I approached Inhuman Eating Machine (IEM) session #2 as if I was about to jump out of the tenth story of a burning building into one of those net-things the fire department uses. Even though I knew I must proceed, the prospect terrified me nonetheless. I had chosen fish and chips this time and I knew this could possibly be the greatest struggle I would face in my IEM career.
I have a very strong stomach. I willingly partake in foods spicier than most mortals, I eat street food in undeveloped countries, and I eat too much of everything. But despite all of this, I rarely, if ever, experience heartburn or an upset stomach. And I can count on one hand how many times I have vomited post toddler-hood. However, fried chicken and fried fish are 2 items that I cannot ingest with impunity. If I eat larger-than-average portions of either of those items, I start to feel not-so-fresh. It’s as if those items drain me of my life-force. They quash my chi. They are my Kryptonite.
Although I dearly love both fried fish and chicken, they are my nemesis when it comes to overindulging. But rather than shy away from these items, I decided I needed to confront one of them early in my IEM career to prove to myself that I could not be beaten by any food! I knew I would eventually have to eat one or both of these foods if I was to be taken seriously, so I picked fish and chips to get it out of the way. I couldn’t bear to have it hanging over my head like some hideous albatross. My friends, the experience wound up being a nightmare that I do not wish to re-live any time soon. After this horrific experience, will I ever do a fried chicken session? I imagine I will have to do one eventually, but after what I went through with the fish and chips session, the chicken will have to wait a while- perhaps a long while.
They say that fish is brain food- it makes you smart. Hopefully, all the fish I ate on IEM #2 has made me a little wiser, because doing an eating session with fried fish was totally fucking idiotic.
EATING DAY: May 12, 2007
10:14am- Seabreeze Market and Deli- 598 University Ave. (Berkeley, CA)- $7.25
This store/restaurant is actually made up of 4 or 5 of those big containers they put on ships. They tore out some of the walls, put down a floor and voila- they had a business. The Sea Breeze is situated at the end of University Ave. next to the Berkeley Marina. The parking lot has great views of the bay and the San Francisco skyline. For seating, they have a counter “inside” and some picnic tables outside. The only problem is it gets windy out there, so if it’s a gusty day, you better bring a jacket.
The Sea Breeze specializes in steamed crabs and fried seafood in addition to the usual burgers and sandwiches. Since I figured I’d be eating a lot of catfish during that day’s session, I decided to try the cod for variety. The lady behind the counter was something else. Women like her work at soul food restaurants all over the south, but in the Bay Area, they just don’t exist. Since it was barely 10am, I asked her if I could order fish yet. She told me joyfully, “You can get whatever you want, honey!” This was my kind of place. Establishments that limit certain foods to certain times of day are doing a disservice to mankind. If I want fried fish at 10am, or pancakes at 6pm, why can’t I have them? Why is it that certain foods are served in the morning and others in the evening? There is NO good reason, my friends. Don’t tell me that folks naturally want lighter fare early in the morning, because it’s just not true. There is nothing light about bacon, sausage, pancakes, and ham and cheese omelets. If people really wanted something light for the first meal of the day, they’d eat a salad. Feh!
There’s a weird system at the Sea Breeze that I didn’t understand at first. After you order, the lady behind the counter gives you a ticket. You walk the ticket over to the cash register and pay. The lady at the register gives you a receipt. When your food is done, you walk back to the counter and give them the receipt. They literally will not give you the food without the receipt. It seemed like there were a few unnecessary steps in there. The fish was like no fish I’ve ever eaten from a restaurant, yet it seemed oddly familiar. Fried fish usually is either battered (a la Long John Silver’s) or it’s coated in seasoned cornmeal, soul-food style. The Sea Breeze fish wasn’t either of these. It was coated in a crunchy breadcrumb coating, sort of like what you find on chicken parmesan. And it was rectangular. The fish was very moist and flaky and it tasted fresh, but then it hit me. This fish- the coating and the shape- was like the fish they served in the cafeteria in grade school. It was like a big fish stick. I was enthralled. It was like they took school lunch fish and they made it delicious. The fish came with shoestring french fries that I think were fresh-cut. They were cooked exactly right- not too crispy, not too soggy. The condiment area had cocktail sauce and malt vinegar, but no tartar sauce. They may have had it behind the counter, but I always figure if they want me to have a condiment, I shouldn’t have to ask for it. I should eat the item the way they intended.
Since it was pretty windy and I had to get moving anyway, I took the food home and ate it there. It was a great meal and it brought back memories of the 3rd grade lunch room. As I ate, reminiscing about a time when I wasn’t beaten down by the evils of society, I began to realize one thing. Fish and chips are hot! You can’t tear through these things like you can with a hot dog, especially without tartar sauce to cool things down. I tried to do it and it left me with a mouthful of seared flesh. Despite my delicious elementary fish, I was starting to get scared.
12:41pm- L&S Super Burrito and Seafood- 326 E. 18th St. (Oakland, CA)- $5.95 w/soda
I used to live 2 blocks from this place from 1996-97. It used to be run by a couple of ladies who both looked like Mo’Nique from The Parkers had swallowed the mom from What’s Happening. They probably died of some obesity-related ailment. It used to be a soul-food seafood/bbq place, but now that it’s run by a Korean dude, it’s a soul-food seafood/burrito place. When I moved to Oakland in the mid 90’s, I was drawn aback by all of the multi-purpose restaurants you find here. Usually run by Chinese folks, it’s not uncommon to find a place that sells doughnuts, burgers, cold sandwiches, and Chinese food. Do these kinds of places exist outside of California? I’m starting to realize now that there are also a handful of places run by Koreans that do soul-food fried fish and burritos. I don’t know if I’m up to trying a burrito at one of these establishments (the menu says it comes with lettuce!), but L&S does the soul fish proud.
Like Sea Breeze, L&S was playing KISS-FM. First it was “Ladies Room” by Klymaxx; then they busted out “Bust a Move” and “P.Y.T.” This was perfect fish-eating music. I ordered the red snapper. There was a lot of it. It was in the usual cornmeal coating you find in the soul-food fish places in Oakland. I gather the owner probably acquired the recipe when he took over, because it was pretty similar to the stuff I’ve had at places like Vida’s, which is still owned by a little old black lady from Louisiana who moves slowly- very slowly. The coating was seasoned properly. It was a little salty, a little peppery- and they didn’t overdo it will the coating. It came with tartar sauce, little containers of hot sauce, and a couple of lemon wedges. Lemon? How classy! The fish wasn’t as moist and flaky as the cod from Sea Breeze, but snapper is a firmer fish in general. The steak fries they served were clearly frozen, but they cooked them right and there were plenty of them. I had ordered the regular portion, but with the pile of fish and fries and the 2 slices of wheat bread that came with the meal, this was more than enough food for most normal people. From 11-2, they even comp you a can of Red and White brand soda. I got the root beer. I don’t know where one buys this brand, but it was easily as good as Cragmont.
The owner saw me taking a photo of the food and jotting down my notes and he became excited as if I was Mr. Blackwell coming to check out his couture. His questions were cute at first, but it got kind of annoying after a while. I need to figure out a way to cloak my identity and make my note-taking and camerawork more low-key. I’m afraid that some proprietors may think I’m some sort of real food critic and they may start putting on their “A-game” just for me. That’s all well and good, but I don’t want them chintzing out when regular folks show up at their eatery due to my recommendation. L&S gave me a ton of food for a pittance and it was all great. If you are treated any differently, I’ll feel personally responsible.
2:50pm- H.Salt Esq. Authentic English Fish & Chips- 12929 San Pablo Ave (Richmond, CA)- $5.69
This place used to be a pretty huge chain. In fact, the first time I ever ate fish and chips was at an H. Salt in Houston, TX. That was long before I ever tried Long John Silver’s. I did some checking around and the chain has just a handful of stores left, almost exclusively in Southern California. The décor has seen better days. In addition to the chandeliers, which appeared to be part of the original atmosphere, they hung some fluorescent lamps from the ceiling- the kind you see in a body shop. But for some reason, the place was really dark, even though it was a sunny day. The tables have the connected seats of a fast-food place and several of the chair/table combos were broken in one way or another. The checkerboard floor had tiles missing. The whole place seemed like it was coated in a greasy film.
I ordered the regular 2-piece, trying in vain to pace myself before the fish and chips really started taking their toll. Much to my chagrin, each piece was massive and it was served with a huge pile of fresh cut fries. When I picked up my order there was a blue spray bottle on my tray along with my plate of food. At first, I thought this was Windex for cleaning my own table, but then I realized it was malt vinegar. Employing a spray bottle for maximum vinegar dispersion is a great idea, in theory. But when the bottle is blue and printed with “Super Kleen” on the side, it’s kind of unappetizing. I sprayed a little vinegar on my fish and then put the bottle on the floor so I wouldn’t see it and subconsciously start tasting window cleaner. The fish was the batter-dipped kind and it looks a lot like what you see at Lohn John’s, but the pieces are much larger. Maybe this is what “authentic English” style fish is like. It was incredibly moist and flaky and had lot of flavor. And it was hotter than napalm in my mouth. There was no way I was going to be able to scarf this meal without having to visit the burn unit. Even though this was a very heavy meal, it was surprisingly not too greasy-tasting.
I noticed that everybody that came in there was alone. They ordered alone and then they ate alone on the broken chairs in silence as I did. Is H. Salt merely too good to be shared with loved-ones, or is it just the "food of the loner"? The employees didn’t seem to go for chit-chat, either. The place was slow. The fry-cook listened to Ranchero music at very low volume on a portable radio and he frowned. The counter girl looked alternately at her manicured nails and out the window if a car with booming bass passed by. When customers did arrive, she conducted the transaction with a minimum of dialog and a distinct lack of pleasantries. The fish at H. Salt is amazing, but I highly suggest taking it to go. An extended meal in that place could lead one to suicide. In this restaurant, that would not allow light to enter it, I sat with my fellow silent diners and the dead-eyed employees. With the ever-increasing flu-like symptoms that 3 huge portions of grease-laden seafood had induced in me, I was almost ready to slit my wrists. At least at home, I could take a nap. By the way, H.Salt had a side order/appetizer called Veg-a-Bob. Anyone know what that is?
5:32pm- S&S Seafood- 4923 Telegraph Ave- (Oakland)- $8.95
I was able to do some shopping and run some other errands for a while. I wasn't as full as I when I had left H.Salt and I was ready to eat again, but I still felt as if my gastrointestinal system had been thrown out of a 6-story window. I'd eaten at S&S once, but it had bee at least a year. I believe they're run by the same Ethiopian family that runs the great Asmara Ethiopian restaurant on the next block, but they do the classic soul food-style fish and chips.
I tried to order the regular/small portion of buffalo, which is a fish similar to trout and carp that I'd heard was supposed to be pretty good, but the kid at the counter told me it wasn't good that day. Weird. Was it spoiled? Were they really out of it? If I wanted it anyway would they have let me? He told me to get the catfish instead, so I did. Even though the order was pretty pricey (S&S is in the up-and-coming Temescal area, after all), I was hoping for a snack-sized portion before I picked up the wife to do some night eating. The food came. I was totally screwed.
The portion consisted of at least six pieces of cornmeal-coated catfish on a hill of fries and 2 pieces of wheat bread. Even without the 3 other fish meals that day, this meal would've been a daunting task- and this was the small portion! I did some deep breathing and got to work. The fish was amazing. It was moist and flaky and not at all greasy. And the coating was very subtle. It enhanced the fish. It didn't try and overpower it, like some places try to do with catfish. I think the fries were probably frozen, but they were totally acceptable.
After about 3 planks of fish, I was in serious discomfort. Every delicious bite was a chore. I had to stand frequently to allow the food to move around and to be able to breathe properly. As I ate, I looked across Telegraph Ave. at Dona Tomas. There was a line almost a block long to get in there. It's a Mexican place, but it's not your usual taco and burrito place. It's "upscale' Mexican food, whatever that means. Everybody in line was white and ugly. I looked at the menu there once. For the price of one entree, the wife and I could eat a terrific meal in Fruitvale and still have money left over for ice cream. Can Dona Tomas be that good? And if it is, how come no Mexicans eat there? The idea of paying that much for Mexican food sickened me as much as the final piece of fish, which was STILL burning my mouth up.
I struggled to finish the last piece and the remaining fries by putting the whole thing on a piece of the bread in an attempt to cool everything off. I figured the bread was so insignificant, it probably couldn't fill me up any more than I already was. Somehow, I was able to get the entire thing down. I shuffled back to the car. And then it began. I started flatulating long, obnoxious explosions that reaked like a spilled grease trap. After S&S, I don't believe 5 minutes passed over the next 36 hours when I was not farting. The more fish I ate, the worse it got. This was a stupid, stupid thing I was doing.
7:56pm- Yorkshire Fish and Chips- 248 Grand Ave. (Oakland)- $6.99
After S&S, I picked up the wife and we went home. All I could do was lay on the couch, moan, fart, and watch TV. I think I may have dozed off for a while. Suddenly, I awoke and realized that I'd better get back to eating before all the fish places started to close.
I felt a little bit better than before, but I was exhausted like I had just flown on a 22-hour flight riding coach in a middle seat. We got to Yorkshire shortly before closing time. "Hollaback Girl" was playing on the radio. The owner said he'd be happy to serve us and he didn't even make us take it to go. The place has a pretty great selection of fish choices, so I picked the tilapia, thinking it might be a little lighter than catfish or snapper. Great choice. This fish was battered similarly to H. Salt, but the batter was darker. Perhaps the grease was older or maybe they cook it longer. Whatever it was, it was perfect. The fish was the most delicate I'd eat that day. This was pretty upscale tasting stuff (hello, Dona Tomas!), but it was cheap.
I've never been to England, but something about the way the fish was prepared seemed very authentic. The owner was some kind of Middle Easterner, so perhaps he'd lived in England for a while and learned their secrets. It came with fresh cut fries that were as good as the fish, plus a salad with greens, tomatoes, olives and some kind of vinaigrette. There was a derelict in the place who seemed to be bothering the proprietor. He came over and talked to us a for a second and the owner told him to leave us alone. The vagrant walked away for a minute. Then he came back and he handed me a can of Coke and said, "On the house, man." I don't know if he had bought the soda and was just being a kind crazy person, of if he had taken it from the cooler and had given it to me without paying. Either way, I drank that homeless soda with gusto to help put out the burn in my mouth.
Yorkshire closes at 8pm, and we were there until almost 8:20. The owner didn't seem pissed off at all. I'm going back there for sure. I don't know what it was about that place, but I wasn't any more full or sickened then when I entered. I hope the food is as satisfying when I haven't already eaten 4 portions of fish and chips already. As we walked to the car, the vagrant waved at us and shouted at a trio of well-dressed, possibly closeted, gay black men. (I saw an episode about them on Law and Order SVU.) He told them he was from Africa. The men asked him where in Africa he was from and the guy said, "I don't remember." It's always a party in Oakland.
8:28pm- JJ Fish- 588 14th St. (Oakland)- $6.99
Okay, this is where things started to get complicated. I'd eaten at JJ once or twice before and I liked it. I got catfish once and chicken another time. I remember both items being quite good and I loved their hush puppies. But since I was really full, I wanted to try something that wasn't gonna push me over the edge or cause what the IFOCE calls a "reversal of fortune." JJ is a soul food fish place based out of Chicago. They opened 3 or 4 stores in the East Bay about 2 years ago. In addition to the standard catfish and snapper fish offerings, they also have perch, sole, and whiting. Kelly suggested that whiting sounded light and mild and I agreed. I ordered the small portion.
While I waited for the order, a couple of "street teens" came in. They were crackheads and/or homeless. They were eating ramen they had somehow prepared inside a plastic shopping bag and they were using JJ's condiments to spice it up. They were both VERY fidgety. The counter guy never told them to leave, but he kept an eye on them and vice versa. They continued to eat their noodles and then one of them got up and ask the counter guy for some crackers. The guy said, "Crackers are for customers, man!" The kid sat down in disgust and ate some more noodles and got even more fidgety. He would look at the counter guy and then at the door and then out the window and then at the rest of the customers and then back at the counter dude. He really looked like he was about to do something. As soon as I got the whiting, we left. I took a photo of the fish on the hood of my car and then we drove away. (Once again, it was way too much food for a "small.") We parked a few blocks away and I got ready to eat. The fries were pretty good, even though they were frozen. (In this case, I know for sure they were frozen, because I saw the guy take them out of the freezer and put them in the fryer.) They were crunchy on the outside but soft within. Then I bit into the whiting. I've never had whiting before, so I don't know what it's supposed to taste like. It may be the best fish on earth under other circumstances, but the JJ whiting was the fishiest fish this side of sushi mackerel. I took a couple of bites and announced, "There's no way I'm gonna be able eat all of this!" I was only 2 bites into the endeavor and I was already on the verge of letting the fish fly from my stomach and calling it a day. And I wasn't about to go back to JJ and risk the ramen crackheads in order to get something more familiar.
Time was of the essence. I knew that very few places serving fish were still open. I had to get moving. I knew of several places that would be worth trying (Gulfport, Kensington, Vida's), but they were all closed or they would be closed by the time we got there. And I was so tense, my farts were beginning to smell like anxiety.
9:09pm- Louisiana Fish and Chips- 2817 Telegraph Ave. (Oakland, CA)- $7.75
We got here right after they closed, but the owners said we could still order if we took it to go. Like L&S, the place was run by Koreans and it was a soulfood fish place that also made burritos. It was decorated with colorful cartoon-ish fish that seemed like they'd be more at home in a children's hospital than in a restaurant. There were 2 TV's on. One was playing SportsCenter, the other was playing a Guthy-Renker infomercial. After I placed my order, the owner turned down the sound on the infomercial and turned up the sound on ESPN. How rude! What if I wanted to order that Ab-Lounger?
The owner said they were out of a few things, so I had to get catfish again- the fattiest fish of all. Not what I wanted at this point. The refrigerator case had several pieces of cake from Cassandra's Wedding Cakes, a soul food bakery in Richmond. The stuff looked delicious. They had the usual Red Velvet, but also slices of Mellow Yellow, Lemon Supreme, and Buttercream. If I didn't have serious work to do, I would have gotten a piece for sure. The fish came. I had to take it to go, but I took a peek inside the Styrofoam container. Cornmeal coating? Check. Pre-frozen fries? Check. Way too much food for a small portion? Check. I would have to eat this at home along with the final 2 selections later. More on that eating experience below.
9:50pm- Rudy’s Can’t Fail Diner- 4081 Hollis Street (Emeryville, CA)- $9.50
Yes, this place is co-owned by the bassist for Green Day. Yes, all the waiters/waitresses look like hipster douchebags while they have an all-Mexican kitchen crew like every other place around here. (Why no Mexican waiters? Why no hipster dishwashers?) Yes, I had to get a Cajun catfish sandwich with fries instead of an actual order of fish and chips. Yes, the sandwich was totally overpriced. But beggars can't be choosers in Oakland at nearly 10pm. In this case, I was very glad I had to get my food to go. At least at home, I wouldn't have to look at those dorks while I ate. That would be too much to bear in the physical state I was in that night. And I didn't need those fools judging me for unbuckling my belt and undoing the top button of my pants at the table. At home, I'd be able to wear sweatpants and fart openly and moan in agony while I ate. Take THAT, Rudy!
9:58pm- Scend’s Restaurant and Bar- 3627 San Pablo Ave (Emeryville, CA)- $5.99
Scend's is a soul food fish restaurant/bar on the border of Oakland and Emeryville. It's less than a mile from Rudy's, but the vibe is so different, it may as well be on another planet. No hipsters at Scends's. No Mexican cooks, no faux-retro decor, no edgy, "alternative" music playing. Scend's is just a lot of middle-aged black folks sitting around drinking, laughing, and eating fried fish. The bar and restaurant are all in the same room and it's pretty dark and dive-y looking, but somehow they're trying to represent themselves as an upscale kind of place. As such, the fish and chips at Scend's were pretty pricey, so I had to get a catfish sandwich with fries like at Rudy's, lest I exceeded the $10 maximum.
I didn't feel threatend in Scend's, but I felt like we had crashed a party where we weren't invited. We were too white, too young, and too sedate for this place this late at night. During the day, Scend's is likely more about the food, but at night, people are there to get their party on. Next to the ordering counter is a CD jukebox, filled with hip-hop and current R&B. There was a handmade sign on the jukebox that said, "No songs with profanity before 10pm." It said the jukebox was actually programmed to not play songs with swears in them before 10pm. How does it know which songs are filthy? Is there some kind of F-bomb timer? We left Scend's with the food just before the clock struck 10pm. They were playing Aaliyah as we exited, but I imagine a set with Too Short, Geto Boys, and Three Six Mafia was soon to follow- unless they're cool enough to know about Blowfly and Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts. I took all the food home. I had a portion of fish and chips and 2 fish sandwiches with fries left to eat before I went to bed.
I started with the order from Lousiana Fish n' Chips, hoping to eat it before it got too cold. I figured it would have cooled of sufficiently to allow me to eat it with more rapidly than when it was in its original lava-like state. My first response was- "My god, how is this the small portion?!" My second thought was, "Oh no, the fish is practically cold." I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised it WAS more than an hour since I had picked up the fish. I figured the styrofoam might keep the food warm for a while, though. Nope. Then I tasted the fish. Terrible. Not only was it cold, which does not help fried fish at all, it had this really weird undertaste to it. It had that strange flavoring you get in a lot of dishes you find on Chinese steam-tray buffets. That seasoning can work well in mongolian beef or princess prawns or whatever, but in Louisiana-style catfish it just tasted wrong. The fries were totally acceptable, frozen crinkle-cut. Normally, I eat all of my main course before I eat too many fries, but I decided that I should eat a mouthful of fries prior to each bite of the funky Asian-tasting catfish. It helped a little, but not much. Besides being incredible full, the unpleasant seasoning and rubbery texture (due to its cold temperature) made it really hard to eat the fish as quickly as I had anticipated. Not only that, the room was now almost completely noxious due to my flatulence. This smell would permeate our entire apartment until the following Monday. I imagine this fish would be somewhat better when eaten warm and when one hasn't eaten 5 portions of fish the same day, but that cryptic seasoning would be present regardless of the conditions, so I don't think I'll be eating from here again.
I didn't expect much from Rudy's sandwich. I had eaten there for brunch a while ago and I couldn't believe that people would wait in line to eat here like they do. The food was very so-so for the price, and as I mentioned, the waitstaff is just ridiculous. However, I've got to say Rudy's fish sandwich was pretty damn good, even though it was now practically room temperature. It was a big hunk of seasoned, cornbread-dusted catfish on a toasted roll with some sort of seasoned mayo. And somehow it didn't get rubbery, like the cold Louisian fish did. The fresh cut fries were also seasoned. The mayo and the fries must be what makes it "Cajun." I was eating very slowly and my nostrils were now so full of methane, my own emanations were starting to overpower the smell of the fish and fries. And the grease both IN me and ON me just made me feel dizzy. I eyed the Scend's-wich and sighed.
It was kind of a chilly night, so by now, the Scend's sandwich felt as if it had recently come out of a refrigerator. To be fair, the cold temperature wasn't doing this fish any favors, but I could tell it would've been pretty lifeless anyway. It was almost devoid of flavor and very dense and heavy. The bun was just an average hamburger bun and the fish sat on lettuce and tartar. I'm sure the sandwich would've been totally acceptable if it was hot, but it cost 3-4 times more than a Filet-o-fish, so it's probably not essential. Once again, the fries were the frozen crinkle cuts and they were kind of grainy, a result of freezer burn, I'd surmise.
It took seemingly forever to get through these 3 fish items. The wife had long since retired for the evening in an attempt to retreat from the fumes I'd been excreting for the past several hours. I was eating soooo slowly. It was a struggle to breathe, let alone swallow food. I was exhausted and I nodded off several times while I ate. I'm pretty sure I once passed out with a mouthful of the Scend-wich. The fish-eating experience was nightmarish and one I will never repeat, but I can't help but be a little thrilled that I could've possibly choked and died by aspirating a catfish sandwich. In your face, Cass Elliott!
After the hot dog session, I felt on top of the world. I went to bed feeling pretty much the same as any other night. And I would have gladly eaten another hot dog a day or two later. After the fish and fries session, I was seriously hurting as I lay down for the night. It was as if I was carrying sand bags on my back, around my waist, and inside my colon. I shuffled to the bed like I was attached to a ball and chain.
I slept very hard that night- for nearly 12 hours- except for a couple of occasions when I was awakened by own gas. I loved fish and chips, but I feel I may have permanently tainted myself for them forever. I saw a Long John Silver's commercial the other day and it made me nauseous. And when somebody said "fish n' chips" on a cooking show on PBS, I grimaced. The very name sounds like farts.
NEXT IEM SESSION: Inhuman Eating Machine goes to New York (special vacation edition)