Five minutes, okay?"
"Five minutes. I'll just run in and run out."
"Okay." I fiddled with the radio, trying to get something good on the vintage-'70s push-button console.
Matt got out of the car, two plastic bags full of Styrofoam takeout boxes in his hands, then leaned back toward the passenger window that never went all the way up. "Turn off the car, all right? You'll wake the kid up."
I scowled, but turned the key. Wake the kid, I thought. Jesus...
It was the winter of 1998, and I was back in Rochester, my home town, after a disastrous turn through the kitchens of central Florida. A year before, I'd headed off to Tampa with a fiancée, two cats, my health and a career that I thought was really starting to come together. Now I had none of that. Ostensibly, I'd come home because my father was sick, but, really, I just had nowhere else to go.
Since returning to the nest, as it were -- showing up unannounced on my parents' doorstep two days before Christmas -- I'd been trying to reconnect with old friends, the ones who'd never left town after high school. My tactic was to show up early at one of the half-dozen neighborhood bars where I figured they all still drank on Friday nights, stake out a stool with a good view of the door, and lie in wait for someone I recognized (however dimly) to come walking in. Really, it was more like stalking for slackers, because I didn't have to actually get up and follow anyone anywhere. But it had a certain air of sleaziness and mystery that I liked, and I lived for those moments when I'd finally corner someone I'd said maybe ten words to during high school, and they'd guardedly ask, "So, what have you been up to?"
Needless to say, I was not the guy you wanted to run into back then. I wasn't the guy you wanted to be within a hundred yards of unless you had a couple of hours to kill and were willing to fill them with the angst-dappled whining of a half-bright utility chef living in his parents' spare bedroom and edging dangerously close to thirty.
Anyway, that's where I was headed: to the Rose and Crown on Monroe Avenue with Matt, one of those aforementioned high school friends who already knew my whole story, word for word, didn't much care for it, but appreciated the wounded-barfly aesthetic. I thought he was the perfect wingman for nights like these. He was a solid drinker, flush with cash and terminally heartbroken from a bad split with a girl he'd never gotten over. Matter of fact, it was the house of the girl in question that I was parked in front of -- the car's engine still knocking long after I'd switched it off -- slowly freezing to death while he was inside doing God knows what.
Five minutes of waiting became ten before I got bored and went to the door. It was open, so I let myself in, and through the prism of leaded glass in the door between the breezeway and the girl's living room, I could see the two of them and the kid (not Matt's, but the only good consequence of a fling between the girl and a young suitor doing county time at that point for breaking and entering) sitting on the thrift-store couch in her one-bedroom apartment. They were talking, laughing and digging into the coleslaw, soggy fries and Friday fish-fry special from Mark's Texas Hots that Matt had come to deliver.
The kid was sick, he'd explained when I'd picked him up earlier. And the girl couldn't find anyone to watch him while she went out and got something for dinner. So he'd given me a choice: Either we could make a delivery run, or we could sit and watch the kid while she went out. Since I knew the girl and saw a very real possibility that she'd leave and never come back, stranding Matt and me in a David Lynch version of 3 Men and a Baby minus one man, I'd chosen the first option.
And now, standing there looking in, what I saw stunned me: The girl had pulled out the good china (meaning the stuff that wasn't plastic or disposable). The kid was on Matt's lap, with a look on his face like he was trying to explain the finer literary points of an episode of Blue's Clues. And Matt -- whom I'd never known in the course of his life to do a single mature or responsible thing -- was looking down, grinning, happier than I'd seen him in years and paying rapt attention to every word.
While it wasn't the most Ozzie and Harriet scene I'd ever witnessed -- what with the TV blaring, the room looking like the epicenter of an exploding toy factory, and Matt still high since he and I had killed a bowl before he headed inside -- there was no doubting the fact that he was a dad. Biology aside, he looked the part. He was the one who was there, with the kid on his knee and Friday fish fry on the table, and that (to me, anyway) meant way more than car seats, soccer games and the name on the paternity test.
Not that I understood that at the time. Back then, I spent very little in the way of brainpower contemplating things like food memories and the strength they keep over time. And while I'd love to say that instant in the doorway had some sort of redeeming quality to it -- like I saw the follies of my youth in a new light and went skipping merrily into the living room to join the love -- that's crap. The scene obviously affected me, because I remember it so clearly today, but odds are that I barged in, made a few minutes of polite small talk with the girl and a passing effort at being nice to the kid, then dragged Matt out before he put on a sweater vest and started smoking a pipe.
But now I realize that the scene hung with me for a couple of reasons. One, for the first time, I was seeing my friend as something more than the beer-drunk degenerate I'd always known and loved, and that was weird. Two, there was something very peaceful and Rockwellian about peeking in on them. It was like looking in on my own folks when they were still newlyweds (minus the dope and prison dad, of course), struggling to set up a home with a new baby and new, very adult worries. And three, food memories are like radium: powerful stuff and not to be messed with lightly.
Memories of fish fries have an unusually long half-life, because where I grew up, you couldn't spit without getting a little on the boots of some working-class Irish Catholic dad trudging home on a Friday night with a plastic bag full of dogmatic penance all portioned out in white styrofoam boxes. No meat on Fridays -- that was the rule as I understood it. And even if you weren't Catholic, the Friday fish fry was just a way of life in my town. Every restaurant (and I mean every single one with the capability to batter and fry) had a fish special on Friday to capitalize on what must have been an unusually high number of sinners trying to get on the Big Guy's good side before the weekend got swinging.
When I finally got around to leaving upstate New York, it came as a shock that not everyone in the world shared this peculiar piscine obsession. Some people ate cheesesteaks on Friday. Others had Chinese. Crawfish boils, tamales or ham-steak dinners were the Friday staples in other places I landed, and over time, I forgot about the simple, greasy pleasures of a chunk of batter-fried cod, and I started to eat like the natives. Like the man said, when in Rome...
But after spending years buried under other memories and plain old everyday worries, this particular moment from my ill-spent youth came forward bright and clean after just one taste of the excellent fry at Royal Hilltop ("True Brit," April 24). From that point on, I was back on the wagon and hunting all over hell and creation for more of the same.
If you're looking for the genuine article in Denver, your best bet may be reading church bulletins -- but there are a few other options. Chowda House (11104 West Colfax Avenue, Lakewood) does a mean fry and has a fiercely loyal following. The Celtic Tavern (1801 Blake Street) serves up a fine Brit Isle-style fish and chips with a slightly sweet beer-batter crust that encases big-ass whacks of greasy cod like armor, as does the Pour House Pub (1435 Market Street) -- though I like the Celtic's better. For a taste of Deep South fry, both Shead's Fish and BBQ Heaven locations (1685 Peoria Street and 15320 East Hampden Avenue, Aurora), do it up right: using catfish, perch or whiting rather than the cod or haddock I grew up with, and frying the fish in a cornmeal crust instead of batter. If that's your thing, head to Shead's. Or wait until M&D's BBQ and Fish Palace (2004 East 28th Avenue), owned by Mack and Daisy Shead, reopens in June after some long-awaited renovations.
Also on my list of new haunts: Mama's Cafe, at 2001 East Colfax Avenue. By no stretch of the imagination is this a great restaurant, but it does a few things surprisingly well and has the added bonus of a creepy back story. Like those in the Shead mini-empire, Mama's fish fry is Southern-style, with thin fillets of catfish or cod crusted in cornmeal, then deep-fried brown and crispy. Add a squeeze of lemon and some tartar sauce, and you've got yourself a nice piece of fish. Go with the fantastic mashed red-skin potatoes on the side -- slathered in brown gravy and kicked up with a liberal dose of cracked black pepper -- and it's a meal. Come in on Friday for the all-you-can-eat fried fish, and it's a feast.
Or, you can be like me and wander in at 3 a.m. (Mama's, like any good diner, Southern or otherwise, is open 24/7) and settle into one of the big booths up front and watch the sometimes downright Lovecraftian street theater of Colfax after dark. The weird thing about Mama's is that while it's generally friendly, clean and bright with big hanging pots of (fake) flowers, it's also nearly always as quiet as the grave. At 2 a.m. on a Saturday, Pete's Kitchen (1962 East Colfax Avenue) across the street can have a line around the block -- but Mama's will have plenty of seats open.
Which is great if you're looking for a cheap cheeseburger and a quiet place to sober up, or just an interesting foray into Denver history. Back at the turn of the last century, Denver was a major processing center for radium -- and some of the tailings were used to pave the city's streets. This fact was apparently forgotten until the late '70s, when the Environmental Protection Agency brought it to Denver's attention by lumping about thirty spots in the city into one Superfund site...with the International House of Pancakes that then stood in Mama's space right at ground zero. But we here at Bite Me World Headquarters have been assured that any contamination requiring the EPA's attention received it, and in the years since, the police haven't logged one radioactive-zombie sighting at either the IHOP or Mama's, which took up residency last November. Still, maybe it's just a matter of time....
Okay, so my Denver fish-fry adventure wasn't exactly Proust and his madeleines. Still, one bite at Royal Hilltop (18581 East Hampden Avenue in Aurora) was all it took for a whole section of my childhood to come unstuck from wherever it was hiding and send me out across the city looking for similar thrills in other places. A good Friday fry spoke to me then (just as it does now) of the reality you never see on TV or in the movies. The real kind of reality where not much about life is certain except that Friday is payday, when Mom and Dad will be a little happier and a little more relaxed, and there will always be fish fry on the table.
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