A few weeks ago I awoke dogged by a beautiful fantasy. This was it: Every day precisely at noon, I would rise from my typewriter, don my fedora, slip a detective novel into my suit pocket and head over to the Union Station lunch counter, where a sneering counter boy in a white paper hat would slap "the regular" in front of me at 12:05. I didn't care so much what the regular would be--a BLT on toast and cup of joe, let's say. While seated on my habitual stool, fourth from the left, I would absorb piquant bits of humanity, which would show up that afternoon in my writing. I would develop a network of Chandleresque informants, who would sidle up to that fourth stool from the left and give me hot story leads under their breath. See, they would know where to find me.
As fantasies go, this seemed a lot more workable than winning the lottery or suddenly developing triceps, so at noon one recent weekday, I rose and went. But the Railcar Diner, as the lunch counter is now called, was closed. I went to the Amtrak window to find out why and received the following intelligence from a depressed-looking man in a conductor's hat.
"It's usually closed."
"Is it open when the trains come in?"
"When will a train come in?"
"Just why are you asking?"
"I'd like to eat there."
Amtrak Man fixed me with a doleful stare. "I wouldn't eat there if you held a knife to my throat," he said.
This would have been an opportune time for one of my informants to sidle up and give me the straight skinny, but none materialized. So I did some sidling of my own. It turns out the Railcar Diner is no longer the only place to eat in Union Station--in fact, the station is flanked by two new restaurants in spaces previously occupied by just slightly older restaurants. Not only that, but these places are open at regular hours, regardless of the Amtrak schedule.
I decided to move beyond the BLT.
My first Union Station lunch took me to Redfish Seafood Kitchen, the "Looziana Roadhouse" now inhabiting what was recently a T.G.I.Friday's. Aside from some patio tables that offer a discouraging view of a high-priced parking lot (and a gulp of carbon monoxide with your lunch), the physical plant at Redfish appealed to me instantly.
A huge space, it is softened by mahogany-trimmed acoustic panels suspended from the ceiling, which means you can have a conversation and still listen to a wonderfully obscure soundtrack of blues and Cajun music. You can sit in a cushy booth, at either of two bars (one devoted to oysters) or at a more central table, or you can simply park yourself at one of two bar-sized pool tables. Redfish is big but intimate.
Our waitress told us that Redfish is part of a chain but that there are only a few Redfishes, and they're each encouraged to add their own variations to the mix. We wanted to keep things Louisianan, though, so we began with Dixie Crimson Voodoo beer ($4.25), Front Porch Ice Tea (served sweet or not, for $1.50) and a half-dozen oysters, market-priced at $7 that day. The oysters came on a bed of crushed ice in a vintage Coke tray and could not have been fresher. The tea was a rip--it sipped exactly like Lipton's mix (which may be the authentic Lafayette flavor, for all I know). But Dixie's Crimson was as remarkable for its delightfully creepy label as it was for its robust, bitter taste.
Ten minutes later our table was covered with a selection of entrees and appetizers, beginning with the gumbo Ya Ya ($3.95 small, $6.95 large)--a thick, file-heady paste of a soup without as much smoked chicken or andouille as we might have hoped, but with lots of authenticity. More satisfying were the jumbo lump crabcakes ($8.95), which, unlike some sissy versions, were both lumpy and crabby and were served in a pool of creamy mustard. A side of sweet-potato chips ($1.95) added a touch of delicate fried heaven--but you had to eat them right away, as they became a sodden mass in five minutes. The Voodoo house salad (2.95), your basic iceberg mix, had been hexed by a dousing of Georgia peanut vinaigrette that was all vinaigrette and no peanut (did the server forget to mix the dressing?). Finally, we tried a North Carolina pulled pork sandwich ($6.95), stuffed with shredded-to-bits tender meat but disappointingly drier than the sandwiches I've eaten in North Carolina diners, which were so saturated with barbecue sauce that the bun welded to the meat.
Still, I was encouraged enough to return for a blue-plate special at noon one Monday, when chicken-fried chicken ($8.95) is the standard offering. Fried chicken is boot camp for a restaurant: It's either very bad or very good. I held my breath and received...two excellent chicken breast fillets deep-fried in seasoned breadcrumbs alongside a lump of andouille cheddar mashed potatoes that tasted like an entire bereavement casserole. (What has become of plain old mashed potatoes with nothing in them but lumps?) Then we dismantled an oyster po' boy ($9.95) that featured an addictive remoulade and delectable fried oysters swimming in a way-too-bready (but probably authentic) shell of baguette. With the blue-plate special, served on an actual blue plate, Redfish sidestepped the official fried chicken exam--but otherwise the restaurant passed my lunchtime test with frying colors.
Next up: Walker's Sports Grill, which opened the same week as Redfish in the former Flat Pennies. Famous Rockie Larry Walker provided the place with his name, his backing and (allegedly) his mom's favorite dishes. The commodious Flat Pennies booths are still in place, but the noisy, echoey room has been painted Rockies purple.
In all honesty, I don't know what makes a good sports bar. If the requirements are beer on tap, big TVs and autographed jerseys, perhaps Walker's is IT. As for the food, here is a sports metaphor collected from my sports-fanatic husband, just to prove I'm trying: Walker's Sports Grill came out firing untouchable cheese and a slider that fell off the table, but by the second inning it had fallen out of its rhythm and got tattooed.
Now, then. Our waitress was attentive to a fault. She kept those Cokes coming, brought our big, complicated order hot and all at once, and offered a hint of behind-the-scenes insight. "Larry Walker comes in all the time, and he has fun," she told us. "Remember that game when he got hit in the head twice with a baseball? He was here till two in the morning the night before. He had fun."
I hope part of his fun was an order of his pal Vinny Castilla's quesadillas ($5.75, $.75 for added barbecue chicken). Not the usual flat, cheese-oozing tortillas, Vinny's version featured at least an inch of green chiles, onion, roasted peppers, zucchini and yellow squash melted with Jack cheese and tangy chicken. The tortillas encasing this impressive stuffing were crisp rather than soggy--and the odd mix, complete with extra-fresh tomato salsa, worked. (The rancid side of guacamole, however, did not.) Throw in a basket of "Most Valuable Potato" ($3.25)--the best fries I've had in years--and this could have been a fine lunch.
But did we stop there? No. The Silver Slugger Stickers ($5.75) turned out to be a lot of very greasy potstickers filled with bland pork mush. Head First Sliders ($5.95), which had sounded tantalizingly like the baskets of tiny, flat burgers served at the Mickey Manor, turned out to be big, dry meatballs on small, dry buns. The Ty Cobb salad ($6.50) came in a bowl the size of a hubcap and was basically an entire head of chopped iceberg topped with turkey, bacon, hard-boiled eggs and blue cheese. Nothing wrong with that, but nothing wonderful, either. Then we bit into a Ground's Keeper sandwich ($6.50), which had been billed as marinated and grilled portobello mushrooms served on a bun but seemed like a skimpy, dry mushroom burger into which someone had forgotten to put the burger. And lastly, we limped through a Grand Slam ($6.75), a nice hunk of French bread heaped with gray, rubbery roast beef and served with desperately salty "au jus."
But hope springs as eternal as hunger. And so, a few days later, I walked over to Union Station at 8:30 a.m. and found that a train was in and the Railcar Diner was open! An elderly couple was just taking away a to-go breakfast: two hotdogs in a paper bag.
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I opted for a breakfast burrito ($3.40). The counter man, resplendent in a Ralph Lauren Polo shorts outfit and cap, unpackaged the plastic-wrapped burrito, then placed it carefully between folded paper plates and slid it into the microwave. It emerged tasting like most microwave burritos, but considerably older. So did a breakfast sandwich ($2.95)--a white-bread and well-aged-egg affair. Even the doughnuts and Danishes were wrapped into tight plastic balls and appeared to have traveled further than the dispirited diners.
Who, if they had only known, could have ordered two hotdogs in a bag.
Instead, I walked out of Union Station carrying the shattered pieces of my dream of "the regular" at noon along with a to-go menu from Redfish. For now, that's all I can handle.
Redfish Seafood Kitchen, 1701 Wynkoop Street, 595-0443. Hours: Monday-Wednesday 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Thursday and Friday 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Saturday 5 p.m.-midnight; Sunday 5-10 p.m.
Walker's Sports Grill, 1701 Wynkoop Street, 534-1881. Hours: Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2 a.m. (kitchen closes at midnight); Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m.-midnight.