I simply have GOT to pay closer attention when my mother starts asking me food questions. Last night the questions began innocently enough --
Her - "Do you like Chili's"
Me - "I don't know, I've never been there" (which wasn't exactly the truth, I have been to
Chili's.........once..............I have no recollection of the experience)
Her - "I have a coupon for $5 off that expires tomorrow night, why don't we go"
Me - (on automatic pilot and already tuning her out) "Okay"
Among my friends I am well known for not being a morning person. All this week I've been rising at 4:45 AM (it's very dark) in order to arrive at work by 6:30 AM to help my employees open a new espresso satellite. They all know it's 2 cups of coffee or 10 AM, whichever comes first, before I'm truly functional in the morning. I don't do early mornings, as a result I was very tired last night. Even though there were 2 red flags - Chili's and coupon - in that short conversation, I let them slide. Bad move.
I should probably also mention that my mother's track record with dining coupons is dismal. We have yet to let her live down the dreadful foray to Stuart Anderson's Black Angus for Mother's Day 2004. She insisted on using not 1 but 2 coupons, each for $20, for their INEDIBLE meal deal. But, jeez, the coupons were for 2 people for $20 she couldn't pass it up, never mind you couldn't eat what was served.
So, off to Chili's it was this evening for dinner. I dropped my mother off up front to go put our name on the waiting list while I managed to snag the last spot in the parking lot. Right there between the F-250 with big tires and a trailer hitch reading "Glamis" and the mom-mobile, otherwise known as a Chrysler Town & Country. Already things were not boding well. I pushed my way through the horde of people blocking the door and found my mother.
"They said it would only be 10-15 minutes" They being the impossibly thin hostesses who probably were maybe all of 17, okay, 17 1/2 years old.
I looked at the crowd, looked at the full tables and settled in for what I was sure would be a long wait. 30 years in the food business tends to jade a person and I underestimated Chili's ability to burn and turn. The overly crowded foyer began to thin out and at the 15 minute mark it was my mother and I, and 2 couples that had come in after us. I had been watching a 2-top sit unbussed for the last 10 minutes and knew that if they ever decided to clear the table we'd be seated. A bus person finally cleared half the table and disappeared leaving the table still unready for new diners. Eventually it was ready, but much to our surprise, a couple that came in after us was called. My mother objected. The hostess was flustered and confused.
"What name was that?"
My mother told her, but they went ahead and seated the other couple
"Oh, we crossed that name off, we sat you already"
"No, you didn't. We're still here" my mother said, gesturing to me at the same time.
The hostess checked her list of names, a look of puzzlement and consternation on her face. What was she going to do with us.
"We'll seat you right away"
Several more minutes passed and finally they were ready to seat the next party. Hmm.......but that wasn't our name they called. My mother is tiny, not to mention old. I am neither tiny, nor am I old. Plus, I can do righteous indignation way better than she can. This time it was my turn to protest.
"We were here before that couple. We were before the other couple you seated, you need to seat us now"
"Uh, no........we can't..........just wait" as she tried to lead the couple - who were quite taken aback by the scene I was making - away from the now full again foyer.
"Uh, no........I don't think so. You won't seat us? We won't stay" I was rude and on a roll. I turned abruptly, collected my mother, who was by now protesting herself, and we flounced out.....indignantly, of course.
One thing that 30 years in the business has not jaded me to is poor training and poor customer service. The table I watched should have been bussed much faster than it was. My mother should not have been ignored when she protested about the first couple being seated ahead of us when we had been waiting far long than they had. Nor shoudl they have seated that couple. And then to try and seat a 2nd couple ahead of us after acknowledging they'd made an error was really poor form. If teenagers are going to be the face of a business, then train them how to handle uncomfortable and confrontive situations because these two young ladies were clearly at a loss as to how to deal with the problem. It takes a lot to piss me off and the ineptness and clumsiness with which the hostesses tried to cover their error, their non-responsiveness and the way they treated my mother pushed all the buttons. I'm not saying I'm proud of my behavior, but every once in a while it feels good to be righteously indignant. It felt good tonight.
The problem of where to eat was still on the table. The East County of San Diego is something of a dining desert and La Mesa is no exception. When faced with the prospect of having to eat at The Outback Steak House or the Olive Garden, I elected to take pot luck and just drive around in hopes of finding something else.
We ended up at Casa de Pico. There was no wait, though the place was full. The staff was friendly, efficient and professional. Hot, crispy chips and a passable salsa arrived immediately. My mother, still grumbling about her treatment, ordered what she always does, the Cheese Crisp. I was looking for something that wasn't going to pack a caloric hit, kind of tough in an Americanized Mexican restaurant that almost single handedly can keep the yellow cheese industry afloat. There, hidden under a menu insert, on the right hand side of the menu were 6 "healthy" items, and will wonders never cease, they all had nutritional data. I settled on the Chicken Fajita Salad at 435 calories and hoped for the best.
The chips and salsa helped take the edge off. Yeah, a maggie would have helped more, but I still have to get up at the inhuman hour of 4:45 AM tomorrow morning. The Cheese Crisp was fine, the Chicken Fajita Salad was not. 435 calories my foot. The salad came in a deep fried flour tortilla shell, not exactly low on the hit parade of calories or fat grams. The onions, tomato and bell peppers were over cooked to a sodden mush and I hated, hated I tell you, the seasoning on the chicken tenders. No wonder there was so much guacamole on the plate. It's the only way to mask the terrible taste.
But I kept reminding myself, Casa de Pico isn't about the food, it isn't about the food. It was either date night or family night because the restaurant was filled with both, and I'm sure everyone else was enjoying their food more than I was mine. Of course, they were drinking Margaritas the size of Qualcomm Stadium and probably didn't care. The mariachi band came back from their break and began serenading the room. I could feel the righteous indignation slipping away. Can I forgive Chili's for their shoddy treatment? No, but when a mariachi band is playing "It's a Small World After All" some of life's curve balls just don't seem to matter.