Tuesday, May 17, 2011

IEM Session #16.8

Inhuman Eating Machine official rules and guidelines

(Continued from 16.7)

Eating Day: March 19, 2011- one final time

SATURN CAFE- 2175 Allston Way, Berkeley- 10:03pm- Cobb Salad - $9.50

Except for Herbivore, none of the salad session's stops had catered specifically to the nonsensical sensibilities of vegetarians. Herbivore seems to target Berkeley's affluent meat-free populace. They attract a clientele composed largely of socially-conscious middle-aged women who have undoubtedly paid great sums so they can look natural, yet slovenly. The de facto uniform of most of the diners at Herbivore seems to come straight from Chico's. Saturn Cafe, on the other hand, draws a different class of vegetarian. Herbivore tries to look like an upscale place where one could entertain an important cruelty-free potential business client. Saturn, on the other hand, is cut from the same pretentious bolt of hipster cloth as Rudy's Can't Fail. The merits or deficiencies of Saturn's food notwithstanding, I felt more embarrassed within its confines than if I had gone stag to Chuck E. Cheese on a Friday evening.

The polished chrome and naugahyde booths and formica tables at Saturn have become so de rigeur at modern eateries, I can forgive these faux-retro fixtures within their restaurant. In fact, these accouterments have become as run-of-the-mill as the red and yellow color scheme at McDonald's. The look has ceased to invoke any bygone era, the same way the PT Cruiser no longer reminds anyone of a 1930's gangster getaway car. I am less forgiving, however, when it comes to other aspects of Saturn's decor. The walls surrounding the open kitchen are festooned with pro-looking graffiti that was possibly rendered by a dignitary from the local hip-hop culture in an effort to lend authenticity to an establishment that drips with phoniness. To add even more "street cred," another wall at Saturn is emblazoned with a Che Guevara quote, "At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love." Oh brother. That kind of mishegos is just beyond the pale. That dead commie would have taken one look at this place and blown it up by attaching plastic explosives to the dozen or so futuristic, apron-clad mannequin torsos hanging from the wall. To top it off, there are Loteria cards affixed to the surface of the tables; a clear attempt to co-opt "edgy" Chicano culture. If all these gewgaws weren't enough, the wait staff at Saturn looks like the cast of a video for a band that would have sounded dated ten years ago. With the quirky waitresses sporting traditional tattoos and ugly footwear and a clientele heavy on lesbian poseurs, the whole scene is like a bit from Portlandia, but even more unfunny.

I could have gladly ignored all of these sickening embellishments, however, if only the salad wasn't such a fiasco. My family kept a kosher home when I was growing up, so the only way I could enjoy bacon or sausage in the house was by eating ersatz vegetarian analogs, usually products of Morningstar Farm. One would have thought that fake bacon technology would have advanced by leaps and bounds since the 1970's, but the counterfeit pork product on Saturn's cobb salad was identical to the abominations I remembered from my days in grammar school. The strips still had the texture and appearance of a manila folder printed with bacon-esque stripes. The taste is a liquid smoke overdose that continues unabated in one's urine for several days after consumption. From eating at vegetarian Chinese restaurants, I know for a fact that artificial chicken need not call to mind the salty foam matchsticks I found on my salad at Saturn. Other than the fake meat on the salad, the rest of the ingredients (avocado, tomatoes, hardboiled egg, and blue cheese crumbles) were unremarkable and the bowl was a little heavy on romaine, as opposed to the mixed greens. For $9.50, the least they could do is use some fancy greens and pilfer quality fake meat from a Chinese restaurant.

I slogged through the Saturn salad, but due to its smaller proportions, it required only a fraction of the time I needed to polish off its predecessor at Chick-A-Pea. I even made room to taste some of the Turkish Coffee ice cream Kelly had ordered. That stuff was out of this world. I have heard Saturn makes a great milkshake, too, so I might visit this ridiculous place again when/if I do a milkshake session.

When we finally arrived home, Kelly noticed my outstretched abdomen and screamed at me in horror, as if I was suddenly missing a limb. She demanded that I put a stop to this nonsense ASAP, lest I rupture my duodenum. While I understand her qualms with my mission, she must acknowledge my calling- my devotion to you all. Fear not. I will continue this pursuit as long it remains fun and as long as my stomach allows me.

When I woke the next morning, my stomach was in pain like after no other session before. For sheer volume, I reckon the salad session was ahead of all previous outings, although most of the salad ingredients were mostly water. My stomach had been stretched beyond its limits and appropriately sore, but it also felt empty. I had clearly aspirated most of the session's contents in my sleep, either via breath or flatulation. Consequently, I was starving the next morning, especially after emitting a rectal spray that approximated a fermenting bowl of Chef Boy-R-Dee ravioli. Completion of this session was never in the slightest doubt, especially since there are a few salad purveyors open late in the evening, but the repercussions I experienced were definitely unexpected. In the post Bin-Laden era, only a fool underestimates lettuce.

Actual Cafe

Coming June 14: Inhuman Eating Machine #17- Bibimbap

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

IEM Session #16.7

Inhuman Eating Machine official rules and guidelines

(Continued from 16.6) Eating Day: March 19, 2011- again.

CHICK-O-PEA'S- 1926 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley- 8:44pm- Chick-O-Pea's Salad - $7

Photo by Tigerlily

When I started the salad at Herbivore, I ate with almost the same vigor as very early in the session. I slowed down as I worked my way through that disappointment, but I never approached the sensation of distension I had experienced after the Smart Alec's salad. I was now roughly as full as I was prior to the salad at Maoz. This was apt, because I was about to eat at Chick-O-Pea's, a place with a very similar m.o. as Maoz, except in a non-chain package.

I have known about Chick-O-Pea's since they opened a couple of years ago, yet I was reluctant to try the place. Something about my perception of their business model had put me off of them. Perhaps it was their cutesy name, which I assume was derived from Jodi Foster's nonsensical wild-child utterances in her role in Nell. Maybe I found all of their grandiose statements about organic this and eco-friendly that a bit much for a falafel joint.

"Chick-O-Pea’s aioli is made fresh daily and we use only free-range organic eggs. We use rice oil for our deep frying and virgin olive oil for our dressings. Chick-O-Peas' mission is to bring an eco-friendly alternative to the disposable foodservice industry and bring social awareness of the need to maintain our environment. Our disposable products such as cold cups, lids, cup carriers, containers, clamshells, cutlery, plates, bowls and lunch trays are currently purchased from manufacturers and suppliers of 100% biodegradable and compostable (disposable) made from PLA (corn), high heat tolerant CPLA, Bagasse ( sugarcane) and recycled paper pulp."

Don't get me wrong. This stuff is all well and good. It just irritates me when eateries feel the need to blow their green health-horn in my face. It's the restaurant equivalent of a girl who wears a chastity ring just to brag about her virginity. Finally, I think Chick-O-Pea's location adjacent to the Gourmet Ghetto had me convinced that they would be unduly expensive and/or pretentious. I should not have stayed away so long, because the reality of Chick-O-Pea's is quite different than what I had envisioned. Since the salad session, I have eaten here (to go) on half a dozen occasions. I still get embarrassed saying the establishment's name, though.

Like Maoz, the Chick-O-Pea's salad is part full-serve, part self-serve. To start, they give you a plastic-like clamshell container that already holds a small bed of mixed greens. After you have paid, they fry up two large, made-to-order falafel balls. You build the rest of the salad at their do-it-yourself salad bar. As with Maoz, the items on the salad bar are Middle Eastern/Mediterranean-inspired, but Chick-O-Pea's offerings are generally far more flavorful than the relatively unadorned salads at Maoz. A few of the items on the Chick-O-Pea's bar are always present, but others seem go in and out on a rotating basis. On the day of the session, I chose a sizable heap of pickled cabbage, pickled peppers, pickled beets, seasoned cucumber salad, and lobio, a garbanzo bean salad in vinaigrette. I looked up lobio on Wikipedia. It apparently comes from the Republic of Georgia and usually contains kidneys beans, rather than garbanzos. Although I don't know how authentic this version is, it was certainly a zingy salad with a good deal of cumin, a little garlic, and maybe some citrus. It would make a great alternative to taboulleh on a falafel plate. All the other salads were equally delicious. Best of all, the falafel here is as good as the balls at Maoz. Once again, they are highly crunchy outside, well-spiced, and moist inside. And they're big. If Chick-O-Pea's has a good pita, the falafel sandwich here is undoubtedly stellar. There are also several squeeze bottles of dressings/sauces available for topping your salad. Unfortunately, they are unlabeled, so I can only guess what the bottles contain. I am quite certain that one of the bottles is a tahini sauce and another is yogurt-based, but I have no clue about the others, except for the harissa (Middle Eastern hot sauce.) I loaded up on harissa, which made the already-vibrant salad even more exciting.

About halfway through the salad, I slowed to a crawl. It was a miracle that I was able to finish this thing. I made the salad far bigger than I should have. At one point, I sneezed hard, probably due to the peppery ingredients in the salad. The force of the sneeze was so great, it nearly caused me to projectile vomit all over the restaurant. I had to close my mouth quickly to prevent the chunder. After this episode, I continued to plod through the salad one tiny bite after another until I was finally finished. I was nearly as stuffed as I was after the Smart Alec's salad, but this time, there was no beckoning turd on the horizon. Worst of all, my ears were now stuffed up, as if I had just disembarked from a twelve-hour flight. This sensation lasted until the following morning. Were my Eustachian tubes filled with lettuce? I expected to lose my equilibrium once I arose from the table to walk from the car. Luckily, I was able to waddle to my auto and attempt a final entry before calling an end to this foolish venture.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

IEM Session #16.6

Inhuman Eating Machine official rules and guidelines

(Continued from 16.5) Eating Day: March 19, 2011, duh!

HERBIVORE- 451 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, 7:20pm- Large Green Salad - $7.50 + $1.50 for Grilled Tofu add-on

Photo by Tigerlily

After Smart Alec's colossal salad and the out-of body defecation experience it triggered, I knew a lengthy interlude in my journey was imminent. I drove home somehow, which was probably not a safe endeavor, as the colon explosion I had undertaken at UC left me spent like I had run a triathlon in a kevlar track suit. I was falling asleep at nearly every traffic light. When I finally made it to the couch, I assumed catatonia for several hours straight. When I arose, I felt reasonably ready to resume the session. My distended abdomen had all but returned to its normal state and I even had slight twinges of hunger returning. I would meet up with Lily again in Berkeley for the final few stops of the expedition, accompanied by my wife.

I had only been to Herbivore once before, but exclusively to order a vegan chocolate cupcake from their bakery, which was shockingly delicious. I was a vegan myself in 1980's. Back then, vegan pastries were as dense as a gold brick with the consistency of dry steel wool. Due to some secret cruelty-free technology they've discovered, however, Herbivore has managed to make a cupcake that rivals the real McCoy. The salad here was another story.
I was somewhat surprised that Herbivore had a single salad that qualified for the sub-$10 cost ceiling, because from the outside, this place looks really expensive.

In the years since I quit the ranks of vegetarianism, my former cohorts have apparently made more changes than simply acquiring the ability to make edible baked goods. In 2011, it would seem that not only do vegetarians not believe in eating animals, they don't believe in prompt service, either. It took 15 minutes for somebody to take our order and close to half an hour to receive our food- a period they made even more interminable by playing Fugazi "Waiting Room" over their sound system. Are you kidding me? Why is it that Negro Spirituals recorded in the fields circa 1920 sound less dated than 1980s-90s alternative rock? I will take this opportunity to once again disavow any connection I ever had to said music. It is bad and you and I both know it, nostalgia be damned.

The salad looked good. I will give it that. It consisted of bean sprouts, julienned beets, avocado slices, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, and about half a dozen small pieces of grilled tofu. The whole megilla was served on a bed of romaine and mixed greens. I opted for creamy hemp salad dressing on the side. I have never smoked marijuana before for several reasons, many of which are ridiculous. However, if reefer tastes anything like this dressing, I am quite certain that abstaining was a good choice. The stuff tasted like aspirin. Other than the analgesic flavor, I detected no other seasonings. This was easily the worst salad dressing I have ever tasted. I thought I had dodged a bullet by ordering the dressing on the side, but the greens were somehow equally acrid. It was almost a month before Passover. I had no interest in eating bitter herbs. (Look up the reference, goyim!) I saw no spinach in the bowl, but my teeth felt gritty like it does after eating a spinach salad. Most of the other toppings were fine, but the tofu was worthless. The pieces had grill marks, but the tofu possessed none of the smoky flavor you associate with grilled food. In fact, the tofu had no flavor whatsoever.

Kelly and Lily both enjoyed their meals, and all the portions here were larger than I thought a place like this would serve. I just don't see any reason to eat here. If I am trying to eat healthy, I don't need the kind of pretentious vibe a place like this exudes. I'd rather eat a bag of carrots and an orange and spend an hour on a treadmill. Yes, Herbivore have fake meats coming out the wazoo, but they also have a full bar. And you can bet your ass the ersatz meat here is only slightly less deadly than the animal flesh it impersonates after they fry the wheat gluten and add seasonings straight out of a laboratory. Health food, my eye.

In 1990, I might have deemed Herbivore a godsend, as long as I stayed away from the pharmaceutical-grade salad dressing. However, this was the same period when I was a proponent of the shitty music they played during my session visit here. That can't be a mere coincidence.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

IEM Session #16.5

Inhuman Eating Machine official rules and guidelines

(Continued from 16.4)

Eating Day: March 19, 2011, of course

SMART ALEC'S INTELLIGENT FOOD- 2355 Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, 1:55pm- Superior Chef Salad - $6.95

Photos by Tigerlily

This was the salad stop I was dreading. If anything was going to break me on this session, it would be the salad here. Their entry is almost identical to the salad just up the street at Cafe Intermezzo, but Smart Alec's offers more dressing choices, more protein add-in options, and wheat berries as a default salad topping. Smart Alec's also offers some kind of freebie to students that bring in a good report card. Alec's is not a chain, as far as I can tell, but it somehow has a very chain-y feel to it. This is probably due to the pro-looking wall menu and their emphasis on their air-cooked fries, which seem like the domain of an enterprising multinational bent on capturing students seeking healthy dining options. Unlike Intermezzo, which has a very Berkeley-looking staff that undoubtedly smells of cumin, the counter girls at Smart Alec's always look they could have been extras in an Avril Lavigne video. While the hippies at Intermezzo actually make the salads, Smart Alec's food is prepared by Spanish-speakers in the back (like at almost every other restaurant in the Bay Area.) It is strange that two establishments that truck in identical food offerings (sandwiches and massive salads) can have such completely different "vibes," even though they are only two blocks apart.

Other than wheat berries, the Smart Alec's Superior Chef salad contains romaine, corn niblets, tomato slices, carrot coins, edamame, alfalfa sprouts (aka "the splooge of the plant kingdom"), an entire hardboiled egg, half an avocado, garbanzo beans, and croutons. Plus, you get your choice of protein from a list that includes grilled chicken, roast turkey, sliced turkey, hummus, a veggie burger, baked tofu, and a hamburger patty. I opted for the burger, as it seemed charred beef might counteract the roughage's imminent digestive "corollaries." The patty was easily a quarter pounder. Although it was overcooked for my tastes, it was relentlessly juicy and flavorful. I considered it a great addition.

It is hard to tell from the photo, but the salad here is absolutely behemoth. The thing weighs well over 2lbs, possibly 3lbs. Most sane people will make three or more meals out of this concoction. In the Mountain or Central time zone, where cole slaw is considered a health food, the Superior Chef would be enough salad to feed an entire family reunion at a rented picnic area in a city park. While the ingredients of Alec's salad are not up to the organic, seasonal, locally-grown, heirloom pedigree of some of the salads I ate earlier in the day, there is no denying that the Superior Chef is a great buy. Compared to a salad you'd receive at a steak house in the Midwest, it is absolutely a masterwork of modern greenery construction. The multitude of textures belies the fact that you are "just eating a salad." It is beyond comprehension that this salad is thrice the size of some I ate on this session, while ringing up as the least expensive offering of the journey. I don't care if the ingredients on the Tomate salad were grown in a monastery in the San Joaquin Valley and hand-delivered to the restaurant's door by the monks. There is no justification for their salad to cost $2.55 more than the Smart Alec's offering.

A salad of such proportions is a wonderful gift in most applications, but it was a tribulation during this session. I correctly assumed that finishing this salad would result in the skin surrounding my abdomen nearing laceration. I am sure my midriff has stretch marks with this salad's name on it. What I did not bargain for was the intense jaw pain I experienced eating this beast. All the chewing had left my entire face throbbing, as if I had been suckerpunched. Unlike certain session meals, it would have been ill-advised to try and swallow the salad with only a perfunctory chew. I had to thoroughly chomp every bite, lest I become a Heimlich Maneuver candidate. It took me at least an hour to finish this vegetable leviathan. Smart Alec's would be as far as I could eat for a while.

I was beginning to feel occasional violently effervescent episodes below my belt. Since Smart Alec's boasts one of the only restrooms on Telegraph Ave. accessible to customers, I decided to avail myself of their facilities, even though the urge to discharge had not yet reached DefCon 5. Despite the sign on the bathroom wall admonishing, "Do not use more toilet paper than you need. Toilet has a tendency to overflow," the bowl was filled with a massive mound of TP and excreta. I suspected the assemblage was going nowhere without considerable attention I was unwilling to devote in my condition. Regardless, I jostled the wad a little with the plunger and then flushed, hoping the commode could manage the massive volume of filth. Instead, the accumulation just rose in the toilet, resting millimeters from the rim. Fearing the worst, I fled the lavatory.

This failed attempt at plumbing took quite a few minutes. My fecal necessity was now becoming crucial. First, I bandied the idea of going to Lily's place a few blocks away to sully her bathroom. This notion was dashed, however, because Chris had already lit back there to perform the very same function! Lily suggested we go to Barrows Hall at UC where KALX is located. The building is only a few blocks away from Smart Alec's, but I had tremendous difficulty completing this walk with my contents intact. I had to stop every few steps to clench. This trek was as agonizing as when Christ was led on foot to Golgotha dragging his own cross. This whole affair showed me, though, that my sphincter control seems to have increased at my advance age. In the past, I wouldn't have made it across Bancroft without a leg full of excrement, yet I reached the campus restroom with my boxer briefs relatively unscathed.

I flung myself upon the throne and set to work immediately. The job, a conglomeration of pretzel logs marinating in original-flavor Gatorade, was finished almost instantly. I sat there panting from my ordeal. Hunched over, I noticed that there were thousands of ants walking on and around the wall inches from my left foot. Normally, I would have leapt from the stool in terror and burst from the stall without regard for wiping or pants-fastening. In my condition, though, I could do little but watch the ants go about their business and drift closer into a rectally-induced coma.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

IEM Session #16.4

Inhuman Eating Machine official rules and guidelines

(Continued from 16.3)

Eating Day: March 19, 2011, what else?

MAOZ VEGETARIAN- 2395 Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, 1:15pm- Salad Box w/Ice Tea- $8.00

Photo by Tigerlily
Three salads down. Nothing. Combined, the first trio of salads weighed at least 2 lbs., I'd reckon, but I may as well have eaten three pretzels. They just had not registered yet. I knew I had some serious contenders to come, but this voyage seemed even easier than I could have imagined.

I had wanted to try Maoz for a while since I spotted the joint while walking from Amoeba to Rasputin's in the midst of a dollar record sojourn. Yes, Maoz is a chain. They're an international chain, even, with stores in both the U.S. and Europe. In most cases, a chain this big would have fallen outside of the scope of the IEM by-laws, but the next closest Maoz to the one in Berkeley is roughly 3,000 miles away. I decided I would allow it in the session.

Maoz has kind of a weird system. If I came here on a day when I was in a hurry, I was grumpy, or I didn't feel like dealing with a restaurant's unique food formatting and policies, I might have walked out without ordering. The whole set-up seemed unnecessarily confusing. The "salad box" works like this. You start out with a round plastic bowl, not a box.) The bowl comes with a bed of lettuce (50/50 romaine and greens) and five falafel balls. Then you get a choice of a few different add-ons. I chose hummus and avocado. These steps are assembled by the counter guy. After he finishes this part, he hands you the box and then you can add more things from the salad bar. You can add all that you want into the bowl on a single trip. They make it abundantly clear that this is not an all-you-can-eat buffet-type salad bar a la Fresh Choice. So, you had better pile it on during your lone trip to the salad bar. If I was eating eight salads in a single day, I could have piled on an ungodly amount of salads into that box, but I decided to keep it plentiful but sane. The bowl had no more than a pound of plant matter inside. A fair amount, I felt. To the aforementioned ingredients I added the following salad bar items myself- carrot salad, beet salad, coleslaw, veggie salad (carrot coins, cauliflower, etc.), tomato wedges, sliced onions, and yogurt sauce.

If Maoz would have been around during the falafel session, it would have destroyed the competition. Today, only Oasis and another place I stopped later on the salad session are in the same falafel league as Maoz in the East Bay. The balls are extra crispy and seasoned correctly. The falafel were cooked to order here, still hot and crunchy on top of the salad, like the world's greatest crouton. The hummus was okay, but still somewhat out of balance. I've said it before. Getting the perfect garbanzo:tahini:garlic:lemon juice ratio is nearly impossible.

The salads from the self-service bar were gorgeous with their vibrant hues, but they tasted like their core vegetable without any zim or zam. And the yogurt "sauce" was just liquid yogurt. I could not taste anything in there other than plain old yogurt. I know they have spices at Maoz. The falafel was a taste explosion. Why dish up such neutral-tasting salads? Perhaps they don't want the falafel to be upstaged. I can understand this line of thinking, but it would take more than a little vinegar and black pepper on a beet salad to overpower these mighty balls. Maoz is worth a return for the falafel alone, but I may have to employ some of their other dressings if I try the salad box again. The falafel stifled its supporting players like Lee Marvin showing up on an episode of Hogan's Heroes.

After the Maoz salad, I felt only a slight semblance of a trace of fullness setting in. Gas had not even begun to develop in my entrails. I was riding high in the saddle. Unfortunately, the next stop was the 500lb. gorilla in the room.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

IEM Session #16.3

Inhuman Eating Machine official rules and guidelines

(continued from 16.2)

Eating Day: March 19, 2011, yet again

NEW AMSTERDAM COFFEE- University Avenue, Berkeley, 12:12pm- The Big Salad- $7.25

Photo by Tigerlily

After a trip to the ill-conceived Emeryville Target store to purchase batteries, Lily and I ventured to the heart of downtown Berkeley. If Tomate is quintessential old-time Berkeley and Actual is North Oakland personified, then New Amsterdam is a prime example of the sort of establishment so prevalent in the vicinity of UC Berkeley. Tomate was populated by older types with frizzy hair and wide-wale cordurorys who have undoubtedly done time as Cal faculty. New Amsterdam, however, has a grad-school vibe to it. Their key demographic surely consists of teaching assistants who are enrolled in programs that are sufficiently esoteric to make any future career aspirations futile. There is a lot of soccer paraphernalia strewn about the place and there is always some kind of soccer-related programming on the television behind the counter. There are murals on the inside walls that depict what I assume to be the Netherlands. Perhaps the owner is from Holland. Or maybe the soccer theme is naught by a ruse set forth to give the illusion of worldliness.

In case you had forgotten, the session took place on a cold, gray, rainy day- the stuff of Natalie Merchant songs. Salads are not a meal that engenders warmth, so I was even more sensitive to the act of pure barbarism delivered upon me by a steady stream of customers who came in and out of the New Amsterdam to place coffee orders. These 20-somethings repeatedly exhibited an utter lack of regard for human life, leaving the front door open several inches. This offense allowed excruciating blasts of storm to enter the room, making me even colder than I was before entering. Who does such a thing? Why not pull the door completely closed? These devils seemed to be perpetrating this deed intentionally. It was not difficult to merely pull the door a few more inches to its rightful resting place. Is this what "acting locally" is all about? This travesty forced me to become fixated on the frequently ajar door, leaping up to close the door myself, when necessary.

Luckily, I soon became aware of the two guys sitting in the front table and forgot about my imminent frostbite. I assume these fellows were both video game designers. By their tone, I gathered that they had just met and they were on a business luncheon. They seemed to be trying to one-up each other with their brilliance. In a single sentence, I heard one of the nerds utter the words, "coalesce," "crux," and "gestalt." He seemed astounded when his compatriot appeared to understand the words' definitions. If these future billionaires weren't enough, I was seated across from the least-convincing transsexual/transvestite in history. In his/her early fifties, this character was dressed in Riot Grrrl garb, circa 1992. With the high Doc Martens, torn fishnets, and Abe Vigoda-esque bags under his/her eyes, this tranny made Dame Edna look like Christina Aguilera.

I could have sworn that I had told the guy at the register that I wanted to eat my salad in the restaurant. Nonetheless, it arrived in a square cardboard box, similar to a Chinese food container, but without the whimsical Asian characters on the side. New Amsterdam's "Big Salad" comes stock with romaine, seasonal greens, cucumbers, and red onions. Then you get your choice of 3 additional items from a list of about 20 vegetables, legumes, cheeses, etc. Some kind of meat was also available, but that cost extra. I ordered artichoke hearts, avocado, and seasoned chickpeas on mine. I have discovered in my travels that you get far more roughage when you order a big salad to eat-in than you when you get the salad to go. If I was a cheating man, I could have saved myself some agony and ordered all of the salads to-go after New Amsterdam mistakenly gave me my salad in a box. But I do not cheat my readers! The salad was heavy on the romaine, with just a hint of the seasonal greens, but there was a good deal of cucumbers and the add-ins I had chosen. The avocado was at the perfect level or ripeness and the artichoke hearts were tender with a slightly vinegar-y zing. The seasoned chickpeas didn't really seem very seasoned, though, unless New Amsterdam's idea of "seasoning" means salt. I remembered to get the dressing on the side this time. It was a slightly sweet offering, which was surprising for a dressing that was supposed to be smoked paprika. The dressing wasn't bad by any means, but it tasted kind of store bought, even though it probably wasn't.

The salad here was definitely acceptable, but I was somewhat disappointed. On my sole previous visit, the salad here made a very positive impression on me. I am not certain what happened, so I can only blame the fact that they erroneously gave me the salad to-go. Perhaps they were trying to send me a message.

P.S. Restaurateurs, please stop putting lemon slices into pitchers of water. A fresh slice of lemon on the side of a glass is fine. But when lemon wedges sit for hours in a pitcher of water, the water does not taste of citrus. It just tastes bitter and dirty.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

IEM Session #16.2

Inhuman Eating Machine official rules and guidelines

(continued from 16.1)

Eating Day: Again, March 19, 2011

ACTUAL CAFE- 6334 San Pablo Avenue, Oakland- 10:40am- Real Big Salad- $7.00

Photo by Tigerlily

Like Tomate, this place had a similar rustic, bohemian bent, except it was appropriately more North Oakland than Berkeley. The clientele was younger than at Tomate. There was a framed t-shirt on the wall reading, "Oakland, CA- Dyke City." The counter lady who took my order had a thicker beard than I have. There was a bike rack (bicycle docking station) on the wall inside the restaurant. As usual, there were lots of sad-looking women who seemed far too mature to have borne the toddlers on their knees. The seating is long, communal, Oliver Twist-style wooden tables and benches. Best of all, there was a sign near the cash register proclaiming weekends as "laptop free." As far as I am concerned, the only thing worse than people loitering at cafes on their laptops is a cafe that tries to appear high and mighty by banning said devices two days a week. In general, Actual Cafe is not the type of place I would normally spend an entire meal on my own volition, but the $7 pricetag for the "Real Big Salad" was a welcome sight. Sadly, I was unable to repudiate this establishment out of hand.

True to its name, this salad was almost twice the size as the Tomate salas. It was built on a bed of mixed greens, with nary a leaf of romaine in sight. The greens were topped with a goodly amount of pickled vegetables (I detected cauliflowers and zucchini), currants, avocado, and toasted almonds, plus some shaved parmesan. Actual offered a choice of three different fruit add-ins: pears, apples, or strawberries. I figured that the berries were the best of these three choices, as they are a relatively "high-percentage fruit," with close to 70% of strawberry specimens being of good to excellent quality. Conversely, pears and apples hover around 50% or lower, depending on variety. The mustard vinaigrette was wonderfully zesty and added some bite to the salad. Even though I really enjoyed the dressing, I was glad Actual did not ladle it on with a heavy hand, as I had forgotten to specify to the bearded lady that I wanted my dressing on the side. It was as if they had read my mind and had administered the correct amount of vinaigrette for my taste.

Under normal conditions, my distaste for the atmosphere and clientele of Actual Cafe would deter me from spending measurable amounts of time on its premises. Food notwithstanding, I would rather sit unnoticed in a filthy noodle outlet in the Eastlake district while the staff and customers look at me suspiciously for daring to cross their threshold. I am not yet sure whether I love Actual's salad more than I hate their conspicuously "progressive" ambiance. If I am ever able to visit on a day when laptops are permitted, however, perhaps I can enjoy their delicious bargain salad immersed in wi-fi pornography or an episode of Murder, She Wrote, unencumbered by the trappings of North Oakland artisanal chumpitude.