When I was young, my mother warned me about going to restaurants that didn’t look “proper.” For Mom, the presence of a reputable name and a neon sign meant cleanliness, as if the glowing blue and red kept away the bacteria. On weekends, when we would drive to and from Galena, we would pass a shack that announced itself to the world as Joe’s Tex-Mex. Every Friday evening and Sunday afternoon, as we passed Joe’s, Mom would comment that she certainly wouldn’t eat there, leaving it unsaid that bad things would happen should I (pardon the phrase) eat at Joe’s. Salmonella. Botulism. Parasites. Microbes.
Little did Mom know that as I went to and from Galena on my own that Joe’s was my planned stop. There I ate capital-T Tacos that had only the name in common with those served at “Mexican” restaurants. Cokes came in the old style 16-ounce returnable bottles, and a to-go order always included extra napkins for the greasy drippings. Microbes be damned-Joe’s was roadside bliss.
It’s the hole-in-the-wall restaurants, the places that are where they shouldn’t be, that always serve the best food, the most authentic and real, the closest to the way Mom herself cooked. This is why I risked the menace of botulism and microbes and the phantom ire of Mom and went to Bea’s Wok ‘n Roll. It’s why I still go to Bea’s.
Bea’s isn’t a traditional greasy spoon or dive. It looks like a reconditioned house, out of place next to the grocery store and across the street from the public pool. At first glance, Bea’s restaurant is unspecified Asian. Aside from a few ethnic-specific dishes like pad thai, her menu consists of various meats and vegetables combined with rice or noodles. It is in the specials that Bea makes her cooking known. Every day, she prepares several appetizers and three entrees that don’t show up on the regular menu. There is usually a salad, always a soup. I know before I enter the restaurant that I will order the soup, for that is what I order every time.
I sit. Bea, always officious and efficient, gives me no more than a minute to decide. I order the soup and iced tea. Bea raises an eyebrow. “You want spicy?” she asks. I nod, feeling my alimentary canal already protesting.
My tea arrives in a glass that looks like it belongs in Bea’s kitchen, circa 1985. Like always, it is jasmine tea, brewed hot and put on ice. It is pungent, bitter, delicious. I wait, and for a few minutes, I wonder if Bea has forgotten me. Then, I see it.
The bowl is only a bowl in the loosest sense of the word. It is a bowl like the Sears Tower is a skyscraper. She places it on the table in front of me, and for a moment, I let it steam up my glasses.
It is a sublime thing to look a something that is both nourishing and painful. This is not a toddler contemplating the icky broccoli her mom makes her eat. This is not the pre-swallow grimace of an adult taking cough syrup. Bea’s soup is coated with red pepper oil that taints the broth a subtle pink. Today’s soup is chicken asparagus. The chicken sits in one part of the bowl while an army of asparagus spears rest in another. Between them writhes an acre of noodles, onions, and bean sprouts. My nose waters from inhaled spice. My ears sweat. This soup wants to hurt me while I consume it. It will punish me for eating it while it rewards me for ordering it. It reminds me that masochism is a part of all of us, that there is no gain without pain. The soup tempts me, and it shows me the hammer with which it will hit me, knowing I can’t resist.
After 10 spoonfuls, my iced tea is gone. After 20, I have chewed through my ice and am tempted to lick the sweat from the outside of the glass. And yet, I cannot stop punishing myself with the soup. I ask for spicy soup, despite the pain, because that is the way it should be eaten. I don’t like eating something hot to prove my manhood. The soup is a delicate combination of flavors that just happen to be palate blistering. My iced tea is refilled and drained immediately.
Halfway down the massive bowl, I pause. Bea walks by with someone else’s food and sees that I am no longer eating. On her way back, she stops and glares at me like my mother did when I wouldn’t finish my chicken. “What’s wrong?” she asks. “You don’t like it today?”
“It’s great,” I answer. Then I lie. “I had a late breakfast.”
Bea nods, not smiling. The answer is sufficient, even if it doesn’t make her happy. I’m supposed to come to her restaurant hungry and ready to eat, and I’m supposed to know that by now.
I wait until my tea is refilled, but this time, I let the spice burn my lips while I resume eating. The tea is there for when I really need it. I eat, scooping out mounds of noodles, trying now to avoid the huge clusters of pepper that continue to swim in the broth. The pain is very real now, and every pore on my head is sweating. It makes my glasses slide down to the end of my nose. At one point, a drop of broth splashes up into my eye, making me run for the bathroom to flush out the offending spice that threatens to burn back into my brain. The noodles help cut the fire, and while my throat burns and protests, I continue to eat, eventually raising the bowl to my charred lips and drinking down the last of the broth.
“Good?” Bea asks as she walks by again. I nod, unable to speak. I’ve told her in the past that if my face doesn’t hurt for 20 minutes after I’m done, it wasn’t hot enough. For now, while my mouth pulses with dull ache, I sit back in my chair, smiling. I’ve won. The soup is gone and I’ve survived, and Bea is always ready for a rematch.
Mom was wrong. The roadside places, the holes-in-the-wall, the places that don’t belong always serve the best food. I’m also reminded that I was wrong, too. Mom never cooked anything like this.