Bold orange letters on the window advertise that they serve Indian, Halal, Pakistani, Greek, and Mediterranean food. This should be interesting, I think, as I pull open the front door and become engulfed by a cacophony of aromas including toasted cumin and mustard seeds, caramelized garlic and onion, and pungent spices like cardamom and turmeric. As I step inside, I feel myself being swallowed into the ambiance of a short-order takeout joint in a foreign country. The walls are lined with Formica tables surrounded by chairs with chrome-plated legs. Rap music plays over tinny-sounding speakers while an Indian family eats a variety of exotic foods at one of the tables as their giggling two-year-old daughter flings food onto the tile floor from her red plastic booster seat.
At the counter, I am greeted by a cheerful young man with spiked black hair trimmed evenly an inch long across his head. Leaning with one hand on the cash register, the other arm akimbo, he smiles broadly as I inspect the menu on the countertop.
I ask about a couple of the meals and explain that I am interested in goat meat. I haven’t eaten goat in at least a year and feel a craving. A middle-aged woman walks in through the front door carrying a couple white plastic grocery bags and marches into the kitchen behind the counter. While passing, she rattles off high-speed sentences in Spanish ending with the uptick of a question. He volleys back his answer with a shower of rapid-fire Spanish, then asks her a question of his own. He turns back to me and says that they are out of goat, “but goat and lamb are both about the same, you know. Do you like chicken? We have a special on chicken, here on the menu… very good.” I point to the Achar Gosht Lamb and ask if that is good. He turns and translates my question to the cook in the kitchen, turns back to me and announces that “I do not know if it is good or not. I have only worked here for two weeks. Besides, she does not know how to cook that dish.” We share a laugh and I notice over his shoulder the glimpse of a brief grin radiating from the kitchen.
As we discuss other menu options, he volunteers that he will be a father in two weeks… “First time, and I am very excited,” he says with a proud smile. Initially, I would have guessed him to be about eighteen years old. Perhaps he is. I order a chicken kabob appetizer, Lamb Korma, garlic naan, and a glass of water. I take a seat at a table along the wall by the front door and open my journal to jot down a few notes.
The family that had been dining there eventually departs and the young man mumbles something about a very messy kid as he sweeps and mops the floor around their table. He asks what kind of music I want to listen to… “I can play whatever you want. You are my only customer.” I suggest the name of one of my favorite artists and soon Neil Young is strumming and singing “Heart of Gold.” Before the song is over, he delivers a large plate of chicken kabobs, a plate of garlic naan and a sizable bowl of meaty stew swirling with pungent steam.
I stumble through my limited Spanish… “Gracias. La comida esta muy grande.” He confesses that he mistakenly ordered me the chicken kabob meal instead of the appetizer, but he will only charge me for the appetizer. “If the boss shows up and finds out, I’ll be fired, but don’t worry, it’s okay.”
The food is delicious and spicy. My mouth drips. My forehead glistens. The cook appears with a tall glass of water. I try my Spanish again: “La comida esta muy grande y muy buena.” She smiles and rattles off some Spanish that begins with “Muchas gracias…” and ends with something I absolutely do not understand. “No comprendo” is all I can say. She wants to know where I am from. With eyebrows pitched at an interesting angle above her deep brown eyes, she asks, “What country? ¿Americano? ¿Hablas Español?” She seems to wonder why an Americano would try to speak her language.
Disinclined to waste good food, I eat both meals. I eat it all. As I wipe more sweat from my forehead with my saturated napkin, the young man returns with the check. I choke out some more words: “Mas agua, por favor?”
As the door swings closed behind me, I step outside and inhale the sour air of southeast Houston—and exhale slowly. My brief vacation was pleasant. Although thankful for the temporary physical sustenance, it is my soul that finds lasting nourishment from simple, eclectic human interactions. For that I am most grateful.
David B. Such is a left-handed mechanical engineer with nearly four decades of experience with turbines and other machinery. Off the job, he retreats to his home in the foothills of Colorado where he appreciates close connections with natural surroundings and enjoys reading, writing, drawing, and gardening. He has published artwork in the South 85 Literary Journal, and an essay forthcoming in Weber – The Contemporary West.