Friday, October 29, 2010

Happy Place Revisited (AKA The More Things Change, The More They Suck!)

This post contains a long, disjointed, semi-apoplectic rant about matters that are largely culinary, entirely personal and have nothing whatsoever to do with writing. Should you choose to continue reading this post you do so at your own risk. Proceed with caution. Consider yourself warned.

A long, long time ago on another blog far, far away I wrote a post about a few of my favorite things, which at that time included the T-Rex Barbecue in Berkeley.

Let me just say for the record that I’m a big fan of Berkeley restaurants. If there’s one thing this place does well it’s food. If you’re dining out in Berkeley you have to work hard to find food that’s not free-range, organic, sustainably farmed, humanely raised, consciously and creatively prepared, fresh, local and really, really delicious.

The T-Rex seemed to me when I first visited it to be a quintessentially Berkeley restaurant. This was not surprising, seeing as (as far as I know) it’s run by the same people responsible for several other trendy, successful restaurants in Berkeley and its environs.  Clearly, these people have their finger on the pulse of your average Berkeley foodie, or so you’d think.

But that was a couple of years ago and the times they are a changing…and not in a good way.

To be fair, it’s not just restaurants. These are strange times in Berkeley altogether. They’re weird, incomprehensible, end-of-days kinds of times; the kind of times when reasonably young, seemingly healthy and definitely health conscious men and women might suddenly drop dead for no apparent reason; like one of my favorite restaurateurs or the woman I used to go to for Acutonics Sound Therapy treatments. A few weeks ago, a mountain lion was shot and killed just blocks away from the Gourmet Ghetto—my neighborhood for almost seven years; the place where my kids grew up, went to school, partied with their friends; the streets where I shopped, hung out, drank coffee, walked my dog.  
So, with all this insanity going on, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by my most recent visit to T-Rex, but all the same I was.

See, I’d recently been disappointed to learn that Gladstones restaurant in Malibu had gone though some changes as well. New hours. New décor. A new menu. It’s no longer open for breakfast most days of the week and I very much fear that my days of enjoying a Hangtown Fry there may well be over.

Not to worry, I told myself; you can always go to T-Rex. Sure, the view there consists of two parking lots and a not very attractive intersection rather than Malibu Beach, the Pacific Ocean and pods of dolphins, but the Hangtown Fry at T-Rex, made with their incomparable fried oysters, can’t be touched.

Well, make that couldn’t be touched—past tense—because fried oysters are a thing of the past at T-Rex these days. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

T-Rex was never perfect. Then again, no place ever is. Berkeley sure isn’t…it just comes closer than almost any other place I’ve ever known. The food was awesome but the service at T-Rex always left a little something to be desired, although (I hasten to add) this was never the wait-staff’s fault. The waiters and waitresses there have always been adorable; friendly, courteous, knowledgeable and very apologetic on the all too frequent occasions when computers went down, dishes failed to appear tn a timely (or even remotely logical) fashion or drink orders went mysteriously astray. But really, who cares about a missing beer or a tardy salad when the food is this good?

I took myself to T-Rex when I heard the news about Gladstones. Yeah, I knew it was too late in the day for a Hangtown Fry, but figured I could make do with an order of their heavenly fried oysters, a fabulous salad, or perhaps their signature mac and cheese…

The waitress looked uncomfortable when I mentioned that I didn’t see fried oysters on the menu (and we hadn’t even gotten to the “where have all the salads gone?” portion of the convo yet). Apologetically, she explained that the owners wanted to spice things up. Inexplicably, they decided to do this by firing their chef.

Big mistake. As anyone who knows anything about restaurants can tell you, a restaurant is only as good as its chef.

“So, no fried oysters?” I asked in disbelief.

 “No fried oysters.”

 “And no Hangtown Fry at brunch?”

“Right. No Hangtown Fry.”

At this point, while I struggled to come to terms with my grief, the waitress (who also mentioned that the fried oysters were also a staff favorite and that they shared my distress at their removal from the menu) seemed inconsolable and near to tears as she explained that the new chef had gotten rid of several dishes that the old chef was justifiably well-known for. “He even changed the macaroni and cheese,” she confessed sadly, further shocking me because, hello, did I mention how insanely good this used to be?

And…okay, my daughter is now insisting I also mention that it might only have been me who was inconsolable or close to tears, but I don’t think so. That waitress and I, we shared a bond. She was upset too. I could tell. But I digress…

Okay, let’s re-cap. No fried oysters that were just this side of heaven. No mac and cheese of the gods. No insanely creative, only in Berkeley, you’d think it was dessert—it’s that good—salads. Fine. I can deal. There's gotta be an upside, right? So, what culinary marvels has the new chef chosen with which to replace these venerable, memorable, mouth-watering dishes?

“The fish and chips—that’s his. Oh, and the chicken tortilla soup.”

Really? That’s his idea of spicing up and *cough* improving things?

For those of you who don’t know Berkeley well, and I think this must include the current chef at T-Rex as well as its suddenly-out-of-touch-with-reality owners, let me explain a few Gourmet Ghetto facts of life. First of all, if you want chicken tortilla soup, you’re going to go to Picante on Sixth Street, just off Gilman and maybe all of six blocks from T-Rex.  The owners of Picante are related to Alice Waters—she of Chez Panisse, Café Fanny and the Edible Schoolyard fame. 

Picante is where Alice goes when she wants great Mexican food. Do I really need to say any more than that on the subject? And if you don’t go to Picante, you’ll go to Tacubaya on Fourth Street. Or probably half a dozen other places; like Celia’s or La Fiesta.

Same thing with fish and chips. There’s Seabreeze Market down at the marina for all things seafood. Or Spenger’s, for God’s sake, even if we’re all still adjusting to the “new” Spenger’s a decade after the renovation. Or the Kensington Pub. Or Fat Apples—although only if it’s early on a Friday or Saturday, when it’s their special-of-the-day and before it sells out as it pretty much always does because people love it that much.

And now that I’ve brought it up, let me also point out that Fat Apples (which by the way is a friggin' North Berkeley institution) is locally famous for its burgers--which are every bit as good as T-Rex's. They also do a very fine mac and cheese and their salad menu rivals what T-Rex’s used to be.  Hell, just about any place in Berkeley will have a better salad menu at this point. In fact, I think T-Rex might be the only place in Berkeley where you’ll find iceberg lettuce listed prominently on the menu...if at all. 

Iceberg wedges? Seriously? How very…mid-last-century.

I know, I know. I sound distraught, don’t I? Well, it’s only because I am. Good food is serious business in Berkeley.
Look, I may be a mutable Pisces (with mutable Sagittarius rising) but there’s something to be said for stability. Change is good. Sometimes. But you don’t mess with perfection. You don’t fix things that aren’t broken. And when someone stupidly asks you to “spice things up” you don’t add jalapenos to your coleslaw and chipotle to your ketchup and think you’ve accomplished your mission. At least, not in my town you don’t.

Sigh. So, in case you’re incredibly curious (and it would be incredible if anyone’s still reading at this point!) and you’re just dying to know what they replaced the Hangtown Fry with on the brunch menu, I’ll tell you. Eggs Benedict. ‘Cause, yeah, you can’t hardly find that around here either.


Skylar Kade said...

Gawd, PG, that sounds terrible! I hate change--especially when they're messing with my food!

PG Forte said...

It was disappointing, to say the least. ;) But I'm also disappointed about Gladstones 'cause ya know I was planning to go there for breakfast in April. Sigh.

Kelly Jamieson said...

You made me laugh, but reminded me of a discussion we had over dinner in Santa Barbara a couple of weeks ago. Because my husband lived there, we know (and LOVE) some little neighbourhood restaurants there that we HAVE to go to every time we visit. Over veggie special pizza with avocado we talked about how we would feel if we came back and found that Taffy's Pizza was gone. Best. Pizza. Ever. In fact, I'm thinking about placing an order for delivery tonight and having it FedExed here. Or if Derf's were gone.My husband craves their sour cream and mushroom burger. We would be devastated. So I completely sympathize!!

Meg Benjamin said...

Food nostalgia. Y'all realize that's a sign of age, right? Still, I'm sitting here hoping the Barbeque Station is still open in San Antonio, along with Picante Grill and Demo's. All places I plan to check out at Thanksgiving!

PG Forte said...

lol! Hey,you can't prove anything by me. I was born with food nostalgia.

When I was a kid we used to vacation on a farm in Vermont every summer. If, on the trip up, we didn't stop at the same car-hop burger restaurant and order the exact same meal, every single time, Summer was pretty much ruined.

One year for Christmas my mother made coconut meringue cookies, along with the usual spritz, gingerbread, etc. No one else particularly cared for them, but I thought they were heaven. She didn't bother the next year, or the next or...well, you get the picture. I bitched about that until I was old enough to make them myself.

Kelly--you ought to try Berkeley's Cheeseboard pizza with fresh corn, cilantro, chevre and lime. It's unspeakably good.

Debra St. John said...

It certainly sucks when things familiar and dear change. I'm definitely not a fan of change.

And I'll take the Hangtown Fry over Eggs Benedict any day...