Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Angels Sang and Skirt Steak Rained from the Heavens

If you didn't yet, go ahead and read yesterday's post if you'd like the back story.

Done? Everyone back? Need a nap? Great.

So, that's how things sat for the last 5 years. We even joked about it. "That was no Dancing Meat Parade" became shorthand for anything that promised one thing and delivered something so far below, so sub standard, it crashed through the floor of your lowest expectations and ended up glaring at you sullenly from the basement, unwilling to even make the effort to flip you off.

We know better, usually, than to expect anything much from chain restaurants. And to expect even less than that from the few "All You Can Eat" establishments we'd allowed ourselves to be dragged into. But a few people had told us this first place was great, we had to go. So we got our hopes up, only to have them dashed on the cold, hard rocks of reality.

Anyway, moving on to more recent events.

A month ago we ended up out in Pasadena, and decided to try a small Brazilian restaurant we passed. Flipping through the menu on the rack out front, Laughing Boy saw that they offered an all you can eat Churrasco dinner.

"Maybe we can try it," he said, perking up in spite of his sordid past with Brazil and her Tease of a Cuisine.

"Why not," said I, wincing.

We sat down, and he asked about it while I held my breath. The waiter said that they didn't serve it until 6pm, and it was only 5:45. But he'd check.

That was all it took. Laughing Boy was having none of it. "See. No one wants to give you a Dancing Meat Parade." He sat back, his 5-year in the making cynicism cutting through his fleeting willingness to give Brazil and its fickle Barbeque another chance. Once burned, he wasn't firing up that blowtorch again.

The waiter came back, apologetic. We'd have to wait until 6.

"It's only 12 more minutes," I pointed out, still unwilling to see him give up on his dream. "Do you want to order an appetizer, and then get the All You Can Eat at 6?"

"No." Laughing Boy flipped through the menu to the steak section. "It's probably all Salad Bar, anyway. That's how they get you." We ordered steaks, and they were great. Baby steps.

But you want to know about yesterday, already. I know. I know.

Yesterday, he offered to take an old wall unit air conditioner we didn't need out to a co-worker who just got married. She lives in Pasedena, but wouldn't be home until after 9. So we stopped for dinner, and wonder of wonders, Laughing Boy wanted to go to the Brazilian place. Perhaps the healing had begun.

We sat down. Ordered our drinks. The waitress came by to drop off our sodas as we flipped through the menus and she said those fateful words. "Would you like to try our All You Can Eat Dinner?"

Time stood still. I felt like screaming "Nooooooooooooo" in slo mo at the back of her head. But it was too late. And then... hey, wait. LB was considering it. He flipped to the back of the menu and took a look. "How's it work?" he asked.

The waitress looked confused. "It's All You Can Eat."

But he wasn't fooled, not he. It was never that easy. "So, you get salad, and..."

"Well, yes. You can start out with soup or salad, and then we bring your side dishes." She nodded encouragingly.

LB sat back, cynicism firmly in place. "Right. Salad and side dishes."

"And then we bring all those meats in the list, as much as you want."

But he wasn't falling for that one again. "So if we want more of something, or we want to skip something, then..." He pushed and prodded, looking for the fatal flaw. Perhaps the glittering promise of endless steak merely masked the cruel reality of chicken and hot dogs, doled out in meager salty lumps.

"Oh no," she said firmly. He smiled. She was already saying no, even before we'd ordered.

"You don't want to skip anything," she insisted. "It's all so good. And then you won't know what you've missed. Just try everything, and then if you like something, we'll bring you more."

He snorted, just under his breath. They'd bring us more, just like that. Riiiiight.

"We should try it," I said. I could see him wavering. And even as I swore upon my honor to kick Brazil in its collective a... shins if it dared to disappoint him again, I knew we had to take the chance. It was time.

He nodded, and closed the menu. It was done.

We got our salads, and finished them in no time. And then, the wait began. Now, this may not have been a long wait. Who can judge these things. But it was filtered through the endless prism of 5 years of dashed All You Can Eat dreams. So it seemed timeless. Epic. Eternal. And then, finally, out came the side dishes.

"That's how they get you," he said, nodding knowingly as the waiter walked away. "They fill you up with salad and side dishes." I was seated facing the front entrance, and he was facing the kitchen. He glared past me at the doors.

"But she wanted us to order the All You Can Eat. It was her idea." I tried to keep his hopes up, but feared I was setting us both up for more bitterness, more disappointment. More Salad Bar.

"That's how they get you," he muttered, eyes narrowed.

The waiting. The waiting. He fidgeted in his chair, eyes on the kitchen. They weren't going to sucker punch him twi...

"Hey!" Laughing Boy sat up. There, at my shoulder, was a man carrying a large skewer full of... Was it?

"Skirt steak?" the waiter offered.

Wordlessly, we both nodded.

And then, the unthinkable happened. The server didn't grudgingly slice thin shreds of meat from the skewer. He - I can barely believe it, even now. He slid half of the steak onto Laughing Boy's plate, and the other half onto mine. All of it! All the steak! For us!

I looked down. Lying on my plate was a piece of meat the size of my outstretched hand, freakishly long fingers and all. A mere quarter of an inch thick, but it must have been a good six ounces.

We each cut a piece and tasted it. Laughing Boy looked surprised. "That's really good!"

And then, he gasped. At my shoulder, another large skewer of beef. More beef! And we weren't even two bites into the first piece.

I was too stunned to hear what cut exactly the waiter was offering. But it was definitely beef, and turned out to be just as good as the first kind.

We finished the skirt steak, and started on the mystery beef. Not two bites into that one, Laughing Boy began to hum crazy Thanksgiving Parade Marching Band music. It couldn't be.

"Ribs?" the waiter offered, setting the thick wooden base holding the skewer down on the table.

Why yes, yes they were! I looked at Laughing Boy. It was as if Santa Claus had walked into the restaurant, pulled up a chair and said, "Hey, guy. Sorry about the pony and the new bike. Yeah, and the car. And the bikini model. I know it's a little late, but they're all waiting out front. Enjoy. Oh, and dinner's on me."

We barely had time to touch the side dishes. LB swung into the Parade Music again and again, as chicken drumsticks followed close upon the ribs, and an entire spicy sausage followed that. We were giddy with ketosis, hissing "Dancing Meat Parade" between bites and giggling. I've never seen Laughing Boy so happy, his eyes so bright. And then, I slipped.

"I'm getting full, I couldn't eat a whole sausage," I said, without thinking it through. "Would it be OK if I split that one with you?"

Laughing Boy paused, his new found faith wavering. The world teetered, tilted on its shaky axis. And then, then, slowly righted itself as he nodded. Perhaps. Perhaps there would be more meat. It was tentative, a small step. But for one brief moment, he opened himself to trust.

I couldn't even tell you what else they brought. Wave after wave of charred succulent protein, each piece juicier and more flavorful than the last. Until, finally, the server stopped at our table.


We nodded. This was real lamb. Rich, cooked as it should be. Not some dry desiccated scrap grudgingly parceled out by the half ounce.

"So, this would be the last one?" the server asked, his voice lilting up. It was, mirabile dictu, a question. A real question!

We both stopped, forks raised.

And then the heavens opened and the angels sang. Because, rather than running from our table before we could ask for anything else, the waiter stood there, looking right into our eyes. And we realized what we had been too scared to see before. That, in this magic place, we could have more. More steak, more beef, more lamb, more ribs. They really, truly meant "All You Can Eat", not "As Little As We Can Get Away With Giving You".

There would always be more meat.

And that, that was enough. Laughing Boy smiled. And shook his head. "No. We're full."

And probably left a honking tip. Can you believe I made him pay?


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