I love eating out because instead of sitting on my overly squishy mattress, hunched over a cereal bowl, or eating pasta in a shadowy dining room with mannequin legs in the corner, I could dine in an establishment with decent lighting and ambience. But why stop there? If I’m going to pay for the environment, why not eat in a place that goes the extra mile, like Modern Toilet (Taipei), where you’re served food in mini toilets while sitting on toilets. Or Alcatraz E.R. (Tokyo), where you sit in a prison cell and drink fluids out of blood transfusion bags. The restaurants that I am going to describe my experiences are less traumatic but still gimmicky, bizarre and fascinating.
The Rainforest Cafe, Florida (multiple locations)
Suffering over 100 mosquito bites this summer, I am content to admire rainforests from a distance. You probably were here when you were little because you wanted to collect all of the beanie babies, conveniently sold in the giant gift shop. In the dimly-lit and cavernous Rainforest Cafe, there could have been the opportunity for rainforest levels of “lush” salads and fruit dishes, as a testament to the generosity of the rainforests. But kids don’t really care. They already love the fake alligator that growls occasionally, the cricket and rain soundtrack on repeat, the shitty pizza. With the amount of cheese that can be found on the menu, from “Lava Nachos” to the more plainly named “Cheese Sticks,” we can assume that it’s the restaurant’s decision to symbolically highlight the current deforestation of rainforests for farmland. The menu caters to both young (Chicken fried chicken, a welcome reminder to all about the chicken content) and the old (Rumble in the Jungle Turkey Wrap, provocatively named but also, grownups tend to like turkey).
Split-Pea Andersen’s, California (multiple locations)
Having a strong dislike of peas, I can’t understand how this Andersen guy has built a pit-stop empire out of sewage green puree. Besides my dislike of peas, does anyone actually actively like split-pea soup? Or is it merely tolerated? In the boonies of Central California, I LOVE split-pea soup. It’s preferable to poaching cows which populate the area. The restaurant looks like a budget Disneyland with a huge windmill, and it’s always in the middle of nowhere. The mascots of the place include a jolly fat chef named Hap-Pea and his tiny sous-chef Pea-Wee. On a road trip with miles of no food, you’re begging for some split-pea soup, and it’s flooding your brain with cravings for what will ultimately be the blandest meal of your life. I last went 7 years ago and I had split pea soup, supplemented with a side of biscuit basket and fried chicken.
Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant, California
Another road trip family favorite is Harris Ranch. Driving in the Central Valley of California is like chemical warfare. The smell of cows will make you blind. It will make you denounce meat and its foul, inhumane practices of crowding dirty animals and then slaughtering them. This stretch of stench and slaughter just happens to be THE place for a restaurant and resort (they do weddings!). Like a mirage, Harris Ranch appears in a haze of cattle miasma. My dad thinks it’s the most glorious steakhouse in the world. If you don’t want to puke, hold your breath and run across the parking lot swiftly and surely. Once inside the Spanish-style hacienda, the stench magically evaporates, but the mounted cow heads, cow-skin couches and cow-skin rugs, bristly haired and spotted, remain constant reminders that you’re eating in a slaughterhouse and there are awful things going on outside. But the prime rib is so delicious you won’t care about anything else.
The Loving Hut, Hong Kong (multiple locations)
I went to the Loving Hut when I was in Hong Kong last J-Term and both of the friends I visited there were vegetarian. I was heartbroken. I love my vegetarian friends but when you’re in Hong Kong, with whom can I eat dim sum with? Joy in life is ordering plate after plate of pork fatty goodness. So I grudgingly went with my friend Florian to The Loving Hut, a vegan chain restaurant owned by the Supreme Master Ching Hai, a spiritual leader (cult leader?) of more than 20,000 people worldwide. According to Wikipedia, she is the known in western press as the “Immaterial Girl: Part Buddha, Part Madonna.” The restaurant’s decor was pleasantly clean, modern and well-lit. A sassy waiter served us eggplant and vegan unagi while several flat screens placed around the room delivered the Supreme Master Ching Hai’s divine Inner Light and Sound seminars. It’s not loud enough to be disruptive but I got the eerie feeling that I was being indoctrinated, if not through the T.V., then through the delicious fake unagi.
Mars 2112, Times Square, NYC
Times Square plays host to a variety of elaborately themed-restaurants. I’ve only gone to Mars 2112 and it was a mostly embarrassing experience, which could, for the most part, be attributed to my thirteen year-old embarrassment of existence, but it can’t be ignored that all of the lightbulbs were red, my mom’s friend brought the boy she used to nanny who literally rode a pony to school in Pennsylvania, and our waiter was a spandex-suited man with an alien mask. My mom’s friend flirted the entire time with the alien waiter, mentioning his heavenly body and what lay “beneath the mask” while he uncomfortably did some elaborate “Who? Me?” shrugs and served us mediocre food items. The food wasn’t memorable and I just looked up their website but all it is is a black background with the words “We are no longer in business.”
Pulqueria Nuclear, Mexico City
Pulque is the fermented sap of the agave plant dating back to the Mesoamerican times of Mexico. It’s thick and tastes a bit sour and ferment-y but if it’s fruit flavored, it’s pretty good. Sometimes, it’s less good, and I felt like I was drinking a guava smoothie left out in the sun for a few days. Served in a huge clay jug like in the Pulqueria Nuclear, it can get you tipsy. A mural on the wall had a giant green goddess spilling forth pulque from her breast into an earthenware bowl of a shamen. To the Nahuatl people, legend says that the Agave goddess Mayahuel has 400 breasts which gush pulque. I really wish they had painted 400 breasts. The bathroom had two intertwined lovers painted on the doors. Probably more efficient to paint the actual intention of the bathroom and paint people on the toilet. There was Youtube karaoke. I got to entertain the locals with my personal favorite, Shakira’s “La Tortura,” (w/ LyRicS!), encouraged and overconfident from the Breast Milk of the Gods.
I appreciate all of these restaurants’ attempts at being more than just vehicles for food. They have provided me with memorable food experiences and have only served to inspire me. In year 2050 when I am a crazy old lady, please visit my Cat Cafe where you don’t pet cats, but don furry clothing, stroke furry walls, and eat wonderful seafood while sitting in oversized cat trees.