Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Never Look Back - Lunch at the 29 Tastee Diner

[Reader's note: this piece was written three years ago.  The diner has recently been purchased by John K. Wood, and following extensive renovation, will open September 2014.]

I can't say I wasn't warned.  The admonitions are everywhere.  They are like road signs urging you to stop, turn around and head in the opposite direction.  And you'll find them, these warnings, in pop songs, in epic verse, in testaments old and new.  The advice is simple, emphatic, and unwaveringly clear:  never look back at what you've long ago abandoned; only a fool revisits the past, for even if you manage to unearth a few ruined artifacts or survivors of a past life, of a time and place, you will most certainly find these fragments not as you remember them, but somehow different, changed, less shiny and no where as beautiful, not nearly as bright.  Time does a number on people and nostalgia is a lie.  This goes for everything, it seems.  Old friends who were not that.  Old haunts.  Old flames (especially those).  Every time I've failed to heed the advice of these troubadours and ancients, every time I've ignored the wisdom of their advice and revisited some place or person last seen, long ago, in my rear view mirror, I've paid with a disappointment as painful as a toothache.

So what could I have possibly been thinking when I found myself in Fairfax, Virginia, one dreary midweek noon and thought it would be a good idea to lunch at the 29 Tastee Diner?  Thinking I wasn't.  Clearly.  I should have gone.  Fled.  Sped away and grabbed a Patio Burrito at the corner 7-11 and called it a day.  But I didn't.  I pulled into the parking lot and congratulated myself on patronizing what I remembered as one of the truly great, truly authentic diners in all North America.  The fool is me.  I should have turned around and gone.

Why beat a hasty retreat?  Because I once lived at the Tastee.  And that's not hyperbole, folks.  I didn't just eat there a lot, I lived there, from morning to night, in a naugahyde booth, or on one of the swivel stools, perched at the counter.   And so did all my friends, we merry band of miscreants, six or seven strong.  I spent the most formative and, in many ways, most glorious years of my life there.  A kid eighteen to twenty-two who, in those four years at the Tastee, learned more about the world than I have in the nearly twenty years since.  My friends and I (and they all remain that, loved and dear to me, despite the sermon above) spent tens of thousands of hours there across those four years, sitting there after ditching school, drinking bad coffee, smoking cigarettes, and watching as the waitresses and cooks change shifts from breakfast to lunch to dinner.  Image our delight as suburban teens of the 80s to have found a place that not only tolerated but encouraged a gang of tattooed, leather jacketed, greasy-hair wanna be tough guys to just sit there consuming plate after plate of deeply discounted and profoundly delicious American diner food.

The culinary talent at the Tastee was serious.  The food, world class.  There was Fran, for instance, the best short order cook I've ever seen, EVER, who could, single handedly, and on a single flat iron grill, crank out over a hundred breakfast orders in an hour all the while smoking her Pall Malls over the grill and singing along with Elvis.  And there was Linda, the waitress, who would knowingly slip cold beer to this then-nineteen year old lad and hand him her cherrywood one-hitter over the counter if he smiled just right.  Love was found at the Tastee.  And lost.  There was laughter more often than there were tears.  And violence.  Lots of that.   (I fondly recall being punched in the face by a homeless guy with a cigarette burn between his eyes and a hand with two missing fingers, onto which was tattooed the word fingers).  

What I know of life I first learned at the Tastee.  And what I now know of food was first discovered there as well.  The Tastee's was a cuisine of American classics, iconic diner food, that was the life-blood of the American labor force throughout most of the 20th century.  Hamburgers.  Corned beef hash.  Fried ham.  Scrapple.  Cream chipped beef on toast.  French fries with brown gravy.  Fresh pies.  Coffee that was supposed to be  bad and which outed you as a pussy had you the gall to complain about its unnerving similarity in color and taste to dishwater.

The Tastee was more than a great diner.  It was a fucking church.  Holy and sacrosanct in every way.

So why did I think it a good idea to go back?  Because I am a seasoned food professional (pun intended) with over a successful decade in the business who falls to sleep nightly reading cookbooks and who could bring my highly trained palate and gastronomic acumen to what I remember as a hidden culinary gem hidden in plain sight in Fairfax, Virginia?  Nope.  Not even close.  It's because I'm a fuckhead.  A douchebag.  It's because I must destroy everything I've ever loved.

So I walk into the Tastee at lunchtime and find it exactly as I remember it, a veritable time machine.  There's the blue naugahyde booths and the jukebox and the sign above the kitchen door which reads:  YCJCUAQFTJB (translation:  Your Curiosity Just Cost You A Quarter For The Juke Box).  And it smells exactly the same.  Exactly. A delightful and decades-old amalgam of beach and fry grease.  And the waitress is even the same.  I remember her as young woman named Carla and who, like me, is young no longer.  But the Tastee is also smaller than I remember.  More shop worn.  And dirtier.  And strangest of all:  it's lunchtime and the place is empty.  I'm the only one here.

Carla tells me to sit anywhere I like, so I sit at my old favorite booth, the one with the crack in the stone table, and Carla brings me a menu, which I wave away.  There's only one way to know if the Tastee has retained its culinary greatness, so I order the gastronomic gold standard of any self-respecting diner.

I order the Cheeseburger Royal, which outside Tastee parlance, translates as a cheeseburger platter, meaning, in the simplest terms, a cheeseburger with everything, accompanied with a side of fries and coleslaw.  To drink? A Coke.

Carla delivers my order to the cook, who, incredibly, I recognize as Linda's mother, and who must be well over eighty by now.  My hamburger meat hits the grill with a familiar loud sizzle and my fries are dunked in the fry oil and suddenly everything seems right with the world.  Order has been restored.  My whole life and all the choices I've ever made now make perfect sense.  So I stroll up to the jukebox and dial up three old favorites:  Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Johnny Horton, who, in loving detail, describes the Battle of New Orleans.  The world is new again.  I am alive.

After a few glorious minutes, Carla brings me my food and dress my burger in mustard and ketchup.  I hold the burger up to my mouth.  Then I close my eyes.  I take a big breath.  I smell onion.  Pickle.  Mustard.  The smells of my glorious youth.  I take a bite.

I am profoundly underwhelmed.  I'm not liking what's now in my mouth.  Not at all.

So I bite, chew and swallow again and again and again, hoping for a better result.  But no.  I'm a few bites into my burger before I decide to dismantle the thing, take it apart, piece by piece, and divine why, exactly, I'm not tasting culinary greatness here.  It takes me only a second to see where Linda's mom just went terribly, terribly wrong with my burger.  And my heart breaks a little for the discovery.

Twenty years ago, when I would order a cheeseburger, I would watch Fran open the reach-in next to the grill and extract a handful of ground beef from the huge mountain of fresh hamburger that was piled up, haystack like, in the little fridge.  She would then hand make the patty and throw it on the grill.

What I was presently eating was the proto-hockey puck of frozen industrial ground beef now ubiquitous in the food industry.  The very meat product that sickens thousands of Americans annually.  Meat imported from third-world countries and treated with ammonia to kill the bacteria present in the meat due to its contact with bovine fecal matter.  The kind of meat that can give you kidney failure.  Meat of convenience.  Meat with shit in it.  Meat of the enemy.  And something I will not eat.  Ever.

So I ditch the burger and hope to find salvation in the fries.  Nothing doing here.  I can taste the freezer burn in the starch.  And the coleslaw?  Someone had made it in a factory far off and long ago.  Someone who didn't give a shit about making food.  Then I look at the specials board hanging on the wall in the wild, last-minute hope that the Tastee was now foregoing attention to the hamburger to better concentrate its culinary efforts on diner classics like homemade meatloaf or shit-on-a-shingle.  But no.  What do I see listed on the specials board instead?  Chicken tenders.  That's right:  fried chicken tenders.  The kind that three-year-olds eat.  On a fucking specials board in the Tastee diner.  The church of my youth.

And that's when it hits me.  The Tastee no longer gives a shit about food.  It might have churned out some of the most epic and memorable diner food in American history at one point, but now, sixty-five years into her storied history, the old girl has given up, thrown in the towel.  She simply doesn't care any longer.  She is just going through the motions.  It's foreign beef with shit in it from here on out.  The lights might be on at the Tastee boy-o, but no one is home.  That's for sure.

I wave Carla over and ask for my check.  She frowns at my plate.

"But you haven't finished your lunch," she says.

I smile at her, sadly, and tell her I finished this lunch a long, long time ago.

And I tip her more than she likely makes in any given week.

Because this is the last time I will ever tip Carla.  Because next time I will heed the admonitions of the ancients.  I will never again look back.  At least not to the Tastee.  Memories are all that are left us.  Best to keep them close to our hearts.  Better that way to keep them pure.

I'm the fool for ever having tried.

Onward and upward, yo.

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