Grilled cheese with tomato basil soup? No. I can’t have that, I found myself thinking. How could a health-conscious person justify eating such a thing, all those dead carbs with spoonfuls of sodium? And those huge snicker doodles piled high in the warmed display case, or that enormous frosting-covered cake, or the chocolate eclairs nearby bursting with cream — get me out of this horribly tasty venue before I lose my self-control!
“Do you have any salads here?” I heard myself saying, dragging my eyes away from the freshly baked pear pie being slid into display. The cashier wore a faded red shirt, hair perfectly coiffed, small eyes peering at me from behind a pair of stylishly thick plastic frames. Welcome to San Francisco.
“Yeah.” He sounded young, his expression dead and void of emotion. Not unamused, not bored — dead. I remember wondering if this was part of the cafe’s charm, some sort of character the employees were trained to enact.
“Do you have any salads with salmon on it?” I continued, humorously pantomiming rubbing my fingers together over an imaginary salad as if to sprinkle fish onto a bed of leaves.
“No.” Not even a smile. Alright then.
“Do you even have salmon here?” I tried again, leading towards a more inventive approach.
“Yeah.” There’s a start.
“Can you just get me something that has salmon on it, but throw all the other stuff away, then put that salmon on top of a salad?” I smiled, hoping to sound pleasant rather than annoyingly picky. I could see the gears in his head turning to process my request, and all the while, I thought to myself, I really hope I’m not the first annoying customer he’s had today. Please don’t spit in my food.
“… I’m pretty sure we can do that. Let me check with the kitchen.” Phew, I thought, watching as he turned, took a few steps, and leaned around the kitchen wall to confer with the chefs. He’s actually asking for me. This is awesome. And when he returned, “Yeah, we can do that.” Sweet. “I recommend the tofu salad.” He tilted his head up at an angle, this serving as his emotionless cue for me to respond.
“Uh, sure. That sounds good.” I nodded along agreeably, eager to move the order along and unable to shake a lingering confusion brought on by his strange personality. “And one of these … What is this?” The tip of my finger trailed down a list of beverages atop the counter. “Ber-guh-moe tea? Is that how you say that?”
“Ber-guh-mott,” he amended.
“Ber-guh-mott,” I repeated, feeling stupid but pleased to discover the phonetic use of a word I’d been writing and reading for weeks without knowing how to pronounce. “I’ll take one of those.”
I tipped the man $3 for his trouble, slipping the bills into the glass tip jar beside the register. Then he handed me my table number, and I slunk off to the coffee bar to sit and read, promptly forgetting about the strange service. But by the time my bergamot tea arrived, I was filled with new dreads. What if they really do spit in my food? Why do I have to be so picky and order some weird off-the-menu item? And what’s taking them so long — salmon salad should be easy to make. What is going on in that kitchen?!
Intent on remaining calm, I tugged my fedora down over my face and pushed the anxieties from my mind, resigned to poking at the silk sachet of tea settled at the bottom of my cup, watching while clouds of richly-infused flavor burst from its sad, swollen lump. Ah, distractions.
Then, the salad arrived.
That’s a lot of salmon.
I could hear the surprised gasps from the folks waiting in line to reach the cafe counter, sure they were eyeing my food. I felt suddenly superior when a chorus of pleasant voices cried out with, “Sweetie, look how good that looks!” Followed by equally excited, “We should get salads, right?” Then accompanied by deeper grumbles of, “I’m getting the pie and a coffee.”
Carefully spearing just the right amount of salmon and salad, I examined the mouthful I was about to take. As I turned the fork this way and that, part of me felt excited — would you look at all that practically-raw salmon? The caveman in me was howling in delight. But another more reserved part of me, a part that sometimes believes people are inherently evil, this part of me dreaded being poisoned by the chefs for being a difficult patron.
I took the bite hesitantly. Then, chewing, it was all I could do to keep from moaning aloud, the salmon falling apart and melting on my tongue, the salad adding the perfect healthy crunch, the zest of the dressing not too overbearing, everything just right. Now this is food, I thought.
While I continued to shovel more of the dish into my mouth, I imagined just how tasty it might be to add a few sliced strawberries or a little mandarin orange, perhaps some feta cheese for a tangy burst of flavor or a little flax seed for the crunch and texture (okay, so I eat a lot of salad). But even without the additional toppings, I was already mentally tipping my hat to the chefs. For an off-the-menu dish with a difficult customer, this wasn’t bad for a first try.
I ended up enjoying my salad so much that I stayed to have dinner and desert, my mouthfuls chewed while reading or writing in my silent corner by the window, delighting in the flavors, swallowing everything down with throat-fulls of bergamot tea, watching surfers and happy hipsters with pretty dogs stroll across my view while I later gobbled my way through a grilled chicken sandwich and a slice of pear pie, everything equally delicious.
As I was finally leaving, cool cashier guy surprised me by asking, “How was the salad?”
And in my hurry to engage this mysterious creature in conversation, “So good, thank you! I’m really surprised. I think I’ll have it agai–”
“That’s great. Have a nice day. Thanks for coming.”
Well alright then.
At least they didn’t spit in my food.
… I think.