Hello, and welcome back to Off The Menu, where we explore the craziest stories about food from my email inbox. This week, as we come up on the end of Off The Menu, we’ve got a grab bag of stories. As always, these are real stories from real readers.
I was working on a project in San Diego in the Gaslamp district. My coworker Tom and I had been flying down to San Diego every week for a year. Early on, we found a restaurant with what I can only describe as the world’s best fish tacos. We tried a lot of different restaurants, but this place was so good that the majority of the time, the noon hour found us ordering “crisp, delicious, fish taco from heaven” plates. This place was also as great with service as they were with the food. The servers knew our names and usual orders – these guys had amazing memories and great attitudes.
We brought on two new team members after the project started really ramping up. On the first day with the newbies on the project, I had a conference call scheduled for lunch so suggested that Tom take the team out for lunch and I would just grab a consultant lunch (i.e., vending machine Doritos and a diet Coke). The team returned about an hour later and Tom was red-faced, tight-lipped. The client was coming in, so I didn’t have time to ask what had happened until later.
Seems like Tom decided to let the newbies in on San Diego’s premier (in our opinions) lunchtime restaurant. When they were seated, the waitress came over smiling. She explained the menu and options to our new team members. “Patty” ordered the taco salad with no onions. After a very short wait, the waitress came in with everyone’s meals and set them down. As she asked if there was anything else she could get for them, Tom noticed that Patty staring down at her plate looking annoyed.
“Excuse me,” Patty said, “I told you no onions.” The waitress looked and immediately began apologizing profusely. “I am so sorry,” she said. “I will get you another salad right away.”
That was unacceptable, however, to Patty. “Why would you do this?! I specifically said NO onions and this dish is covered in onions.” The waitress again apologized and explained that it was an inadvertent oversight and she would get a replacement for her immediately. As she started to turn to go back to the kitchen, Patty reached over and grabbed her by the arm, stopping her.
“What is wrong with you?!” Patty ranted. “Why would you DELIBERATELY put onions on my dish? Is it funny to you? Did you just decide you didn’t like me? Why would you do this to me? Are you just that stupid that you can’t figure out how to write orders down correctly? Do I need to write it down for you? Walk it back and tell the chef myself? What part of ‘no onions’ was too hard for you?!”
The whole time the waitress is stuck there getting reamed out by Patty, Tom tried to intervene as the waitress was getting more and more upset. He finally got Patty to please let the poor server go to get a replacement. Patty finally unhanded the waitress, but continued to fume at the waitress as she went back to the kitchen.
Within a really short time, the manager came out with the replacement salad, apologizing for the mixup and letting Patty know he was comping her meal. Patty read him the riot act – not as much as she had for the waitress, but still ranting on as if the restaurant had tried to serve her poison or dog turds instead of a salad with onions. Tom could see the waitress helping out in the background, her reddened eyes a clear indication of how badly Patty was affecting her. Patty vacuumed the salad down, but kept waving the waitress down with more demands – soda or water refills in a new cup, more dressing on the side, more napkins, etc.. She also did that “talk to strangers” thing where she tried to convince customers sitting nearby to commiserate with her about the horrible service. Tom told me he didn’t eat or drink anything coming out after Patty’s meltdown because he was pretty sure, from the angry faces of other servers, that there was a 100 percent chance that anything coming back to the table had spit or worse in it. [Editor’s Note: As I’ve said before, this doesn’t actually happen in real life.]
At the end of the meal, the bill came with Patty’s meal and drinks comped and additional apologies from the manager, the waitress behind him. Patty loudly announced that she wasn’t going to leave a tip because of how bad her experience had been. Tom decided to pick up the check. That wasn’t enough for Patty. She demanded that Tom not leave a tip for the waitress for ANY of the team members’ meals. He finally had to tell her enough and to leave it alone. As he signed the check, he looked up and said if looks could kill, the hatred on the face of the other servers (and some of the customers) would have struck him down.
Suffice it to say that we never went back after that. It was torture – we had discovered lunchtime Nirvana, and had it stolen out from under us thanks to team member/waitress abuser Patty. It killed us to have to walk over for lunch each day, and each day keep walking past the fixed stares of the servers who definitely remembered us (I wasn’t there for the debacle, but I was guilty by association because I was usually with Tom and the two idiots). Maybe now, almost ten years later, if I went back to San Diego, I might try the place again, but back then… no. Sadly, we had to turn to other restaurants, which were great, but nowhere near the fish taco perfection we had hitherto enjoyed.
I will admit, I really enjoyed the day Patty was walked out of our office a few months later, her boxed possessions in her hands after she got fired due to her almost limitless ability to f*** up anything assigned to her. It wasn’t enough to make up for our banishment from lunchtime heaven, but I took as much satisfaction over it as I could. I only wish I had recorded Patty’s termination to send to the waitress with an apology.
[Editor’s Note: So here’s the thing: Carrie and Tom didn’t have to be banished from the restaurant as a result of Patty’s bullshit. If Tom had thought it through, he would have a) left a huge tip, and b) spoken to the server privately to apologize for Patty’s actions and promise never to bring her there again. Honestly, he probably didn’t even need to do that! I promise you, if servers have perfectly fine regulars and then bring someone with them who is a nightmare customer, we don’t judge the regulars for it. We know. We get it.]
There was a problem in the food court at the zoo I used to volunteer at in the 90’s: hordes of gulls that specialized in stealing food from children. They would wait for a parent to hand their child the tray and the second the kid was out of arm’s reach they would descend, covering the child in feathers and shit, and be gone with all the food before the horrified adult could reach the kid. The zoo tried signs, tried having the staff verbally warn people, tried limiting perches for the gulls. Nothing worked. So they did the only clear thing left: send out teenagers with hawks and owls.
The crazy thing is, it worked. During prime lunch time a teen volunteer from the raptor department, often me since I thought it was fun, would walk around the food court with a raptor (Queen Richard the great horned owl was my favorite) on their arm. Gulls are scared of owls and hawks, so there would be a nice radius of calm around us. On the rare occasion a gull on the other side of the food court would attempt to snag a fry I’d run over as fast as possible with my bird and become that families personal owl bodyguard for the rest of lunch. Families felt taken care of, fewer people got attacked by gulls, and my owl got some fresh air and an excuse to menace other birds which is what she really wanted.
Ever since then I approach all problems with “Can this be solved by adding a live owl?”
[Editor’s Note: This is an EXCELLENT question to ask when confronted with any problem.]
My boyfriend deep in the heart of Texas had never had homemade Mexican food. We borrowed his parents’ kitchen so I could make him some gosh darn authentic beef and bean enchiladas and rice. Went to the store, bought tortillas, beef, rice, canned beans, cheese, a tomato (for the rice) — everything we’d need.
Got home, started cooking and seasoning the rice, beans, and meat. Fried the rice, stirred in tomato and pantry spices. Set it to boil in chicken broth with a dash of salt. More pantry spices went into the beans, simmering quietly on a back burner. I’d added the enhancements theatrically, like an abuelita who wanted to emulate Julia Child.
Finally, I turned my hand to the meat. From the pantry came back out jars marked onion, and garlic, and oregano, and other flavors I knew from memory and experience would meld well. I was so confident in my cooking and ability to make do with what was available on our college budget and borrowed spices that I did it all by eye…and didn’t look all that closely at the labels.
Finally, I assembled him a beautiful plate and he dug in while I fixed my own plate and got us drinks. As I sat to take my first bite (he was a third of the way through his plate and making appreciative noises), he paused. I spit the first bite back out and snatched his plate away.
All of the pantry spices were “salts” — onion salt, garlic salt, probably oregano salt if that’s a thing — and I hadn’t figured on the cumulative effect of all that salt. He apologized for not saying something sooner about the final saltiness — he was afraid I wouldn’t want to cook for him again.
On a trip to France as a student, I was wandering around Paris and got hungry. I popped into a little deli, figuring I could get a cheap sandwich. As soon as I step inside, I’m confronted by a heated exchange between a couple and the woman working the counter.
Customer: HAM SANDWICH! HAM! SANDWICH!
Employee: comprends pas? (looks confused, gestures vaguely at menu)
C: A GODDAMNED HAM SANDWICH! WHY IS THIS SO HARD?!
E: (gestures another employee over, they both look confused) pas d’anglais?
C: HAM! SAND… FUCK IT! I KNEW WE SHOULD HAVE GONE TO CANADA! (storms out, pushing me out of the way)
At this point, I’m sweating bullets because my French is mediocre at best, but I timidly walk up to the counter and say “Bonjour, un sandwich o fromage, si vous plait?”
Imagine my surprise when the woman responds, “American? Cool. A cheese sandwich, anything else?”
I’m a bartender. I’m also a pre-med student with a solid background in biochemistry. So imagine my surprise when, bartending for a health food restaurant where we hand-juiced all our mixers every single morning and hand-mixed our simple syrup from organic evaporated cane juice, I got a request to replace the 0.5oz of simple syrup in our Thai Basil Martini for agave nectar (we didn’t carry any).
I explained to the guest that I could leave the simple syrup out, but she didn’t want it to be too tart. I offered some of our local organic honey instead, but she didn’t want it “earthy.” Mind you, between the vodka, grapefruit juice, and lime juice, the drink contained glucose, fructose, and sugar alcohols left and right — much like, you know, all food. But she just HAD to have agave nectar. So, naturally, after explaining that I’d have to send a back server to the grocery store on her dime and getting an okay, I politely asked why it had to be agave nectar.
“Oh,” she said, “I’m allergic to sugar.”
Do you have any food-related stories you’d like to see included in Off The Menu? Feel free to submit them to WilyUbertrout@gmail.com. New submissions are always welcome! (Seriously, you don’t need to ask if I want you to send them in, the answer is always yes). If you’d like to stay up to date with OTM news, my Twitter handle is @EyePatchGuy.