DON'T CALL IT A THROWBACK: A grilled beef burrito and chips with salsa, courtesy of La Amiga De El Comedor.
Treating your ghosts to lunch
Recovering el comedor busboy
tries la amiga de El Comedor
B Y C O R Y F R Y E
Two months ago, I began receiving DMs and Facebook posts from friends announcing the impossible:
Holy shit, El Comedor's back!
Yes, N’Reeners, esteemed purveyors of gaseous comestibles, had revived The Brand (that’s how we’re supposed to speak now) with original recipes from the long-defunct Albany restaurant. Of course, I can’t verify this; no one at N’Reeners returned emails for information or interview requests. So, I dunno the source of these things, whether original co-owner Judie Tibbetts produced the rusted orange binder or ex-manager Darla Wicke, who knows more about the preparation of its salsa and beans than probably anyone alive, spilled under torture.
Anyhoo, my Albany homers collared me not because I’m some wayback changa freak. Truth be told, I ate precisely one meal under that semi-tiled roof in the Santiam Plaza between the summer of 1980 and the fall of 1988. Decent chips. Respectable salsa. My burrito’s lettuce bed, though: a real turn-off. (Fuck lettuce forever.)
Naw, I was a teenage busboy/dishwasher/cook at the place for two years, which I guess makes my palate unimpeachable. What would happen if these forces were reunited? Hey, let’s find out!
First, some background:
See, when I turned 16, my father reached a very important decision regarding my future. He'd grown tired of our financial arrangement, in which he'd funnel me leisure cash in exchange for jack-squat. It’s time, he said, that you found a job. A job? Ain’t nobody givin’ no kid no responsibility. Local firms weren’t hiring junior punks with a writing jones. “Says here,” he thundered one night after I returned from a high-school football game he generously paid for, thrashing the Democrat-Herald across my proboscis, “El Comedor's looking for a busboy/dishwasher. You’re certainly qualified for that.”
This was mostly true. I understood dishes got dirty. But cleaning was someone else’s gig (think you had to be over 30). Thanks to my longtime experience with shampoo and hand soap, I could feasibly squeeze goop from a bottle and scrub to semi-perfection. But what the fuck was a busboy?
I’d find out soon enough. One night he chucked my reluctant vessel through the trough's front door, where I drowned among silhouettes in a semi-darkened room partially illuminated by red Sternos at every table. Mood, I suppose. Didn’t match mine as I marched to the front counter and threw a line Pops fed to me: “Hi. Can I have an application?” To my horror, one was shoved into my hands without hesitation.
As I perused the form, an older woman I’d come to know as Judie, my ultimate boss-enforcer alongside her slightly avuncular husband, Kirk — I knew she was important because she wore no official red shirt with the right-breast restaurant logo, yet paraded 'bout the back like a queen — asked me, “Are you a troublemaker?” I answered that I wasn’t, no, ma'am, which was true at the time but, much to my everlasting embarrassment, wouldn’t be forever. This I would later come to recognize as the Job Interview.
11 a.m. Tuesday,
June 22, 2021
Here’s a first: ordering online from El Comedor, reborn as “La Amiga De El Comedor” (or “The Feminine Friend of the Dining Room"). No more standing head-to-head with displays of faded New York Seltzers or dodging trays of limed Corona from register to table. It’s super-weird to think of a restaurant that closed around the New Millennium — when one built websites using raw HTML — as a platform with a menu and delivery option. In my time, your order number was uttered over a kitchen microphone at the end of an assembly line (cooks fed plates to garnishers/decorators who oversaw a bank of microwaves), and you walked, at most, about 300 feet to retrieve your meal: basically, lettuce vistas atop deep-fried heaven.
This transaction, however, took place on my cellphone. No numbers were dialed; no to-gos were bellowed into eardrums over clattering dishes or Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance.” No voices climbed over white-English-inflected Spanish, rolling fat tongues across “chili rollenose” or requesting something “hola cartay.” I moved not a muscle until a driver arrived at my door bearing food purchased with electronic air.
I ordered what my standard dinner would have been in 1989-90, keeping my old-man diet in check: a grilled beef burrito and chips with salsa. The only difference is it used to be free; I prepared my own meals with my own labor, stuffing mountains of beans and meat into a flour tortilla and rolling it across a grill. I still fold burritos the way I was taught all those years ago. (They remain intact roughly 30 percent of the time.) Now all I had to do was wait, monitoring my lunch’s progress from distant kitchen to my front porch.
From Kitchen Zen
to Out the Door
In my life, I’ve been a journalist, editor, record producer, and author, but my greatest accomplishment is teenaged dishwasher. If I could return to any vocation, I’d happily skip back to that industrial hose and deep sink. It’s truly a thorough art, scrubbing thick refuse from a surface into a hungry drain, jamming your arms into a cauldron of soapy beans, water, ravaged taco shells, salads, sour cream, guacamole, discarded cigarette butts, then loosing the disgusting cocktail with the flick of a switch. You’re the ultimate cleanser, shuttling stained porcelain sinners to salvation. Here, that’s a dishwasher shaped like a cylinder, blessing captors with thunderous torrents of hallelujah. There’s a serenity to the process: you block all surrounding clamor and revel in studious efficiency, lost in imagination. I wrote many sentences while contemplating Spanish rice’s scattered whirlpool death.
Busing tables was a blast, too, once you became an expert, shoveling plates and cups into their appropriate baskets with the cool ease of a Cocktail-era Tom Cruise. Eventually, you're certain the restaurant would fall apart without you. That isn’t true, of course, but only a select few witnessed your skills; perhaps they still discuss them in
Ye olde El Comedor building, shot on a rainy afternoon in 2015. Wanna hear something funny? Back in 2007, I walked inside to check things out. Shit looked exactly the same, down to the clock on the back wall before which the Saturday crew regaled one another with graphic stories of their pregnancies going back to the late 1940s while I tried to eat breakfast.
barrooms across America. “You shoulda seen the way this kid flipped salsa bottles from one hand to the other widdout lookin’. I tellya, Stetson, one executed four complete revolutions before he caught it. In a just universe, that’s gotta be a record.”
Despite hating my first day, I eventually came to love El Comedor, minus the usual teenage caveats. I loathed staying late to clean the floors after my shift, spraying the whole day’s gunk off the kitchen’s 77,000 rubber mats. Couldn’t we just, you know, turn the lights off at 9 p.m. and go home? Why do I gotta stick around cleaning? I also began a long stint of supervised underage weekend drinking, where at least I was surrounded by responsible adults who kept me from pissing into open sunroofs. (The same couldn’t be said for my peers and our blitzed revenge on a coworker’s paramour, when we scarred his new truck with acres of brake fluid.)
The worst, though, was girls. I was in no way mature enough to be surrounded by pretty girls my own age. My attitude toward them eventually brought me down. Today I’d have earned the sobriquet incel. But this was the ’80s, so I was just an angry little shit who couldn’t get laid. For some reason, high school sex, I felt, was my sole social currency. It kept me from all the right parties. That I wasn’t fucking meant I was nobody. I hated my fat face, my nerdy pursuits, my terrible hair, my stocky figure, and my lack of fetching desirability. Only assholes had a good time. The rest of us were me.
I didn’t take this lying down. Instead, I became a loudmouthed, retaliatory prick. Mean. Vicious. Sarcastic. Unbearable. Whatever thorns formed in my brain blasted past my lips with venom. Mr. Too Cool. Naturally, my altered demeanor didn’t go unnoticed. A boyfriend surfaced one afternoon to kick my fucking ass. “I’m going to kick your fucking ass,” he told me, then waited in the parking lot under enough illumination to illustrate the depths of his rancor, posed in his JEFFERSON football jersey against his massive pickup. Thankfully, no fucking asses were kicked that night; he soon drove away, message sent. We eventually got along, though that wariness remained, along with the ramifications of such lessons — expressly, that women aren’t required to reciprocate your feelings just because you have them. I hate myself for ever assuming such bullshit, destroying potential friendships over green-eyed barnacles.
I’d told Judie Tibbetts in 1988 that I wasn’t a troublemaker; in 1990, I was unmasked as a liar. Sure, I didn’t lift shit from stores or steal money from old ladies, but my black heart and filthy vocab ratted me out. Before that summer, I got the boot. El Comedor didn’t need lovelorn babies squalling heartache in the back all day. Today I regard that time with an equal mix of youthful accomplishment and adult regret for my juvenile behavior. That last part stings still, a lingering demon I cannot exorcise. Shameful episodes, all.
June 22, 2021
Lunch is served and I’m excited to reacquaint myself with my old taste buds. I pop the twin containers with zeal.
Hm. The chips are darker, much thicker than I recall. As someone who prepared a week’s worth most every Sunday morning, I would have junked a batch this brown. In my day, we fried them babies to a hue reminiscent of a tanned Tostito, then dunked multiple baskets into large white buckets for storage beneath the counter. Their color was not to compete with the shade of their delivery bowls. Those bowls are history now, serving peanuts in the Great Beyond, and the chips now contrast with their white to-go containers. Our descendants are far more generous than we were; we’d dump a handful into a small bag, staple it shut, toss in a few thimbles of salsa, and call it good. Enjoy. The ’80s were a simpler time, its portions meager.
Yet the chips are salted perfectly, enough to tease the tongue. A few are fused together, just like in the old days, when they sometimes clung to their siblings. The salsa bore a warm, familiar consistency. I used to pour pitchers of the goop — whipped together in blenders by Darla Wicke — into plastic squeeze bottles we stored in our kitchen fridge and sent out into the immediate wild, where we’d later find them overturned or waving tiny decorative Mexican flags from their spouts. (Bring those back, them imprints of authenticity.)
That burrito I’d recognize anywhere, painted across either side with butter and grilled to golden stripes. A few more onions than I would have liked, but I’m not an onion guy (my burritos lugged nothing but the basics in abundance).
The overall effect was nostalgic, for sure, but not overwhelming. I didn’t don my finest red shirt and head for the kitchen. I didn’t weep before the ruins at Santiam Plaza, stamped between the old Christian bookstore that lived forever and the former bank (where El Comedor once deposited its spoils) that now serves sushi. No poured-out Dos Equis for lost remembered souls or my own worst nature. I thought of old friends and vanished times in those godless metal years, and chased my meal with an apple, cursing such incursions on my diet, yet fulfilled nonetheless.
Somewhere we hang in a buffalo stance, forever young and dumb. Someday archaeologists may discover the rotten cups we tossed onto the roof. Sometime we'll forgive, forget, and ask for more chips. One last time for the busboys. Order up.
(In memory of Kirk Tibbetts, Tine and Kathy Miller, Marilyn, blonde Jamie, Gina, and everyone who's reported for the Saturday shift in the sky.)