Time was, a late night snack after a night of booze and solid conversation was the ultimate in pure joy in my life. As I walked down the emptying city street in the twinkling light with the last drops of bourbon still lingering on my tongue I spied a little serving of perfection. Actually, it was two servings of perfection.
The thing about eating a half smoke is that everyone knows you need to have two. The “full” smoke as it were.
The sweet smell of ground pork and crispy casings filled the long ordering area and scattered tables and stools as I strode to the counter. The place was basically mine alone save for the friendly gent manning the register and the lone fry cook in the back. Such is the comfort of leaving the bar after happy hour but before last call. The board across from me lists numerous ways to prepare and enjoy the humble hot dog. I notice fries and maybe sodas here and there but the place is all dogs all the time and ordering my two plump smokies is a no-brainer.
I had been chatty all evening and had actually enjoyed the company of those around me (a rarity in truth at social events) so when my new friend opposite me punching keys into the money machine started to talk I did little to dissuade him. It was then that the funniest thing occurred. He asked me in a casual manner if I wanted to try his new hamburger. I was digging for cash to cover my dogs and was well aware that I needed to pony up parking soon and that I had no room for a burger to cozy up in my belly with the ketchup, mustard, relish and kraut puppies on the grill at the moment. He continued to press the matter. These burgers were amazing he told me: Tiny sliders of char-grilled heaven and the business thinking behind their offer. Finally he comes clean and admits he prefers a meaty burger as opposed to a hot dog any day. “To me,” he ponders, “a burger is everything good about eating.”
He demands that I try one and tells me it will be on the house.
I steady myself. I have a policy of not disagreeing with those serving me food until said meal is safely in my hands. This was a lesson hard learned during my days waiting tables.
It is simply too much. “I don’t know how I feel about a guy who specializes in hot dogs trying to force a burger on me,” comes clumsily out of my sobering mouth. I wish I could take it back but it is clearly too late. “Yes, yes,” he mutters shrugging off my comment. “Such is the way for me” he says shaking his head.
Soon we are talking about his work schedule (every night until two in the morning) as the owner of the joint and the growing pains in getting the business started. He professes to going to the gym every morning for fear of what the fries and dogs are doing to his waistline. He seems unhappy but not depressed – just stuck. The conversation swings towards talk of a return to his home country and finally hits it crescendo with the admission that the business has finally turned the corner and soon he will sell and leave for a simpler existence.
The pregnant pause that follows our little chat is broken by the news that my little condiment covered babies are ready to head for their final resting place in my upper and lower intestine (hopefully to stay for a few hours, bourbon willing.) As I wrap up my prizes in foil he bounds next to me with something in hand. It is a tiny burger. One last chance for me to experience this char-grilled delight – he obviously can spot a man of discerning tastes when he sees one.
What can I do? The burger in hand and a stare burning through me, I bite in. It is outstanding! Everything he told me about it is true and then some. The bread is fresh and soft and slightly sopped with grease. The meat is grilled on the exterior and juicy inside and has a tiny little pepper kick to it. The real closer is the single crisp, slightly cooled pickle that reacts in a perfect harmony with the ground beef. I question my views on religion for a moment, as it is clear a greater force has brought me together with this burger. The owner knows what I would think the moment he offered it to me. We don’t need to speak but I feel compelled.
He is not shy discussing his masterpiece. The bread is from a local bakery delivered right before opening every day. The tomatoes are hand picked and organic from a particular farm. The meat is a secret recipe of an Italian butcher made especially for them. The pickles are the tenth type he has tried and are very rare and must be imported. He cannot stop talking about it once the floodgates are opened and hearing the joy in his voice I dare not put my finger in the dyke.
We finally exchange goodbyes and I head off to my car in the parking garage. I empty out my bag to devour the smokes. They are good… but not great. I can see that they are what pays the bills and sends a man back to his homeland. They just lack a little love.