Thursday, February 17, 2011

Recent Awkwardness at Le's Cafe

I love getting lost is my own town. What I mean to say is that I love getting off (hehehe...I said getting off...also, I'm thirteen) the beaten path and finding new places to eat, places a lot of people don't know about. Recently, I discovered such a place - Le's Cafe. Well, to say I discovered it is a bit of a stretch. I discovered it the way Columbus discovered a New World with people already living there. Le's was already busy and thriving by the time I discovered it. Apparently their secret was already out, and I just missed the boat. From the outside, Le's looks like any ordinary family style restaurant, but when you go in you find out why it isn't. Le's, as it turns out, is owned and almost completely operated by Asian people (I say Asian because I'm not really sure what nationality they are, probably Korean or Vietnamese). I was skeptical. What the hell do Asian people know about cooking mashed potatoes? Then I quickly remembered what Anthony Bourdain taught me about the food industry in his book Kitchen Confidential, that the food cooked in his French style bistro, and the food cooked in most restaurants in New York, is prepared by hard working line chefs from all parts of the world. That is, when you go out for Italian, your authentic Italian cuisine was probably made by someone who was born thousands of miles outside of Italy. The ability to cook is a gift. Some people have it and some people don't. If you have the gift, though, you can learn any style. So why not homestyle cuisine cooked by Asian people. I decided to try it, and as it turns out, Le's puts out some good food. The quality of Le's cuisine is not what I wanted to write about. My theme here is recent awkwardness, and on two occasions at Le's, I was privy to some weird situations.

The first happened around Thanksgiving. This was actually my first visit to Le's. I was in line to pay, and there was a man in front of me talking to Le. The man was from NCO, a call center located right next door to Le's, and he was asking Le about catering for NCO on Thanksgiving. Apparently NCO was going to remain open that day, and he wanted to have food available for the people who had to come in, a nice gesture.

"Is that something you could do?" he asked Le.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. We make big huge dinner, giant turkey, all da fixins, you like," Le replied ina thick Asian accent.

In all my years I have spoken to many Asian people, many with thick accents. None of them sounded remotely close to this. This was easily the most stereotypical thing I'd ever heard. The first thing I thought of was the scene from A Christmas Story where Ralphie's family has to go to the Chinese restaurant for Christmas dinner because the Bumpus hounds wrecked the Christmas turkey. Here's the scene:

As the sounds of "fa-ra-ra-ra-ra" reverberated through my subconscious, it was hard for me to keep from laughing, and part of me felt like an asshole for wanting to laugh, but I felt better after I told this story to my friends and family because without prompting on my part, every single one of them had the same though. I guess we're all assholes to some degree. The other situation came about a month later, and requires a degree of set up on my part.

Some people just shouldn't joke. Let's face it, the nuances of comedy are lost on some and come easily to others. Among my list of people who should not joke are old gruff farm guys. You know the kind...they wear flannel shirts all year long...looks like they've owned the same pair of overalls for ten years...they have a knife in a holster on their caked with ancient manure...some sort of farm equipment hat or old brimmed hat on their head. I've interacted with some men like this over the years, and I find there is a universal consistency with them - there is no difference between when they're joking and when they're serious. For example:

"Mother, we lost forty cows in the flood."

"I once shot an elephants in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know."

You see? No difference in tone, inflection, or anything. We're always left wondering if old Jonathan Kent here actually meant what he said. My second situation at Le's had just such an old man as a main character.

Again, I was in line waiting to pay. The two people in front of me was Pa Kettle here and his wife. Le was striking up some conversation with them, and it was mainly the wife responding. Pa would interject every now and then, and it always made a somewhat pleasant exchange into something awkward.

"How did you like your food?" Le asked.

"Oh, it was very good. I had the meatloaf," Ma responded.

A few seconds of silence as Le types into the register. "You need to turn that hat around," Pa said, pointing to Le's USA baseball hat.

"I got to turn it around otherwise steam fogs up my glasses."

"You should turn it around anyway," the old man grunted. His wife chuckled awkwardly in response.

This is one of many examples of the kind of warm banter that took place, but it is not the worst. I knew the man was giving Le a hard time and trying to be funny, but it didn't sound like it. He sounded gruff and cranky. I had a grandpa like him, so I know what joking cranky and actual cranky sound like. Le did not, and the situation became weird. The sad thing is, this wasn't the worst of the awkwardness. Oh no, that distinction goes to the following:

"Okay, meatloaf special, cheeseburger combo, water, and Dr. Pepper," Le said to himself.

"Actually, it was Diet Dr. Pepper," Ma said.

"It doesn't matter. They're all the same price," Le responded.

Silence...silence...silence. Pa looked at mom (not at Le, mind you) "They're all the same."

Again, he failed at comedy. His tone was rough, and he did not make eye contact with Le. To the passing observer it would seem like he was making a really insensitive generalization of Asian people, that they're all the same, but he wasn't. He just really sucked at joking around with people. Sadly, Le didn't pick up on this. He gave the man a look that would melt solid granite, and slowly handed Ma her receipt. "Yeah...they all da same," is all he said and the two of them left.

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