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Halfway through my lunch at Islamorada Fish Company, it occurs to me that this is the worst meal I've had in five years.
I've eaten a lot of breakfasts and lunches and dinners out in that time. And I've had a lot of bad ones. I've been disappointed, nauseated, poisoned, thrown out, threatened and lied to. I've been served food that I wouldn't feed my cat. I've ruined dozens of pairs of pants hiding appetizers in the pockets that I could not be coerced into eating under any circumstances.
I've had worse individual plates set before me, and even been to worse restaurants than Islamorada. But as I look at the remains of the first half of my lunch -- the gray crabcakes, the sickly sweet and rubbery coconut shrimp with their spicy orange marmalade, the water-stretched chicken-and-corn chowder -- and wonder where it can go from here, I realize that this is already the worst meal I've had since a truly unfortunate dinner at a Pappadeaux in Albuquerque half a decade ago.
7970 E. 49th Ave.
Denver, CO 80238
Region: East Denver
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Coconut shrimp: $7.65
Shrimp: (1 lb.) $16.65
Lobster tail: $17.95
N.Y. strip: $19.65
Pain Killer: $6.95
I make a quick check of the mental rolodex, flipping through my scattered recollections of the thousand or so restaurants I've eaten at since then, and the search comes back clean. Islamorada is it: the worst. Not by much, but by enough to make it decisive. And as I absorb this, a beatific smile spreads across my face; an aura of pure Buddha enlightenment suddenly surrounds my table. I am a creature of absolutes, after all, and it is with a light heart that I celebrate having hit bottom. Again.
Sitting here, I'm reminded of an English professor I had in college. He was a good one, the kind of guy who taught Chaucer in prison and tried to explain to gangbangers how couplets were more powerful than guns. He did standup on the side, regularly canceled classes if it was too warm, too cold, too much of a Tuesday, whatever. And, like me, the man loved his Shakespeare, and either in class or at one of Buffalo's many fine bars where we sometimes retired after class, he taught me an important thing about the enduring power of Wild Bill's work: that the reason Shakespeare's plays have lasted as long as they have -- the reason they are still read and performed today -- is because Shakespeare set the standard for our tragedies. He gave all us poor saps who came after him boundaries, extremes of human experience that could never be exceeded. His work stood as a sort of psycho-social money-back guarantee: No man alive would ever suffer more than Lear or Troilus or Hamlet, no fourteen-year-old would ever love (and die) as well as Romeo, no couple would ever bicker better than Beatrice and Benedick (though my wife and I certainly try).
Through Shakespeare, we learn limits and are given parameters by which to judge all future experiences. When people describe something as "Shakespearean," they mean it is unconditional: either the soaring apex of love or the bitter depths of calamity. They are speaking of an inarguable absolutism that delineates the margins of our experience. Beyond this line, thou shalt not cross.
Islamorada? This motherfucker is my Hamlet, this room my goddamn Birnam Wood.
Knowing that it cannot get any worse fortifies me, so when my main course arrives, I can hammer my fork through the scorched crust of sesame seeds on an otherwise ice-cold tuna steak; get past the crisscrossing Day-Glo stripes of pink and white squeeze-bottle sauces (the white a horseradishy mayo, the pink a weak, sour wasabi and pink, which is bad enough on its own) that make the fish look like some kind of insane wedding cake for chickadees; and even gum the flaccid mixed vegetables (wet lozenges of carrot, hunks of damp squash and broccoli florets that have been steamed to death but never shocked, leaving them limp and smelling of sulfurous ass) with an idiot's grin and a sense of utter peace. When my chunks of deep-fried alligator arrive, I can enjoy them for what they are, which is horrible. They taste nothing like alligator (which tastes powerfully gamey and reptilian, like taking a bite out of an iguana) and don't even taste like chicken (that old joke), but rather like Chicken McNuggets from McDonald's -- like an ideaof chicken, a notion of poultry, but mostly just fryer oil and salt. They arrive with a green jalapeño dipping sauce so thick and gelatinized that it doesn't stick when I dunk my 'gator in it, so I have to spread it with a knife. The sauce tastes like jalapeño toothpaste and is the color of green hospital scrubs, an insipid shade meant to inspire calm in those who might otherwise go mad from bold colors.
Islamorada opened ten months ago in the best spot in the world for those genetically incapable of appreciating irony: inside the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World megastore in the Northfield development at Stapleton. At Outdoor World, you can buy a boat. Or a fishing pole. Or a ridiculous hat. Or a shotgun. Basically, you can buy anything you need for killing any living thing on the planet, from bacteria to bull elephants, and shop for your heart's desire in an environment already filled with things that have been previously killed by other people. The massive front entrance is festooned with horns and antlers, like the hunting lodge of a giant in Nordic myth. And inside, everywhere you look, something dead and taxidermied is looking back at you. There are moose and bears and squirrels and possums and chipmunks and birds and more bears and deer and more moose. There are mountain lions leaping from rocky ledges and snakes among the stones. The dead critters have all been posed and set up in dioramas that approximate their natural habitat -- say, a two-story fake waterfall and fish tank rising beside a Starbucks -- and quotes about hunting and fishing and nature festoon the walls. My favorite: "In wilderness is the preservation of the world," by Thoreau, posted right on the wall near the elevator that takes you to the second floor, where they keep all the guns.