I knew the moment we walked into the restaurant it was a mistake.
El Gordito was proud to be open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, seven days a week. It even sported a sports bar.
The owner grabbed me by the arm and walked me and Alf to a booth by a window. He dealt the two over-sized menus like playing cards, and left us. I looked around the room. We were the second customers for dinner. The first was a robust family of six, just finishing their meal. They looked up and smiled.
The owner returned. He was a man in his fifties, with dark short hair, a little black mustache, and quick eyes. He brought a basket of chips and a bowl of red salsa and plunked them down in front of us.
“Somtin do drink?” he said.
Alf suggested a margarita. I said no. This place would front load it with corn syrup and fake juice.
“Ice tea,” I said.
“Sangria,” Alf said.
The owner rolled his eyes and left. He went behind the bar and prepared the drinks. The only TV in the sports bar was flickering a basketball game. How un-Mexican. Where was the bullfight?
The tortilla chips were brittle. They had been fried in lard, a darling of Mexican cooking. I saw myself launching guerilla warfare from my booth with them and perforating the owner and the chef.
“Cause of death: impaled by chips,” the coroner’s report would state.
The salsa was thick, tasteless, and hot. The heat was poor camouflage for its nastiness.
I looked around. The window was covered in drawings of blue, pink and green margarita cocktails.
A couple roared into the parking lot on matching motorcycles. He looked like a mafia don, dark and mysterious behind dark glasses, she like a mortuary hairstylist, petite and curvy with lots of makeup. They were the third victims coming for dinner.
“See, we’re bringing in a crowd,” I said. “We should get this meal gratis.”
The interior of the restaurant was like the country of Mexico stuffed into one small place. Stone walls with paintings of Mexican towns, pottery in garish colors erupted with plants and vines in profusion. The booths and tables were made from rough wood and carved with designs of birds and flowers. Nothing matched.
Maybe if I spoke in Spanish I would win us special attention and we could order off-menu.
I ordered in Spanish, the owner replied in English. He was onto me.
We chose the most authentic item on the menu – tacos al carbon – tacos with grilled steak, raw onion, cilandro and lime. Everything else on the menu came smothered in melted cheese, re-fried beans with a side of lard.
While we waited, a minstrel sat down on a chair, donned a Mariachi hat, and pulled out his guitar. A laminated sign next to him read, “Teeps. Muchas gracias.”
Our dinner arrived. The plates looked like platters. We searched for our tacos. They were hiding under a mountain of shredded lettuce and chopped tomatoes. They were soggy. It was a scavenger hunt locating the meat. The rice and re-fried beans oozed into everything like an oil spill.
The Mariachi strummed his guitar and sang pathetic love songs that were popular in Mexico thirty years ago. He was off key. He jumbled the words. He switched to classical. He murdered the music.
We picked at our food and ate what we could so we wouldn’t embarrass the owner.
“How’s everytin?” he said.
“Great,” Alf said through teeth full of lard.
I said nada.
The dissonant notes of the guitar engulfed the room.
I began to laugh and couldn’t stop.
“I’m the one drinking the alcohol,” Alf said.
The owner asked us about dessert. I wanted to tell him his place was sugar-coated with lies, enough for a telenovela, but I bit my tongue.
Calvin says, “Food is food. I’d have wolfed down that lard in a heartbeat.”