Tuesday, December 20, 2005

More LA Stories: 2005 (Part II)

Day One — Friday: Buddy, can ya spare a ride? (continued)
I was stuck. For one thing, my Dad lives in Hemet, nearly 100 miles and at least a two-hour drive away. There was no way in hell I was calling him. My friend Cindy, who was putting me up for the week, was no option either; she was working from home that day because, you guessed it, her car was in the shop.

I knew I was screwed when I asked the guy behind the counter, who was doing all he could to help resolve my problem, to find out how much a cab ride from LA to northern Orange County (where Cindy lives) would be. Let’s just say it was considerably more than the forty bucks I currently had in my wallet. Yep, not only did I blow off going to the bank before leaving home, to check the status of our account, I didn’t even take the time to pick up any cash for the trip, assuming I could just get some at an ATM once I got to California.

As I sat there in the waiting area at the car rental agency, I thought my head was going to explode.

Jay to the rescue
I really had just two options. One was the bus, with a zillion transfers and logistical entanglements in tow. The other was my college buddy, Jay who was the only other person who knew I was in town that might have been even remotely available to help me out. The problem was, I’d only made the loosest of plans with him beforehand. We hadn’t even decided when we’d get together that week. It was a, “I’ll call you when I hit town,” sort of deal. I had no idea what he was doing or what his schedule was. Even being able to get a hold of him would be a crapshoot. I had his home phone number, but that was it.

One of the truest testaments of friendship is how one person responds to another in a time of crisis. Let me tellya, Jay went above and beyond the call of duty. He wasn’t home when I first called so I left a message detailing my sad story of woe. But he called me back about 30 minutes later, cheerfully ragging my ass for being in such a laughable (to him, anyway) predicament. Then after letting me twist in the wind a little, he admitted that his inner-good-Samaritan had gotten the better of him once again; he’d be happy to help me out. After giving him directions to the rental place (which was about a mile from LAX) he was on his way to pick me up.

I think it necessary to explain the magnitude of this guy’s sacrifice. It was by now after 4:00 PM on a Friday afternoon. Jay lived 25 miles away in Long Beach and had to launch himself directly into the teeth of some of the most legendary rush hour traffic in the nation, just to give me a lift to another friend’s house (whom he didn’t even know). Now that’s a pal right there, boys and girls.

I can’t adequately communicate my relief at that point. I went from utter despair to outright giddiness in a matter of about 15 seconds. After I hung up with Jay, I sat and watched the TV that was playing there in the lobby, re-orienting myself to the local color, the commercials and news personalities. It’s just another one of the subtle pleasures I experience each time I come here — the process of re-connecting with this place. I was just so happy to be out of the mess I’d been in. Now I could get down to the business of having a busy but enjoyable week.

Before I knew it my cell phone was vibrating again. Jay needed a little more help finding the car rental agency, which I have purposely not named — yet — but will focus upon a little later. Jay had overshot the turnoff, which isn’t well marked, by a couple blocks so once we got him turned around, I was able to guide him in.

(Aren’t cell phones just the most freaking wonderful things ever?)

I looked out the front window to see Jay’s familiar dark blue Chevy truck pulling into the driveway and went out to meet him. We did the man-hug thang; he loaded my duffel and suit bag into a covered compartment in the truck bed and we hit the road.

Given the Friday afternoon traffic factor, we had a longer-than-normal time to catch up on what had been going on in each other’s lives in the year since my last visit to the homeland. That week I stayed most of the week with Jay, but for this visit Cindy insisted I stay at her place. It’s nice to know that I have not one, but two, Motel Californias vying for my patronage whenever I come back to this wondrous place that still feels so very much like home to me.

I know he wasn’t expecting it, but in gratitude to Jay for his taxi service, I told him that when we got together later that week (which, we decided would be the following Wednesday night), he could name the restaurant; dinner was on me.

Welcome to Cindy Manor
If you’ve followed this blog, you’ve already met Cindy. If not, allow me to ‘splain you something. She’s one of my oldest and dearest friends, and Michelle feels the same way about her that I do. So, if the proposition of me spending a week, by myself at the home of an unmarried woman, 2500 miles from my wife, causes anyone reading this to sprout a raised eyebrow, relax. This is a purely platonic relationship. Always has been, always will be.

I won’t completely re-hash our history, and what Cindy means to me as the friend she’s always been. But suffice it to say I was looking forward to spending the extended time with her that I wasn’t able to when I was in town a year ago.

When Jay dropped me off at her house, in a nice, middle-class neighborhood of suburban Orange County, she was busy undoing the mess that’s often left behind by any auto mechanic fixing anything on the inside of your car. In this case, Cindy’s SUV had a malfunctioning instrument panel that needed repair, requiring her to work from home that day. But now that she’d gotten her car back home, she had to replace the various items, once located neatly in storage compartments in her car, which had become mysteriously strewn all over the floor and back seat.

Following our greeting hugs, I thanked Jay once again and bid him adieu until Wednesday. She was just finishing up with her car, so we exchanged pleasantries for a few moments and then went inside. She showed me my room and refreshed my memory of the layout of her very handsome home, which she refers to as “the dump of the neighborhood,” but which actually couldn’t be further from the truth.

She asked me to run down my schedule for the week so that she could get a fix on when I was going to be around. As I related to her my plans for spending Monday and Tuesday out at my Dad’s in Hemet, she went to the entry table near the front door and began thumbing through a small stack of papers gathered there. “Okay,” she said, “If you’re going to be with your Dad on Tuesday night, maybe you two could get some use out of these…” She placed a skinny rectangular envelope in my hand with the words, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim printed boldly across the front.

“I can’t make it to the game Tuesday and I want you to take your Dad,” she said with a smile. Cindy, as you may recall is a longtime Angels season ticket holder and of course, the Halos are my (as well as my Dad’s) favorite team as well. It had already been established that she and I would be taking in a game during my visit, but that was a week away, the following Friday night versus the Boston Red Sox. This other game was a complete surprise. A bonus I that certainly didn’t expect, but yet I wasn’t exactly surprised either; that’s the kind of person she is.

We sat and spent probably an hour catching up on our lives, as well as those of our mutual friends, some of whom I remain in contact with and some I haven’t seen in 10-15 years, but whom Cindy still keeps tabs on.

She is, to a large degree, the single touchstone for an entire segment of my past, without which I would certainly lose contact. She hasn’t changed one iota in all the years I’ve known her. I guess she just reminds me of a time in my life when the whole world was so much bigger and more wonderful than it is now; back when we were all young and our lives were all before us. Not that I want to live in the past, it’s just that for me, she’s just such a wonderful link to that time, and I’ll always appreciate her for that.

By the time we’d finished our little re-introductory confab, it was getting to be dinnertime. The plan was that since I’d missed out on eating at my favorite restaurant a year earlier, we’d make it a point to do so at least once while I was there this time.

Where are you tonight, Sweet Marie?
Hoo-boy, I could write an entire post about this place — and in the interest of brevity and staying on-topic, I probably will. However in the meantime, need to rant just a little on the passing of a phenomenon, in my opinion.

If you live most anywhere in the Western U.S., you’ve seen them and more than likely eaten in one as well. If you live anywhere else, chances are for the past ten years or so you’ve seen this restaurant’s faire featured in your supermarket’s frozen food section. But if your experience is only the latter, you’ve unfortunately missed out on a lot. Marie Callender’s Restaurants were founded here in Southern California and became a fixture in the casual dining arena long before the numerous wannbes that couldn’t even approach their uniqueness or quality came along.

However one store in particular, my Marie’s, the original Marie Callender’s, is the subject of this mini-rant.

Marie’s son, Don was the family entrepreneur. It was he who made the push to expand his mother’s homemade pie operation from a small North Long Beach bakery and open a restaurant in nearby Seal Beach. That restaurant, just a mile west of my first bachelor pad, was the unofficial meeting place of most of my friends at during my late high school/early college years.

The MC franchise was well underway in the mid-70s, when the Seal Beach store became our personal Cheers. The larger, full-sized restaurants were already the norm for the growing MC chain, but not so for number one. Because of it’s more humble beginnings (it was essentially pie and coffee shop when it was built in the 60s), the original Marie’s maintained it’s cozy charm, even after an early 70s remodeling nearly doubled its overall size.

This was a special place, filled with memories of a less-complicated time and a menu of unique dishes that never disappointed. If it’s possible to have a personal relationship with a restaurant, well, I was head-over-heals in love with Marie’s.

When Michelle and came out in May of 2004, we ate there in Seal Beach and I relished a side of their famous Fettuccine Alfredo alongside a salad-bar salad drizzled with MC’s legendary exclusive hot bacon dressing. It was just as good as I remembered it, and maybe better. For dessert I had my old fave, a slice of Black Bottom pie. I was in heaven.

However when I returned for my second stay in SoCal that summer, in August, I was disappointed to learn that the Seal Beach store had closed for yet another remodeling. It was scheduled to re-open in the Summer of 2005. Oh well, I thought, maybe next time, then. I didn’t know it at the time, but that May visit would end up being my final opportunity to enjoy my old friend.

They say you can’t improve on perfection, but you can sure as hell go the other way.

In an apparent attempt to bring the “little Marie’s” up to snuff, corporate decided to give the place both a major facelift and image upgrade. The inside was all but completely gutted. Its coffee shop feel was completely obliterated and in its place was installed the sophisticated look of an upscale eatery. Even the name out front changed to reflect the restaurant’s new personality. Instead of the familiar, classic script welcoming patrons to Marie Callender’s Restaurant & Bakery, a new heavy, masculine marquee now simply read, Callender’s Grill. As far as I’m concerned, a LOT was lost in the translation.

Joining Cindy and me for dinner was another mutual friend from the old days; one I’ve actually kept up with better than most, and have wriiten about previously: my good friend Az and his wife Katy. Although his parents live just a few blocks from the restaurant, Az now lives in San Diego County, but was willing to make the 90 minute drive north to join us (what a pal, eh?). Given that it was Friday evening, freeway traffic understandably had them running later than they thought they’d be. Receiving updates from time-to-time via cell phone, Cindy and I went ahead and were seated when our name was called. We decided we’d just sit, talk and wait until they arrived to order.

We were seated in a big booth in the very back of the restaurant, which seemed to be the only part that wasn’t changed in the re-model. Unfortunately that turned out to be the only thing that was familiar about this visit to my dearly departed little haunt.

We decided to chill with a glass of wine, and occasionally called in for a road-progress update from Az. As it turned out, they’d hit a pretty big snarl and told us to go ahead and order, they’d be along as soon as they could.

So it was at this point that I first got a real glance at the menu. It was almost completely unrecognizable. Nearly all the classic MC favorites such as the Frisco Burger (the best sourdough burger you’ve ever eaten), Chicken Callendini (a wonderful combo of Fettuccine, stuffed tortellinis and a whole chicken breast, smothered in their wonderful Alfredo sauce), and even their classic Spaghetti and Meat Sauce dish, was gone. In its place was a myriad of appetizers, $15-$20 steak, chicken, and seafood entrees and the ever-ubiquitous catch of the day.

Sacrilege! You call this progress? I call it atrophy. I call it not knowing when you’ve got a good thing and screwing it up when you try to make it better. The most unique, warm, and inviting place in which I’d ever lifted a fork, was now just like any other medium-to-high-dollar restaurant, replete with servers expounding overly-contrived descriptions of today’s special. It was depressing itellya; simply depressing.

The menu’s one redeeming factor was that the Soup & Salad Bar (which thankfully made the cut) was still available, and another classic MC standard, Potato Cheese soup was as well. That was the good news. The bad news was that apparently, perhaps the restaurant’s most unique signature offering, their Hot Bacon dressing somehow got lost in the shuffle.

When Cindy and I went to make our salads, in anticipation of enjoying that incredible condiment once again, we looked at each other in disbelief when we realized that it was missing from the salad bar. We asked our server, and of course, she didn’t have the foggiest notion what we were talking about. She was a new hire and had never even eaten at the old restaurant. The place had been re-opened for a month and she admitted she’d never seen anything like it offered at the salad bar. We described the dressing to her and she said she’d go back to the kitchen and ask around. We went ahead and began eating our salads, sans the Hot Bacon.

Happily, minutes later our server reemerged with a large silver gravy boat, filled with none other than our prized Hot Bacon dressing! She proudly announced that they’d always had the ingredients on hand, but in the bustle of the restaurant’s re-opening, nobody had thought about it, and no customers voiced any complaint about it not being there until we did.

So never let it be said that Cindy and I never contributed anything to the culinary culture of Southern California. Why, we reintroduced them to Hot Bacon dressing, dammit!

Overall the food was still good, the service was pretty decent as well (that little girl earned an extra big tip for getting us that dressing!). Az and Katy arrived soon after we sat down with our salads, so we all ended up eating around the same time.

The conversation was of course fabulous (Az still laughs at my jokes — ‘nuff said). We talked about kids, jobs, and the next time Michelle and I might be able to come out to visit again. It was just a great time — a fitting end to a truly eventful first day of my visit to the homeland.

Next: Day Two — Saturday: Re-Wheeled
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