A lifetime ago, when, as my boyfriend puts it, I used to eat like a normal person, my favorite haunts were the Chili’s on Fallbrook and Victory and the Dan’s Super Sub recommended to my family by a contractor with no left-hand thumb. Though I’d like to say my family was better than Chili’s – we weren’t. And I very much attribute its constancy in our lives to me and my demand for a good grilled cheese.
My patronship started early on in my youth. After baseball games, after softball games, celebrating birthdays, days when Mom didn’t feel like hearing us complain about not wanting lasagna again. This was back before what I’d like to refer to as “The Great Sterilization” of the place. We’d arrive, pulling the chili-shaped brass door handles open, and the hostess would greet us with “Smoking or Non-Smoking?” My mom would insist we be seated as far away from the left-hand-side of the restaurant as possible, but not close to the kitchen or bathrooms, both of whose heightened foot traffic led to a relatively unenjoyable dining experience. Intelligent as her motives were, the smoke always seemed to creep past the bar separating the two areas and hovered over our heads like premature death. If they Awesome Blossoms didn’t shave off a few heartbeats, the second hand smoke certainly did.
It was a cozy place. A second home, I’d like to think of it. A place that I forgave its wrongs and praise its abundant rights. A place where the green and Mexican flower motif tile tables were never clean by definition of the very word. I would rub them vigorously with my paper napkin, scraping through the smeared grease to reveal its true identity. Above the rows of brown faux leather booths were shelves stuffed with Americana – silver stars, vintage toy cars, tin can airplanes. On the walls were yellow picture frames of sunburned chili cook-off contestants accepting awards from white haired, over-weight Texans. These were the people that built Chilis, at least in spirit. Years later all of the memorabilia was taken down, apparently too personal for the new wave of chain restaurants (Applebees, TGI Fridays, Outback Steakhouse, Cheesecake Factory on the higher end). It was cleaner and streamlined, but it just never felt like home again. Like when my grandma moved from a house with orange orchards to a stuccoed condo in Rancho Cucamonga.
In terms of ordering, my family was pretty predicatable. There were few surprises. Roasted chicken with potatoes? Too fancy. Baby back ribs? Highly marketed, but too messy for practical use. We were purists, preferring things that could be eaten without forks or knives. My mom started with a frosty mug of Bottomless Diet Coke. By the end of dinner she had accepted about four unnecessary refills. I would imagine her heart raced and her hands shook, but as a kid I never took note of things like that. Most often she carefully paired this with a giant Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich – the only time I ever saw her eat something so greasy it would bleed through the wax paper surrounding it.
I don’t remember dining with my dad much before the divorce, save for a trip to a fancy Mexican restaurant during which I was strangely allowed to order crab legs. I am pretty sure someone else was footing the bill. My recollection of eating with him becomes more crisp after the enactment of post-divorce, court-mandated, Wednesday night dinners. Each week I would insist on Chili’s. A trifecta of cooperation could only be achieved if I stimied my brother’s campaign for El Tapatio – an extremely greasy, everything-tastes-like-pork-even-when-it’s-not-pork, “B” rated Los Angeles take on Mexican food. I usually won on fear of group botilism.
My dad never cared where we went, and I hope he enjoyed spending time with us. My attempts to recall specific conversations come back with lackluster results. He’d order a hamburger and cut it down the center with a plastic-handled steaknife to make it more managable to eat. Most noteable was his regular consumptoin of at least two very tall glasses of beer, after which he would drive us home and then head over Topanga Canyon to Santa Monica. This is not a fact I ever used to justify drinking and driving when I got my license. I was well awaare of the infalliblity of one’s parents and their ironclad rules.
It was there that my dad taught me how to really eat a dinner salad: always with extra blue cheese dressing. it wasn’t that their blue quarter cup ramikens were ungenerous or that the blue cheese there was to die for. The point was to cover your sald to the point that it was unrecognizable. As my refined palate developed alongside my gag reflex I learned how to order for myself, customizing my salad to include every delectable aspect and avoid all of the things that would end up as sad uneaten bits at the bottom of my bowl. “I’ll have a dinner salad with bacon and blue cheese, no croutons or tomatos,” I would instruct them. This of course left me with iceberg lettuce, strings of carrot, and strings of cheese. Here’s the logic:
1) Bacon somehow disappeared from the dinner salad recipe during the mid 1990s. The only reason this inconvenience didn’t bother me was that “Bacon and Blue Cheese” had a nice ring to it as I ordered.
2) Crutons. I don’t have anything against them. Just wasn’t into them.
3). The tomatoes were chopped and most often pithy in texture. In my opinion they only served to sog up my shredded cheese and act as a bacon trap, robbing me of bits of tasty pig fat.
My dinner salad was always accompanied by a Dr. Pepper and followed by a Kiddie Grilled Cheese. This was the most important, the coup de grace, the standard to which I would hold all grilled cheese sandwiches henceforth. The white bread – toasted to a perfect golden tan, white and unmarred around the edges near the crust. The cheese – gooey, stringy and beautiful cheddar. The bed of french fries – peppered to perfection. All that sat before me in a little mesh basket, I doused with a healthy amount of salt. This was what life was all about. These are things things I miss about not eating like a fat kid.
Phil would order Coke and Kiddie Fingers. These were, of course, not the fingers of actual children but the even less anatomically probable fingers of chickens. Appetizers were never the norm. Occasionally, if we were in the company of ballers, we’d get to order nachos or mozzarella sticks – another finger-shaped food that doesn’t go by that name. I suppose this is fair as cheese wheels don’t possess anything remotely similar to digits or other such flanges.
My second favorite part of dinner was dessert. This was an opportunity to take our sibling rivalry out into the public. An order of their Hot Fudge Brownie Sundae became an all out war in which Phil and I would shovel impossibly big forkfuls into our mouths. The goal was to consume faster than the other so as to protect our rightful 50% of our sweet treat. This was a battle my parents were smart enough to stay out of and often ended with me calling him a pig and stabbing at his spoon with my spoon. Later I opted to mark my territory with a lateral knife mark down the center of the ice cream. This was largely ignored by my brother who was faster, smarter, and hungrier than myself.
But like all things, my love affair with Chilis was not destined to last forever. The Wednesday night dinners petered out quietly after I got my own car in tenth grade. Phil quit baseball. I quit softball. My mom went back to work. Years later no one lived back at home. It’s still in the same place it’s always been. I drive past it when I go to Trader Joes. My brother and I will go there on occasion when he’s starving and cranky. He doesn’t order from the Kiddie Menu anymore. And I dont’ drink Dr. Pepper, use white bread, or eat Cheddar cheese.