It’s the people that make a place — but these days, human interaction is hard to come by
I used to love to travel. I’d wander through new cities for days on end, eating and drinking (but mostly eating) in four-seat izakayas, farm-driven pizzerias, southern seafood halls, and boat noodle cafes, talking to locals and walking for miles. Restaurants have always been my joyous entry point to a place and its people. The food, I thought, was what made me love to explore the world.
That slowly fading memory — what it felt like to discover a new city, stomach first — is what excited me about going out on the road again, which I did a couple months ago, driving from Los Angeles to Corsicana, Texas and back, stopping to eat in places like Albuquerque, Amarillo, El Paso, and Phoenix.
Let me be clear: I absolutely would not and do not recommend frivolous travel. In my case, a looming publishing deadline on The Bludso Family Cookbook is what sent me on the long, not-so-winding road to Texas in the midst of a global pandemic, where I would be staying with my longtime friend, mentor, colleague, and big brother Kevin Bludso. Once there, we would be cooking, writing, recipe testing, interviewing, living together, and, in all likelihood, drinking a fair quantity of brown spirits at the end of each night (please, someone get that man a Hennessy sponsorship).
I’ve spent the better part of the last 15 years working in the food industry in one capacity or another. I’ve been a bartender, server, chef, culinary director, restaurant consultant, cookbook author, and food writer. My plan since last year had been to continue writing and consulting on the side, but also to finally open my own restaurant. Nothing extravagant. Something small and intimate. A humble, comforting place of my own — clean and well-lit, a true neighborhood restaurant where people can get to know each other, where the food and the service is unassuming and genuine, something with no desire for expansion or duplication. I consider myself unbelievably lucky that I didn’t open a restaurant right before the pandemic hit.
Instead, I’ve spent the last several months at home, making a quarantine cooking show with my wife called Don’t Panic Pantry. It’s been a good distraction, but I thought a work-related excuse to drive through the American Southwest and its expansive desert would be a cleansing, meditative, soul-resetting break from what I’d begun to think of as perpetual purgatory.
I took every precaution. A nasal-swab COVID test right before I departed. I also hopefully still had antibodies (my wife and I both had COVID-19 way back in March). It was, at the very least, the polite thing to do: Get tested before joining someone in their home for two weeks.
I had planned on driving straight through Arizona from LA, avoiding anything except gas stations until I made it to New Mexico, surviving on a sturdy mix of cold brew and air conditioning to keep me awake. I’d never been to New Mexico before. I’d pored over Instagram photos of chile-drenched Southwestern Mexican food, enchiladas oozing with melted cheese, their red and green chile sauces popping with Instagram photo-editing exposure. My usual pre-trip Google map was loaded with thoroughly researched restaurants along my route. In earlier times, I’d have peppered each map point with essential info like hours of operation and must-order dishes; now, I was looking up intel like outdoor seating, takeout quality, and, most crucially, whether or not a place had managed to stay open at all.
I left with a bullish heart. But each stop to fuel up took away a notch of my optimism-fueled excitement and replaced it with caution. Each person in a mask made me a little more depressed; each person without, a little angrier.
Ten hours in and I had made it to New Laguna, New Mexico. I stopped at Laguna Burger, an iconic mini-chain inside of a gas station. It’s a fast-food place to be sure, but according to old photos online there used to be stools set up against the counter, and even a couple of tables and a few chairs. Those are, of course, gone now — pushed to the side of the room and leaving in their place a vacuous emptiness, even for a gas-station dining room. The staff was nice but appropriately wary. I did not partake in the self-serve Kool-Aid pickle jar. I got my food and then sat in my car, emotionally deflated and no longer very excited to eat my first-ever green chile burger — something I had wanted to try for years.
Ordering a burger at a place like this was supposed to be a tiny gateway into the culture and personality of the place, however small that sampling was going to be. There is an emotional atmosphere, a vibe, that’s specific to each and every restaurant, and I had perhaps never been so truly aware that such a thing existed until I noticed it had been zapped entirely from this one. In its place was a blanket of nervous, sad precaution — added to, I’m sure, by my own nervousness.
So I sat in my car with my sack of food, gloomily disappointed even before the first bite. They forgot to salt the fries and it felt oddly appropriate. In this moment, to no fault of the restaurant itself, the food didn’t matter. It couldn’t have. I had slowly but gradually heaped unreasonable expectations on a green chile cheeseburger, wanting it to justify a 12-hour drive and to somehow soothe an anxious mind. But the food, it occurred to me, wasn’t what I was after at all.
Later on, in Albuquerque, I picked up a four-pack of beer from Arrow Point Brewing and received the now familiar and appropriate treatment: measured, cautious polite gratitude. It was a transaction, appreciated by both sides, but with a higher degree of precondition from both sides as well. I followed it up with a takeout bag of enchiladas and a taco from the beloved and iconic Duran’s Pharmacy, taking them back to the motel room I checked myself into earlier. It was 5:30 p.m. The enchiladas had sloshed in the bag. I took a bite and understood: It was comforting, but not nearly enough. Like being single and reconnecting with an ex, only to both immediately discover that there’s nothing there anymore — two empty vessels with no connection beyond a memory.
I took a sip of beer and fell asleep for an hour. When I awoke the city had turned dark and I knew there was no point in going anywhere. The world felt dystopian and deflated. I’d left my redundant, loving, comfortable bubble to experience life alone on the road, and all I wished was that I was right back there with my wife and my dog.
When my wife and I had COVID-19, we lost our sense of smell and taste for a bit. It was, as my wife put it, “a joyless existence.” Now I had my taste back, but somehow the joy of eating was still gone.
The enchiladas, in a box, alone, on the floor of my motel, were just enchiladas. Because here’s a thing I’ve come to understand of late: context really does affect flavor. A place, its atmosphere, the people within it, their mood (and ours) genuinely change the way things taste. A restaurant lasagna has to be twice as good as your mother’s — or that one you had on that trip to Italy — for it to remind you of it even a little. A rack of smoked pork ribs will never taste as good on a ceramic plate atop a tablecloth as it does from within a styrofoam box on the hood of your car, downwind from a roadside smoker. I hope that I never find out what Waffle House tastes like while sober, eaten in broad daylight.
So as it turns out, when it comes to my lifelong love of food and travel, the food might not have mattered — not to the degree I thought it did, anyway. Not without everything that goes along with it. The surly bartender in the dark room who fries your chicken behind the bar at Reel M Inn in Portland while a guy two seats down makes fun of you for being from California is a huge part of why that might be my favorite fried chicken in the world. The friend of a friend who abandoned his family (thanks Marc!) to drive a stranger, me, around Toronto for two days and show off the city’s outstanding versions of goat roti (from Mona’s Roti) and bún riêu cua (from Bong Lua) makes me realize that yes, the food is outstanding, but that it’s the people — excited to show off their hometown, its restaurants, and their community — who make travel worthwhile.
Would Tokyo be my favorite eating city in the world if my now-wife and I hadn’t befriended two total strangers in a six-seat dive bar, knocking back cocktails until we both threw up, only to come through to the other side fully bonded over late-night grilled pork skewers with another stranger who gave me his business card and said that he had been eating in this stall for over a decade? What is a bar without a bartender? It’s just, well, being home.
The restaurant business can be both horrible and wonderful. It pays poorly, it requires incredibly long hours, and in many instances, you are going broke while making food for people who complain that it’s too expensive. But it is, as Anthony Bourdain often said, the Pleasure Business. It has always been a place for camaraderie, human connection, and community. Those were the things that made the nearly unbearable parts of our business worthwhile — and that connection, when you can have a genuine one between staff and customer, is what I think everyone really, truly wants out of the transaction. Those things still exist, I suppose, but all at arm’s length, or across an app.
I still eventually want to open my own restaurant. I think. But maybe I just want to open my memory of what it would have been in a different, earlier world. I don’t want to be a dinosaur, yearning for the good old days. But I also don’t want to live in a world where a third-party tech company stands between the restaurant and its customer. I don’t want someone to visit my city and think that a robot delivering them a sandwich is the best that we have to offer. I don’t want to have to download an app to order a cup of fucking coffee. Human connection, it turns out, is essential too, and we need to find a way to make it a part of our essential businesses again.
So what, in the midst of a health and humanitarian catastrophe, can we do? Well, we can decide where we spend our money. We support human connection and small businesses. We pick up takeout with our own hands from the places and the people that we love (safely, responsibly). We know that it is just gauze pressed against an open, oozing knife wound, but we try anyway.
So we travel because we have to, whether for work or as a needed break from monotony, and we reset our expectations, we open ourselves up to receiving that connection, we seek out the places that are adapting and we smile through our masks, and ask each other how we are doing, if only to show that somebody cares.
When I eventually made it to Corsicana, Texas, hoisting a large bag of dried red New Mexico chiles, I was greeted with an engulfing hug by Kevin Bludso; it was the first truly comforting thing that happened on the whole trip. I melted into the arms of my friend. I was back in a bubble, connected to something.
I spent two glorious weeks in that bubble, taking turns doing Peloton workouts and then drinking vegetable smoothies, before recipe-testing dishes like Fried Whole-Body Crappie and Ham Hock Pinto Beans; researching Kevin’s family history and then, true to form, sipping rye (me) and Hennessy (him) before I had to head home. Kevin’s food was outstanding, but it was made all the better by the time spent together cooking it. So when I readied myself to get out on the road again, my expectations had changed. I knew the food alone could only do so much.
This disease has been a reflection and amplifier of all of our weak points — and the restaurant business is certainly no different. This industry was already ripe with flaws. It has been teetering on the brink of a seismic shift for years — COVID-19 just accelerated it, and all the platitudes, Instagram stories, and false optimism won’t fix anything. But there have always been bad restaurants as well as good restaurants. I suppose it’s no different now. Yet it is maybe just a little bit harder to give and to be open to receiving the human connection that makes the whole experience worthwhile.
I hit the road early, and after about 10 and a half hours, fueled by caffeine, Christopher Cross, and Bonnie Raitt — with one depressing pit stop in El Paso at the famed H&H Car Wash, where an old curmudgeon out front insisted I take off my mask before going inside — I arrived in Las Cruces, at La Nueva Casita Café. I called ahead, hoping not to have to wait so I could just grab my food and get back on the road. My guard was still up, but then the woman on the other end of the phone was so charming and kind that I was immediately disarmed. She graciously steered me toward the chile relleno burrito (“it’ll be the easiest one to eat in the car”). A few minutes later I came inside to pick up my food and the two women behind the counter were, frankly, a delight. I paid, and was promptly handed my food and thanked with genuine, casual appreciation for coming in. The burrito was excellent.
Bolstered by the kindness of strangers, I drove another five and a half hours into Phoenix. As a bit of an obsessive pizza maker (I had the tremendous fortune to train with Frank Pinello of Best Pizza in Williamsburg, and also had a hand in helping to open Prime Pizza in Los Angeles), I was here to try the new 18-inch New York-style fusion pie by the great Chris Bianco at their Pane Bianco outpost on Central.
Just as at La Nueva Casita Café, the staff was friendly, genuine, helpful, and kind. In retrospect, it took so little but it meant so much. When I expressed a need for caffeine, they sent me next door to Lux Central for a large iced coffee, where the barista talked to me from a responsible distance, wished me a safe drive, and gave me a free blueberry muffin. Even eaten in my car, Chris’s pizza was truly outstanding — crisp, thin, and pliable, successfully pulling off the New York-modern Neapolitan (ish) fusion that, in lesser hands, turns into an 18-inch bowl of soup.
I drove the last six hours home, finding myself encouraged by these final two restaurant experiences, excited by what the best in our industry are still somehow capable of in spite of everything. It was, frankly, inspirational to find genuine interaction, care, and kindness in this new reality.
It reminds me of my mother, actually. I remember when I was a kid, she would pick up the phone to call a restaurant, or Blockbuster Video, to ask them a question. I would always hear her say something like: “Hi Randy! How are you today?” and I would say, “Mom! Do you know him?” and she would shake her head no. Then she would say, “Oh that’s great to hear, Randy. Hey listen, what time do you close today?” My brother and I used to make fun of her for that — for forcing this connection with someone she had no real relationship with beyond an exchange of services. Now, I plan to do exactly that, whenever and wherever I can.