Sunday, January 17, 2016

Revisiting Vacation Day 7: A dumb way to spend $50 ...

The first sign that this was a bad idea: As soon as I said the name of the restaurant, I sort of unintentionally recoiled. The last time I was there, I'd eaten a chimichanga that seemed a close relative to a boiled tube sock filled with chicken parts. The sauce was tomato-textured water.

That was years ago, though.

I just really wanted nachos. And I really wanted to leave the house. I'd been cooped in this coop for too many days in a row. First, Chach's ears were infected, then as the temperatures dropped, she stopped responding to winterwear. ("Which hat do you want to wear?" Flings both options across the room.) She was content to roam the same 40 square feet day after day after day after day. I've seen variations on the story of The Grinch 30 times in 10 days, and while I don't mind Boris Karloff or Jim Carrey's version, it's still The Grinch and it's still 30 times in 10 days.

Nachos. In public.

The other nacho purveyors in town were dismissed for various reasons ranging from location to location, and after further scanning Chicken Sock's menu it was decided we would just go there. No frills, no fireworks. We didn't need a dining experience that would inspire Instagram footage and  a Facebook check-in. Just a nacho appetizer followed by something bean-filled, cheese covered, with a spicy kick for an entree.

Listen. This is a big deal. I'm pretty plant-based and mostly dairy and gluten free. I've been meat-light for as long as I've been making my own meals. But once a week I lay aside my super obnoxious list of things I will and will not eat and replace it with complete lawlessness. I've learned that cheese tastes otherworldly when you don't eat it by the 4-inch slab every night before bed, as was my old way of confronting a block of cheddar and a fresh sleeve of Zestas.

So, nachos.

The second sign this was a bad idea: We found a great parking spot and on our cold sprint to the restaurant, passed two or three more great parking spots. Through the windows, plenty of open booths. The ebbs and flows of the food industry, right? Maybe on a Wednesday. But at 5:45 p.m. on a Friday night at a restaurant close to Amsoil Arena, where UMD was hosting St. Cloud in about the amount of time it would take to consume a dinner, one would think this place would be teeming with jerseys chasing a pre-game Tex-Mex high.

Nope.

A half dozen members of the restaurant staff greeted us when we walked in. It was like a commercial for customer service. "At the Chicken Sock, we boast a 4:1 employee to customer ratio. You won't be able to wet your fork without our attentive staff making sure the tines are a dental match with the curvature of your mouth." We were whisked to a booth near the other empty booths and happened past a table where two young people were pushing more than half-filled plates of food back at the server. Or were they half-empty plates? Uh-oh, I thought.

The nachos were incredible. A mound of evenly distributed nacho ingredients -- though I'm not sure there were any of the advertised jalapenos -- spread across thin, crispy and lightly salted chips. On one half, a good sized splat of guacamole and on the other half, sour cream. Reader(s), we demolished it.

We should have stopped there. If we had stopped there, this post wouldn't exist. We would have had this pleasant plate of nachos and gone home satisfied, crave fulfilled. It might have changed my Pavlovian response to merely hearing the restaurant's name. It might have become a Friday night nacho hangout, where I shared loads of laughs with my gal pals. I definitely wouldn't have said about 100 times in the past three days: "Some restaurants seem to get away with selling slop because they have primo real estate." Soups on, tourists.

But, the entrees.

"It's meat," Chach said, looking at her plate. That was the third sign. Technically it was what she had ordered. But it was a soft shell taco filled to the rim with a greasy mess of oily red ground beef. Later it would fall open and I would see a hint of lettuce, maybe the place where a tomato might roost. It had all gotten muddied and lost in the concentration of double meat doused with meat doused with grease.

"It's spicy," she said, though it wasn't.
"If it's anything like mine, that's the salt," Chuck said.

I ordered a chicken chimichanga again, thinking the Shitty Chimichanga Lightning couldn't possibly strike twice in the same place. But there it was again, a sad and soggy lump of gooey tortilla wrapped around mediocre chicken. The sauce was probably seasoned with the scorch marks on the bottom of a pan. The pinto beans were dry; I didn't touch the rice.

"How is everything tasting," the server asked.
"Yes," I said, because it was, technically, tasting.

I ate about one-fourth of my food, Chuck and Chach managed just less than half. We assured her we didn't need a box for any of it, no-no, really. Then I paid more than $50 to just get the plates the hell away from us -- though the smell of Chach's taco somehow got embedded into my skin.

So that was pretty awful. My worst meal for as long as I can remember.

Here's the thing: I wasn't looking for an artful stack of organic things grown within a 20-foot radius of the kitchen. It didn't even need to be great. It just had to be not awful. The next day we drove past a sign advertising Taco John's and that, I realized, would have been far, far superior. How hard is it, really, to make inauthentic Mexican food?