef Stroganoff was something only my grandmother on my dad’s side made. I thought it was her own recipe. I grudgingly ordered some pan noodles, took a number and sat down at a clean table by a window looking out on a mattress superstore, recognizing that in the greater scheme of foody pretense, offering a beef stroganoff dish was a fairly advanced move.
Paul Dano’s girlfriend arrived with a disappointing stir-fry of bland noodles and sautéed vegetables, a pack of soy sauce and a fork and knife set. The plate was sprinkled with black sesame seeds, the cheap signifier for Asian food of any sort. Put sesame seeds on a bratwurst and it’s an “Asian Dog.” I had to go back to the counter to ask for chopsticks. Udon noodles with a fork? Really? When I did, Paul Dano looked at me like a dog does when you hide food behind your back.
“Do you have chopsticks?”
“Maybe…I’ll check in the back.”
Dano came back a few minutes later with a pair of basswood sticks in a paper sheath. The girl who brought out my tray was looking at me now, and so were two people waiting in line to be served. I felt like an alien troublemaker.
I ate my noodles alone without reading material. And my table was too far away from the others to see what others were reading, to look into purses, or to overhear conversations; all favorite New York pastimes that almost make up for having to dine like chickens in a Perdue plant. I thought of Ray Liotta’s line at the end of Goodfellas, “Right after I got here I ordered spaghetti with marinara sauce and I got egg noodles with ketchup.”
Four days later, I got my chance to eat like a penned chicken, when my wife and I tried a popular restaurant in Long Island City. It was really dark..either that or my cones had reset to Milwaukee dining light levels. I started talking to my wife in my loud voice, not realizing the lack of a 12-foot buffer between tables that I’m used to at my local fine dining establishment in Wisco. I ramped up into a magnificent polemic about a writer who wrote a lazy review of a recent exhibition. My wife moved my glass of water toward her in anticipation wild hand motions. Before I could reach my Al Pacino-scent-of-a-woman finale, a head appeared from my blind spot.
I couldn’t make him out in the dark, but my stomach jumped into my throat. I felt as found out as Rumpelstiltskin. My rant was wine-fuelled, ad-hominem and not meant for anyone who didn’t know me well enough to know why I hate riding in the back of pickup trucks.
“I overheard your, uh, conversation.”
I took my candle and brought it up to his face sheepishly. “JOHN! How much of that did you hear…and how much hush money do you want?”
“It happened 14 inches from my head, I couldn’t help it. I could taste your hostility in my root vegetable gratin. I’m kidding..Don’t’ worry, I’m on your side, but you have to know everyone’s reading over your shoulder on a New York subway in rush hour and hearing your conversation at dinner. That’s part of the fun of living like sardines.”
“..I always say penned chickens.”