Monday, July 28, 2008

Dining With Diego

We pulled up to the curb and stared at the cinder-block rectangle with windows on the front only. The surrounds spoke of the "other" side of the freeway. I'd been looking for this restaurant since a friend recommended it, but I kept my eyes trained on the "downtown" section and it eluded me. You see, back in the 60s when California wove ribbons of freeway hither and yon for maximum scenic mobility in a vehicle, somebody got the brilliant idea to blast right through the center of Grass Valley. Now, rather than demolish the houses and businesses and sever the town with pavement, the "Golden State Freeway" builders chose to demolish the houses and erect an overhead freeway. Thus, we live in a town divided by something that looks like a gigantic monorail. Predictably businesses on the "Old Town" side carried on and those on the "Other" side limped along. So here on the limping side we rolled the car to a halt and watched the somewhat tattered welcome banner hang languidly. What did that portent? Lazy cook? Faltering business with little cash to spare? Or ...

Gary opened my car door, helped me step "up" the jagged curb topped by a listing sidewalk and through the basic aluminum framed door. I'll never know for sure if the faerie dust fell from the door frame or not, but when we entered that portal we took a trip of fantastical proportions.

The tiny room housed a hodge-podge of cheap dining chairs clustered around a whimsical array of table options. Nothing matched ... and everything felt just right. "Sit here or at the bar," offered the somewhat harried waitress as she weaved to and fro between the densely-fitted seating groups. Gary and I exchanged glances, eyed the bar (a low L-shaped wooden structure which had attracted the most hilarious mismatch of red vinyl diner seats, next to quasi-Mediterranean wrought-iron monsters and you can use your imagination and childhood memories to fill in the rest). "Um, we'll just sit here," we smiled and seated ourselves at a table for 4-6 depending on their familiarity. An attendant (our waitress?) whisked by and dropped off two mismatched saucers and a matching number of utensil bundles (paper napkins ... ugh) onto a table coated with aged varnish. I looked up at Gary and smiled my cheerful, "Hey-this-is-new-and-different" smile. The server flew back by and set down two condiment cups, one with an herbed butter and the other full of a green-y salsa. I smile like a kid ready to board a roller coaster (uncertain she will survive, but game just the same). "Bread will be up in a minute," she called as she ran by. "Okay," I chirped.

Moments later a wooden bowl skidded down on the table and I looked at four lumps of dough that looked undercooked. We prayed over the food (we always do it and it should in no way be an indication of fear on our part at this particular meal), and grabbed one of those curious little balls. I broke mine, slathered it with the herbed butter and took a bite. Gary followed suit. [*Soundtrack of sparkly music signifying magical transformation*] We looked at one another and sparks flew from our lashes. "Yum!" I exclaimed. Gary just swallowed and reached for another bite. I tried salsa next ... fabulous, not spicy, but tangy, yummy, good.

I looked around the room and saw shelves loaded with mismatched china, thrift-store finds everyone of them. The decor screamed "Tacky Junk we got cheap!" but I heard, "Zany, clever, avant-garde ... FUN!" I turned to the menu and opened it with eager anticipation. The Chilean choices each called to me, "Take a chance! Try me!" (And I hadn't even gotten to the desserts yet!) While deciding between the panqueque and the achiote chicken with garlic mashed potatoes (MY FAVORITE!), we noticed a gathering outside the door of would-be diners without seating. All seats in the house full, save the bar, and not a meal in front of anyone. The wait would be extensive due to the solitary cook staff. "Excuse me," we called to the dashing help, " would you like us to move over to the bar and free up this table for a larger party." "If you would like," she shrugged with a touch of surprise. So we gathered our place setting, which now included tall red tumblers of iced tea which proclaimed "Coca Cola."

After several trips back and forth we resettled at the bar, Gary in a low-slung green leathery desk chair and I in a tall-backed-metal-and-wood affair that the mad hatter would hanker for. I towered over Gary ... and smiled smartly as I shook my head "no" to his offhand suggestion that we trade. I now turned my attention to the front row view of all the delightful crockery, glassware, and other utility items that kept the food parade coming. We placed our order (yes, service ran on a relaxed schedule) and sat back to continue our visual tour. We hardly spoke a word as eyes flowed over the unique artwork littering the walls and ceiling. Those tacky-icky lighting fixtures I saw upon entering have somehow morphed into "cool" and "bold."

My soup arrived in a chubby-cheeked cherub-faced teacup chipped at the footing and winking at me with eyelashes that said, "Bailey's." The sublime murmur that escaped my lips when I sipped the soup caused Gary to flag down the waitress and request a cup for himself. A Blue Danube cup held his soup. We sipped and smiled at the whimsical air of the place. Upon finishing the soup (yes, Gary drank the last like a beverage; no, I did not), I looked up at the Renoir print in the corner and then looked around at the array of customers. I guess I expected to see a slumped over Hemingway at the other corner of the bar, drinking red wine from a juice glass to match those in front of some of the other patrons. Over in that back booth of cracked red leatherette I surely espied James Joyce gazing off in the distance. Did I just see Picasso come in the back door with a painting as payment for his dinner? The ghosts of artists and writers crowded the tiny cafe, feasting on the inspiration that emanated from the very confidence of those that birthed Diego's eatery.

By the time our entrees arrived I could hardly eat. Conversation about art and music and literature bubbled forth from me. Our date night locale had carried us far away from the daily worries of the economy, our children's future, the burning state of the state. My flirty red dress, handsome husband, and delicious entree gathered me into the bosom of magical moments suffused with hope and inspiration and promise. The grilled chicken, roasted veggies, and sublimely delicious potato cake (crisply grilled on both sides but creamy divine in the middle with just a hint of garlic ... ooooooohhhhhh) nourished far more than the hunger that dwells in the stomach.

As we finished up the final morsels the waitress came back by to offer dessert. We nodded like eager children standing before Mary Poppins, and she dropped off menus with the disclaimer that they had run out of "Chocolate Fix" and "Tres Leches Cake." No chocolate ... hmmmm ... okay, what else can I find? We perused and lobbied and wondered our way through the menu. We agreed to split one dessert in order to avoid gluttony (but that menu strongly tempted us down that sinful path). I cast my vote for something that hearkened of Florida Keys/Hemingway: Key Lime Pie in a graham cracker/gingersnap crust. Gary nodded enthusiastically. The pie arrived swiftly and disappeared in like fashion. (I didn't moisten my finger and dab up the crumbs left lying on the plate ... but that temptation existed.)

When the check arrived we both looked at it with trepidation. Would the clink of change or the swipe of a credit card break the spell? I looked around one last time, drinking in the minutest of details. With tip added to tab and the pen laid to rest we had no alternative but to push back the goofy chairs, walk across the warped floor, and exit the modest building which once housed a TV sales and repair shop. As we drove away I looked back wistfully.

I haven't been back down that street since last week, but I hope against all hope that I will once again find that magical entrance and dine at Diego's amongst the many ghosts of artful life.

* * *
[A portal to Diego's Restaurant can be found here. Take your own journey through the mouth-watering menu, read the touching history, and dream of coming to Grass Valley for your own magical meal.]


Britt-Arnhild said...

Words, memories, music, food......thanks for taking me along.

I am home just one day between travels and will take my oldest son out for lunch after work today. Wish I could find a place like this:-)

Laura ~Peach~ said...

do you mean to tell me that ALL resturants are NOT like that??? here in the south east... any good place to eat is very much like you described... some of our most favorite (with the best food) I must add are the hole in the wall places. I so love them and prefer them to any fancy smanchy place ever created!
Sounds WONDERFUL to me!
hugs Laura

CONNIE said...

Sometimes you can't just "judge the book by its cover alone" o^_^o I am glad that you & Gary stayed and enjoyed the meal. Your friend must knew that you won't be disappointed.

I still have to respond to you (looong)

Talk to you later.

CONNIE said...

I'm baaaack! I just want to tell u that the menu is just right up my alley. I haven't made empanadas for a loooong time and I always love tilapias (pescado la plancha).


imbeingheldhostage said...

Wow, I feel like I just went on holiday! When I first saw the photo and read that it was a restaurant I thought that only you would find such a magical place!! The fairy dust comment clinched it for me. Great post and I'm green with envy (I don't look so good in green).
Going to see that menu now...

Becky said...

Hey Debbie, I drive past this place all the time. I have thought about giving it a shot but now its a definite must! Thanks for the charming and eloquent review.

FancyHorse said...

Sounds like a delighful place! I enjoyed reading about it.

I have given you an award. Please check my latest blog entry.

Yours, Nancy

noble pig said...

OMGosh woman you have just taken me down a path of excitement. What a wonderful tribute to this quirky place, i would love to go!

Kathryn said...

What a wonderful post! I want a restaurant like that. Wow.

Karen Deborah said...

NP you can go, you don't live very far from Debbie. Sounds like my kid of place from mismathced cups to laid back schedule,,not to mention yumm, oooohhh, ummmmmm,,sigh,...uh can't hold one more bite; yeah definitely a good date night.