Sometimes it’s the smallest things that make the biggest difference.
I was on my way to a gig in the southern part of the state and my clock was striking lunch time. I yanked the wheel to the left and pulled over at a great little Mexican restaurant that I had hit sporadically over the years.
I greeted the hostess in Spanish. She turned abruptly and, without a word, marched off to an empty table and dealt out a menu the way a slick dealer skids a playing card at a fresh prospect.
I glanced at the menu, closed it and laid it down on the table. I’ve found that one thing you can do to save yourself lots of time in this life is to not read through the 100 offerings on a Mexican food menu. Like so many things we do in our day, you labor hard over the chore, it accomplishes little, and in the end it doesn’t really help you out very much anyway.
A pretty young waitress came up to my table, all sparkling eyes and teeth, and asked if I was ready to order. I decided to go the English route to make things easy on both of us.
“Sure. Could you bring me a couple red beef enchiladas, extra beans and an iced tea please?”
“Of course.” She smiled as she scribbled. “Anything else?”
“Some salsa if you have it. Picante por favor.”
Something about my request for hot salsa caused her to lift one eyebrow.
She made a note of my request on her pad, bid me a fine bueno and marched off to the table across from me. There was a guy there eating alone, looking somehow out of place, as if he was just passing through from a different part of the country.
A few minutes later the cranky hostess came by my table with a bowl of salsa followed by the nice waitress with my hot plate. I thanked them, poured the salsa over the enchiladas and dug in. They were good, as usual, but I missed the deep fire that I was expecting from the salsa. When the waitress came back to check on me she asked how everything was.
“Great but I wonder if I can get some hotter salsa.”
“Hotter?” she asked with a little smile on her face. She paused. “OK….” The last word had sort of a hesitation in it; a warning shot fired over my bow.
She left, checked on the guy at the other table and disappeared into the kitchen. Soon the hostess came by again, this time with a fresh bowl of salsa.
“Here — now this is hot!” She said it with feeling.
I thanked her and she went over to the other guy’s table. I poured the salsa onto what was left of my enchiladas and took a bite. I took another bite. No heat, no fire. Thinking the waitress must have misunderstood me I decided to just make the most of it and finish my lunch.
In a few minutes my waitress was back again. She came up to my table smiling, tentatively, with a questioning look in her eyes.
“Well?” She was smiling.
“Nope,” I replied. “It seemed even milder than the last stuff.”
Her eyes opened wide. “Really? That was about the hottest we have!”
“Wow. Well how about you just bring me your hottest stuff. Like habanero or something. Thanks.”
At that she smiled, shaking her head in disbelief and shrugged her shoulders. “Ok.”
Within minutes, the stern hostess reappeared, stopping at the other guy’s table and then coming over to mine.
“Here!” she said defiantly.
I dipped a chip in the new salsa, gingerly tasted it and then tasted it again.
Nothing. No zip at all. I silently surrendered, finished my lunch, picked up the bill and went to the front counter to pay. The hostess came over to the register and I decided to make my move.
“Everything was good except for the salsa. No fire.”
“I’m in charge of the salsa,” she barked. “You should have asked for the habanero. It’s so hot most people can’t eat it.”
“I did. It tasted like tomatoes.”
She looked at my bill. “Wait!“ she exclaimed. “This bill says table number nine. I thought the waitress was telling me table number five!”
“Who was at table five?” I asked.
“He was that guy sitting by himself!” Her iron mask began to crumble. “He put some money on the table and left in a hurry. He didn’t look too good.” Her eyes got big. “He kept asking for milder and you kept asking for hotter. I kept bringing them out but I had your table mixed up with his! Oh God!”
Suddenly, her sobbing laughter turned out to be just the spice I’d been looking for.