Sunday, July 23, 2006

Texas by the turn signal light: Day 5

Fast food just when you DON’T want it
It doesn’t matter if it happens at home or on the road, but an entire day, or night, can be harmed by an improperly served meal at a restaurant. Poor service, less-than-satisfactory food and the overall attitude of the establishment tends to make you think twice about spending your money at certain joints – no matter how much your tummy grumbles.
There is a MAJOR difference between “dining” and “eating out.” Sadly, the places that emphasize the former are fewer and far between. And it shouldn’t matter what level of food delivery you are experiencing – the treatment should be the same. After all, it IS your money and it IS your satisfaction.
Too many places, because of corporate orders and the need to turn over tables in order to produce more revenue. But word-of-mouth would mean that negative words would spread and negate all the work for that extra business.
In Corpus Christi, we ate lunch at a vaunted locale, Pier 99, and I must admit that it proved to be highly overrated and a perfect example of what NOT to do as a restaurant. In Goliad, we lunched on small-town Tex-Mex cusiine and it went far better – some place we would recommend to travelers.
Here are 10 things (definite no-nos) that delineate fine dining from places where you just get something to eat:
1) Poor timing. You order an appetizer, which by definition should proceed the main course. It arrives (often late) and then is followed by the main course, seconds later. The table is overloaded, your stomach is overloaded and it overwhelms the entire meal.
2) Let the seat get warm first. Doncha just hate it when you hit the door, find your table, sit down and immediate are pounced upon by a waiter/waitress wanting a drink and/or appetizer order. Hell, the menu hasn’t come into focus and already, there’s pressure to get you gone.
3) No, no, net yet, Nanette. Too many wait staffs lift what they believe to be finished plates before you declare them “finished.” Some people eat at different paces. Some enjoy nibbling while conversing and it takes longer to finish things. An attentive staff watches and learns and doesn’t put feeding the dishwasher as a priority.
4) My cup runneth over. This is a personal thing with me. I like to finish my initial glass of beverage before seeking more. I hate, absolutely revolt, at anyone insisting on topping my glass of water or tea every minute. And I abhor the policy where a restaurant insists on bringing a new soft drink when you are halfway done on the first … or second … or third.
I’ve been given a gaggle of glares from staff members who have been stopped in mid-pour. But, remember this always, it’s YOUR money; spend it as YOU wish and get what YOU want.
5) Never eat with your hands. Except at a barbecue place like the wonderful Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas, you need utensils to feed yourself. To be served a meal with them is total lack of attention. Very, very bad.
6) Not finger licking good. At most barbecue joints and every seafood restaurant, you need lots and lots of napkins/towels to keep your hands clean and dried. If they offer a roll of paper towels, it’s a clue that things will get messy. No napkins mean things WILL get messy and that ain’t good.
7) Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! Gomer Pyle might exclaim it but it’s not what you want to see or here at a meal. A perfect example from Pier 99: an order to Alaskan snow crab as an appetizer was served with enough paprika (surprise!) to spice a separate order of chili. And the butter for the crab was discolored by the stuff (surprise!). None of which was mentioned in advance nor requested by anyone (surprise!).
It’s your money and if there are too many surprises, reverse the tables are send the order back – get what YOU want and pay for.
8) One man’s rare is another cook’s medium. When you order a steak and ask it to be done medium, it really should mean the same regardless of geographics, cuisine or time of day. It should be standardized.
9) Air conditioning and ice cream should be cold. Foods that are steamed or fired should never, ever, EVER be served cold. There might be nothing worse to consume than cold potatoes.
10) Hello, goodbye. This is the coup de grace. If you receive your bill BEFORE you have finished the main course, it is a clear signal that the establishment wants you gone. That’s not a nice thing to do. What if you wanted dessert?
Of course, some of us have been trapped in our own episode of “Lost,” where the bill has never arrived. Or worse, when the order never made it to the kitchen and you just keep waiting and waiting. I won’t set foot in an Abuelo’s for that very reason.
Fine dining happens when none of these faux pas take place. You are treated as if your business matters.
Because it does. And it feels good to experience it when it does.
* * *
After two nights of baseball by the port, and an afternoon of 94-94 (temperature and humidity in Corpus Christi), we’ve decided to dump going to the beach and will be headed to the Rockport-Fulton area for some sight seeing, good food and that which can only be appreciated from the front seat of an air-conditioned vehicle.
The Texas State Aquarium was nice, but awfully crowded with screaming children, parents in need of better deodorant and those folks who don’t think twice when stepping in front of your camera shot, without saying a mere, “Excuse me!”
There will be more about the superb experience that was baseball at Whataburger Field in Corpus Christi.

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