Backing up the car into the only available spot in the rundown alley, I first glimpsed the abomination in my rearview mirror. Tacky pink stall with a swinging plastic door and loud Mariachi music blaring out every time the hatch swung open to let customers in.
"Is that it?" I asked.
"Yes, that's it," my wife nodded excitedly, referring to the Expedia printouts in her hand. "Just like it says right here in the map. Amazing! San Diego's uncut diamond. El Rojon Rodeo. Listen to this:" She read aloud.
Over a hundred years old, it was the last stop on the Wild West border into Mexican country. This is where Senorita Cellaquez sang for the Hispanic Elders in a private rendition of the operatic soprano Esclarmonde reaching a pitch so high that it is said to have shattered their fragile eardrums. Where Raul Samba, a Baja revolutionary, died choking on a fishbone in his MexiCali club sandwich leading to the famous catch phrase … "
"Ok, enough. Let us go."
I had to muster every ounce of tourist enthusiasm to walk through the hatch without staring at the cat feces on the ground. Inside, fifty more easily excitable types crowded around the tables looking utterly amazed. I noted they were all clutching identical Expedia printouts.
"What would you like to order sir?" The girl at the counter was a gum-chewing American teen with grotesquely pierced eyebrows. My wife referred to her printed sheets again.
"Amazing! What it says here is what is up there. Expedia recommends everything. The Asparagus Verde soup, the Nachos Hombre, the Carbonara Chipotle … I can't make up my mind!"
The girl smiled revealing the speckled green gum vibrating between her teeth like a tadpole. "I know how difficult it is to make a decision here." No kidding.
"That is why we offer something outside the menu. The sampler. The full combo costs only $35 per person."
My jaw hit the floor. "35?"
My wife asked, "Is it available without meat?"
The girl smiled again. I couldn't take my eyes of the gum. "Of course, we do! By the way, I'm a vegetarian too." Yeah, right. And I am El Zapata, Miss Unctuous 2009.
My wife smiled. "Two Full Combos please!"
"Are you nuts? That is $70 for lunch!"
My wife lowered her voice to a menacing tone. "Remember, bonehead, we are in El Rojon. The El Rojon Rodeo. So, try to fight that penny saving urge ingrained in your genes to object to anything over five dollars."
Two gigantic plates of the Mexican deluxe combo arrived at our table. Three bites into the meal, the stomachs pleaded for mercy. My wife - after all it was her idea - held on bravely for a fourth bite, but gave up after that.
"Now listen to my idea," I said, "I'm calling for the doggy pack. We are going to eat only this for the rest of the trip even if it smells like a decomposing carcass."
"Not tonight, obviously. We have dinner with the Mishras in the old town."
"My friend Anu Mishra from school? Don't you ever remember my friends?"
"Not really. Why aren't they inviting us home?"
"Oh come on! It is a weekday. They already chose the restaurant. We just need to show up there at 8."
I checked the restaurant online.
"Holy Cow! This is a $30 entrée restaurant! Are they paying for it?"
"I don't know. Maybe not."
"They didn't say anything?"
"Find out. We'll go only if they are paying for the dinner."
"Oh come on! I can't ask them that question."
"Here is the problem. If I know they are picking up the bill, I will eat like a starving pig. If I know they are not paying for me, I got to eat less to make up for this El Rotten Revolto food."
"How do I know if they are paying for us? We are going. Don't be a spoilsport."
"All right, ok! Well, this means I make a guess. Good news is that I can usually spot a stiff just from a glance. If I think he is ok, we order whatever we want."
"What if you think he is not ok?"
"We order only starters. No entrees, no drinks, no desserts. Invent whatever excuse you have to. If you are still hungry after the dinner date, we will eat from this doggy pack when we get back to the hotel. Comprehende?"
"Ok. Just remember, my friends are your friends. They are not indirect friends. The Mishras are a fine couple. They gave us an anniversary gift, remember the beautiful oval fruit bowl?"
"Oh that! It is from them?" Something in my tone ticked her off.
"What is wrong with it?"
"It is the classic Macy's pass-it-on. Someone gave it to them and they are giving it to us."
"You are incorrigible."
The Mishras met us outside Luigi's at the appointed time. Anu is a petite woman with gentle manners, though her habit of constantly blinking when she wanted to speak vaguely reminded me of my answering machine. Her husband, Jay, is the classic pursed lip type. From the distant hello to the vacant stare, I could tell from his brevity that this guy must be a world-class scrooge. The less wordy, the less charitable - old jungle saying. I balled my right hand into a tight fist, the universal signal for scrooge, to my wife who immediately frowned.
We sat down and the Mishras ordered their entrees and wine. I ordered a starter plate.
"Is there anything else you'd like, sir?" the waiter asked.
"That is it, thanks." Anu started blinking.
I tried to explain. "We are not really that hungry. Heavy lunch!"
Anu was flustered. "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. Maybe we should have gone to a smaller place …"
Jay interjected. "Well, do you mind if we carry on?"
"Not at all. By all means, please."
"How about drinks?"
"No, I don't drink. You carry on."
For a scrooge, he spent an awful lot on food. He ordered more wine, a fancy side dish, and a scrumptious dessert. My wife and I watched them devour everything while we chewed on our bruschetta in ponderous silence. Finally, they were done and the bill arrived. I was searching for my order when I heard Jay utter two words to the waiter that knocked the breath out of my lungs.
I looked up. Jay was handing the waiter his card. The waiter turned around to me.
"Your card, sir?"
"Split it! SPLIT IT!" I screamed.
"Watch out for the truck!" my wife screamed.
I was lurching on the highway 15 miles over speed limit quaking in anger.
"How can he call for a split when his order is 90% of the bill?"
"Calm down. I don't think he was trying to deliberately screw us."
"Oh it is deliberate! He's a crafty guy! He would never eat so much at a place like this if he didn't find a couple of idiots to pay for everything – his wine, his seafood pasta, the fantastic Tira Misu …, and all we had was brushchetta. " I stopped, and took a deep breath. I patted my wife. "Sorry, I'm shouting at you. I need to calm down."
"I'm hungry, " she said.
"We have the El Rojon leftovers."
She burst into tears.
A few months later, back in San Jose, I just got home from work to hear a bit of fantastic news. The Mishras were coming to the Bay Area. They were staying with Anu's sister, and had only one evening to spare with us. I grinned from ear to ear. God is merciful. A plan was already forming in my mind.
My wife said, "Now, don't look into this for revenge. I hope you are mature enough to forget the whole San Diego episode."
"Are you kidding? This is a golden opportunity! We are talking French. Oh, no less! Le Papillon. Michelin three star."
"Oh come on! Now, don't overdo this …"
"We – you and I – are going to eat to our hearts content. We will have the full seven course meal with expensive wine, we will order the Fondue, oh we are going to have a blast!"
"But they will also have it. How is that revenge?"
"Because we will eat more than them. We will starve before the dinner, so we will be hungrier than a pair of mongrels."
"That's your plan?"
"Wait, the coup de grace – scheduling the dinner for 6 pm."
"But, that is too early!"
"Precisely! We are skipping lunch that day, so the time is perfect for us. But, I suspect the Mishras cannot skip lunch. They are guests at her sister's place. "
"You have a devious mind."
"That wasn't a compliment. If you want to starve, fine. But leave me out of your plans."
Suit yourself. I found the Luigi's bill, and marked the Mishra dishes with a highlighter. I nailed it on the wall. It was all the motivation I needed to resist the urge to eat. I survived on a strict diet of water and light salad for the next two days. My wife even made some fantastic curries, but the bill on the wall kept me focussed on abstinence. I worked out. I ran. When Thursday came around, I was hungrier than a wolf.
"Just sit back and relax, I'm going to eat at least twice as much as I pay," I said to my wife as we waited for them at Le Papillon.
"That's mathematically impossible," my wife said.
"Say you eat x dollars worth of food. You want to pay only x/2 dollars. But, if Jay even spends 1 dollar, you are paying for x/2 + 1/2. That is half a dollar more than what you want to pay."
"I don't get it."
"Never mind, they are here."
The Mishras were walking towards us, and I could see even from the distance that Anu was blinking.
"Are we having dinner right away? It is a bit early."
"Yeah, we want to avoid the rush. Come on in."
We got a great table. The Mishras, as I suspected, clearly weren't hungry ordering some light fries and sandwich. I scanned the menu for the purse-breaker, the one item that settles the entire San Diego balance sheet. I found it. $43. A bird basted in arugula sauce, slow-cooked over an open fire with the finest root vegetables, floating in a pool of gin and vinaigrette.
"The Sapphire Duck."
"Excellent choice, sir," the waiter said as he picked up my menu.
"So when have you started eating poultry," my wife whispered.
"Without the duck, please."
The waiter paused. "The Sapphire Duck, sir, without the duck?"
"Yes. I don't eat meat. Can you substitute it with tofu?"
He raised an eyebrow. "Tofu, sir?"
"Or cheese. Whatever."
"I'm sorry, sir. It will cost you the same with or without the duck. On the other hand, there are some nice Vegetarian choices…"
"No, the price is fine. Please, I will take it without the duck."
"If you say so, sir."
"And ... " I searched for a pricey wine. Chateau Marquis d'Alesme Vieux. $18 a glass.
"Two glasses of the excellent chatoo mar-kiss de-a-less-me view-ex."
"You mean the shah-TOH mahr-KEE dah-lem-vyew sir?"
"Right, I said the same thing."
Jay leaned forward. "I remember you saying you don't drink."
"That was then, this is now."
Half an hour later, the others were done but I was still waiting for my dish. It must be good if it takes this long. And then it arrived. Artistically plated, in vegetables and sauce, though the big bird-shaped hole in the center was hard to ignore. With the gourmet side dishes and sauces, I decimated the plate in under ten minutes. As I was licking the crumbs, the waiter approached us with the bill when my wife asked Anu an unnecessary question.
"What are your plans tomorrow?"
"Oh, we are going for a romantic cruise because …"
The waiter arrived at the table. I was just going to say those two words I had been rehearsing all week when Jay startled us.
"... it is our fifth anniversary today."
What! My wife looked stunned.
"Split it! Split it!" I hurriedly whispered to the waiter.
"Wait, sir. It is their anniversary. Champagne on the house for the anniversary couple." The waiter disappeared with the bill.
"Oh of course! How could I forget! Congratulations!" my wife said, looking embarrassed.
"No, I shouldn't have forgotten. You remembered our anniversary and gave us that nice gift …"
"The fruit bowl. You liked it? "
Jay smiled. "Original Murano piece. Anu spent an hour choosing your gift. Do you know it is hand-made?"
My wife looked increasingly flabbergasted. The waiter returned with two glasses of champagne.
"Those two are free on the house," he turned towards us. "If you also like champagne, I can put it on your bill ... "
"Here it is, sir."
I got out my card, and was just going to say "split it" when my wife instincitively pounced on it.
"We will pay the tab."
"This is our anniversary gift to you. Least we can do."
"WHAT! No!" I shouted. They all stared at me. "I mean, they hardly ate. We should get you a proper gift, not this."
Jay smiled. "Oh, come on! This is more than enough. Thanks for the excellent dinner. Excellent restaurant, by the way."
My wife picked up the tab. I left the table. I needed my indigestion pills.