Last weekend, we were visited by another winter storm that inundated our tiny town with heavy rains, wind and cold temperatures. This was not unwelcome, as we are currently experiencing extreme drought conditions. The situation has been improving since December, but the deep green has yet to return to the hills in which our home is nestled. The perennial Waimea mist was so thick as to be almost fog-like, and we were longing for the wood-burning stove we left behind in our old house.
Around lunchtime on Sunday, I was suddenly overcome with a craving for a warm and hearty soup. The Portuguese Bean Soup at Tex Drive In popped into my head and soon I was herding my family into the car to accompany me on the 32 mile round-trip journey to Honoka’a on a quest for soup.
Tex is one of the few places around here that has a drive-thru window, so I figured we could just pull up, order three soups and three malasada (their most famous menu item) and be on our way. The drive-thru can be much faster than going inside. This establishment is usually fairly busy, as it is only one of two places off the highway between Hilo and Waimea to eat, plus it is on the way to Waipio Valley. It tends to attract a lot of tourists in addition to being a hangout for Honoka’a locals. Vans and buses full of Japanese tourists frequently stop there, so if your timing is bad, you can get stuck in line behind a large group of people who don’t know what they want and take an inordinately long time to decipher the menu and place their order.
I convinced my family that we could just go in our pajamas (we were enjoying a lazy Sunday) and stay in the car since I planned to use the drive-thru window. I even considered driving barefoot as the rubber slippers (flip-flops) most everyone wears here tend to be a bit uncomfortable for driving, but changed my mind at the last minute. Nevertheless, both my wife and I were dressed in clothing that we normally would never wear outside the house.
Our home is at a higher elevation than Tex Drive In, so I expected the rain and mist would dissipate in lower altitudes. I was unaware that the storm over Hawaii at that time was not a local phenomenon and covered not only our island, but the entire archipelago. The drive to Honoka’a was slow going and we quickly found ourselves trapped amid a line of cars creeping cautiously over the hills and curves that led to warm, hearty soup. With the iPod playing jazz on shuffle, I was undeterred and relaxed. Safety and soup were my main priorities.
We finally arrived at Tex and pulled behind a truck that was already waiting at the drive-thru window. It wouldn’t be long now. I initially considered calling to place our order in advance and make the whole transaction even more expeditious, but in my zeal and haste, I abandoned the idea. This proved to be our undoing; when the truck pulled away and I got up to the window, the first thing I saw was a sign that said “Drive-thru window for phone-in orders only.”
The sign went on to indicate that this rule excluded coffee and malasada orders, so I hoped I could negotiate with the staff. After all, the Portuguese Bean Soup should be prepared and ready to serve, just like the malasadas. I waited a few minutes, but no one came to the window to take our order. I could see that there were a lot of people inside, and the staff looked really busy. We had come this far, and there was only one course of action. We had to leave our dry, warm automotive cocoon, go inside and order in person. In our pajamas.
I felt both ashamed and angry. Perhaps more angry than ashamed. I was mostly angry at myself. I had driven 16 miles in terrible weather to put myself in the exact position I had hoped to avoid. Tex has a large outdoor patio, but the rain had driven everyone inside. There were no empty tables, there was a line to place orders and there were dozens of people standing around waiting to get their food. The three of us huddled together, cold and wet, imagining the eyes of everyone on us.
I was less concerned about how I appeared than I was that, after about five minutes of standing in line, I realized the staff behind the counter were not taking any orders. They were rushing around like mad trying to get orders out, and someone had purchased at least five dozen malasada they were trying to box up. The line grew longer and the inside of the shop became more and more crowded.
Behind us were two older ladies, obviously visitors who had never been to Tex before. For some reason, one of them felt compelled to read the entire menu quite loudly to her companion, who appeared to have the powers of sight and hearing. The discomfort of the whole situation, coupled with the fact that, despite being only two people away from the counter, none of the staff had taken an order for over ten minutes, started to irritate me.
By now I know that service in Hawaii is not like Japan, and I know it is definitely not cool to get annoyed in situations such as these, but for some reason the ladies behind me were getting on my nerves. Having worked in the food service industry for ten years, I completely understand the hell of being deep in the weeds, overwhelmed by a tsunami of customers. So I had no beef with the staff at Tex. But the ladies behind me were another story altogether.
After having read off virtually every item on the large, wall-mounted and easily visible menu to her companion, the woman then began loudly suggesting individual dishes. “Do you want a hamburger?” “They have chili. How about chili?” Each suggestion was rejected by the other woman, who finally asked “What are you going to have?” and of course the woman said she didn’t know. Why do women need to know what other people are ordering? Why is this knowledge indispensable to their decision-making process? The entire time, the menu-reader was pushing into our pajama-clad enclave, practically pushing my wife off the small speck of linoleum she had claimed for herself.
Then the woman said “Why don’t we just get a big pizza? You wanna share a pizza?” To this suggestion, her friend seemed amenable. This was curious to me, as Tex does not serve pizza. Somehow, after carefully scrutinizing the menu, reading it in its entirety and then highlighting specific menu items, they had decided on something that wasn’t even on there in the first place. My hopes that the pizza delusion would persist all the way to their turn at the counter were dashed when the friend, apparently looking at the menu for the first time, realized that there was, in fact, no pizza offered. Back to square one.
I then heard the woman say very loudly “what do you recommend here?” I knew she was talking to my wife, but I purposely ignored the question and did not turn around. My wife did what she always does, which was immediately pass the question off to me with an irksome tap on the shoulder.
Here I am, having driven 16 miles to get a cup of soup (that frankly I wasn’t even really that interested in anymore), wet from the rain that drenched me in the parking lot, wearing clothes that I had slept in the night before, two days out from my last shower, teeth not brushed and my rage meter dangerously nearing the red. The last thing I wanted was to be engaged by a FOB tourist who couldn’t decide whether she wanted a burger or a bowl of chili—which are by no means exotic items. I am sure she has had them before, and I am equally as sure they are readily available back wherever she calls home.
I turned halfway around and curtly stated “This place is famous for malasadas.” She then relayed this information to her friend standing 18 inches away, noting that this is what it said in “the book.” The line finally started moving and I was mercifully spared further questioning. This was a good thing, as my son began having second thoughts about ordering soup. He preferred a burger instead. I wanted to tell him that we could get out of there much faster if he would just order the soup, but I knew trying to explain that we would have to wait even longer while they cooked a burger would be an exercise in futility. Too much attention had already been focused on us for my liking and now I just wanted to get the damn food and get the hell out of there. Our wait time was going on 20 minutes.
On the way home, my wife asked “Why were you so mad in there?” I said that first and foremost, I was embarrassed by the way I looked and I didn’t want to talk to anyone. More importantly, I didn’t want anyone to talk to me. I am not the kind of person who enjoys chatting with people in line, anyway. I am unable to engage in meaningless small talk. My drive-thru plan fell apart, I was forced to endure an extremely long wait for a cup of soup and I was not in a pleasant state of mind, to say the least.
Who is this woman to ask me for a recommendation? How does she know I am not some psycho who will suggest the worst item on the menu? Or if my idea of what constitutes “good” is radically different from hers? She obviously can’t figure it out, so how am I supposed to know what she wants to eat? And when is soliciting the opinion of a total stranger ever a good idea?
I guess it is the presumptuousness of her question that got to me. She is probably one of those people who walks into a restaurant and creepily stares at other people’s food to get an idea of what looks good. Or worse, one of those people who lean over to the table next to them and, leering hungrily at a plate of food, asks “What is that you ordered? That looks good!” What, do you want a fucking bite off my plate? Should I come over and run through the menu for you, pointing out what we’re eating? Maybe we can take a poll and see if we can’t get a consensus on which dish is just right for you?
The worst part of this whole ordeal was that the soup really wasn’t that good. At the same time, I did learn that you need to call ahead if you want to use the drive-thru window at Tex Drive In. Swings and roundabouts…