Wednesday, March 25, 2009

America's a Funny Place

My grandfather is a great man. He grew up in a working class neighborhood of Louisville during the Great Depression, the son of a street carman. Like my equally great father's father, these experiences shaped my maternal grandfatehr's view of money and excess, but he was left with a strong self-indulgent streak (I might even go so far as to say he's a sensualist).

One of the ways that this shows itself is in a joy, which is inexpressible to those who don't know him, at finding bargains when eating out. I remember fondly his broad grin as he would tell me where he was taking me for lunch during my summer visits: a Greek place in Rockville where you could get a salad, bread, and more pasta than a man could eat for $6 was his favorite stand-by and eating with him there was de rigeur for much of my adolescence. I once made a pot of beans - beans, onion, some decent sausage, and salt - and the look of pure bliss as he ate what is really one of the simplest things ever was enough to make the whole back-breaking trip down to Louisville more than worth it (this was during my lost Herniated Disc era).

My personal favorite of his discoveries was at Chipotle. I went there today to yet again feast on the greatest unknown deal in pop culture America. It turns out that you can get rice and beans (ask for more rice; no one ever says no) for $1.75. That's right - you can eat at one of the most popular lunch spots in America for less than $2. And this isn't some cheapo white bread/deep fried fish sandwich king at Burger Thing for Lent. This is a year-round offer. It's called sides, two of them, and they aren't listed on the menu anywhere. But, oh the joy of standing in line with people paying $6 or $7 for lunch and knowing that I am going to get delicious cilantro-lime rice and really beautifully cooked beans for less money than the Wall Street Journal!

One of his favorite parts of this meal is the experience of Russian roulette when you order it. If his grin was big when he told us of the deal, it only got bigger when he related how no one ever charged the same amount: $1.50 was the norm at the time, but he'd been charged 75 cents and $3.25, too. Once, as he neared the register, he noticed the tomato salsa and asked for some of that, too. The total was a whopping $5.75! It turns out two sides is two sides, but three sides is a meal.

And, I have to admit, the eccentric joy of eating cheaply at a popular place is good enough, but the confusion behind the counter today when I ordered "beans and rice...yes, just beans and rice" made it the highlight possibly of my week (and it's been a pretty amazing week). The first guy just stared at me, then warmed up to the idea and, after asking repeatedly if that was all, he even smiled and wished me a good day. I could tell he was getting a kick out of the incongruity of my order with the petite women in front of me ordering oozing mounds of pork topped with cheese and guacamole. The next guy just flipped the lid on and folded it down, before handing it to the guy who marks the lid in marker, who paused, false stared a couple times, and then gave up on writing anything at all. He interrupted the cashier to tell her it was two sides, repeating it a few times as if to make himself believe it as much as to tell her what to charge me. When she rang it up, the sweet total of $1.75 came up on the display, before she asked me one final, incredulous time: Do you want anything else?

And the weirdest, greatest part of all of this? Where in the world, other than America and maybe Western Europe, would anyone consider $2.00 for a plate of rice and beans cheap?

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