Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Dinner by Satellite

The automobile congestion on California Interstate 205 is worse than trying to exit Shea Stadium after a Mets game. I'm riding shotgun in a red Ford mid-size and my colleague Splint McCullough is in the driver's seat, as usual.

In order to innoculate against our tendency towards misdirection on the road, Splint has ordered up a "Neverlost" Global Positioning System Navigator (GPS) from Hertz that will guide us to our destination. It's like having Hal the Computer from "2001 A Space Oddessy" give you directions. "Turn right," orders the sultry female voice. "Turn left," she demands. It's a little annoying. We nick-name the voice "Gloria" and set out for our overnight stop in Oakdale, California, some 100 miles east of San Francisco.

Splint points out that "Gloria" not only gives directions, but can serve up restaurant recommendations at the push of a button. "It's like Magellan meets Zagat," he quips gleefully.

"But, can she tell us if the food is any good?" I ask.

Splint pauses. "I think Gloria is more likely to send us to Arby's than Aquavit." My stomach sinks.

Some hours later we finally emerge from the traffic and are maintaining a decent clip on a dark California highway. The dining options are few and far between. We pass by "Hula's Homestyle Food," which is sort of a roadside luau, and Splint guns the accelerator to avoid "The Whisky River Saloon."

"Gloria will give us the answer," Splint vows.

"That's what I'm afraid of," I murmur under my breath.

It is nearing 7:00 p.m. Pacific Time when we pull into the parking lot of the Holiday Inn Express in Oakdale, California. "You have arrived," Gloria announces. "Yes, we have," says Splint in a somber voice as he surveys the surroundings.

It is way past dinner on our body clocks, so Splint consults Gloria's database for our dining options. Immediately, she offers up 100 choices. There's 'The Almond Tree" which is right across the street and sports a cluster of nuts and a martini glass on its sign. There's a "Taco Bell," a "Panda Buffet," and can it be? "The House of Beef! " Splint -the avowed carnivore - is ecstatic. We drive the quarter mile only to discover that "The House of Beef," which is just across the street from "The House of Prayer," has a Livestock Processing Center out back, and a parole officer stationed in the parking lot.

"No way," says Splint. He checks Gloria's listings again and we settle on "The Nutcracker Restauarant and Lounge." It has a cheery yellow sign with a cuddly squirrel on it. And, there's a banner over the front door that screams, "Ribs, Steaks, Seafood, Cheese Fondue."

"When was the last time you had Cheese Fondue?" I ask. "We have to try it."

"Nothing says home cooking like a furry rodent," replies Splint gamely.

Inside, "The Nutcracker" is all paneled wood and beer signs, and a four-foot-tall wooden carved squirrel flanks the entrance to the restaurant. The staff is cordial and we are escorted to a nice booth where our order is taken. The menu is about as beefy as you can possibly get, and Splint orders prime rib, while I select the barbequed beef ribs. And, the best news ever -- a cheese fondue comes with the meal!

"I'm kind of a fondue expert," I tell Splint.

"What are you expecting here?" he asks. "I'm thinking it ends in "Whiz" or "Veeta."

Our dashing culinary genius is right on the money. We are presented with some large slabs of french bread, and a saucer of bright orange liquid over a small flame. There is nothing natural about this cheese. I taste a hint of prepared mustard in the mix. Splint takes one taste and turns up his nose. "I'll stick to butter, thanks."

Our main dishes are huge, and my beef ribs are Flintstone-sized. They are slathered in a sweet and spicy mahogany colored barbeque sauce. Splint notes that his prime rib is still mooing.

"Do you think these were processed at the House of Beef?" I ask.

"The only thing not processed at the House of Beef was that cheese fondue," Splint notes.

As we are leaving, Splint can't resist the urge to ask the hostess where the restaurant got its name.

"Well, I haven't been here that long," she replies helpfully, "but I think it used to be a nut house."

She clarifies that the building was once an almond processing plant, but Splint has already made a mad dash for the parking lot.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

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