Tuesday, July 5, 2011

El Bracero

80 Merchant St.
Cadiz Ky.

Miss Kitty 2
I took Friday off and drove down to visit my parents in beautiful, healthy and responsible southwestern Kentucky. They actually live in Cerulean, but for uptown needs like restaurants, gas stations, or stores of any kind, they have to head to either Hopkinsville or Cadiz. I grew up in Cadiz and attended/graduated from the county’s one and only school. There were not a lot of restaurants back then, the Cadiz Restaurant was there, and there was usually one form or another of a slimy burger place on the east side. Since then the town has grown some, the opening of an actual interstate (I-24) exit caused a mini-boom. There are several gas stations and restaurants there now even though it is well east of what was considered Cadiz when I was a kid.


As soon as I got to Cerulean I walked into the big quiet house and was greeted by my parents’ new cat, Miss Kitty 2. No, my parents are not preschoolers, they just didn’t want to have to come up with or try to remember a new name since the previous Miss Kitty lived a long, long time. Kitty 2, unlike her evil and spiteful predecessor warmed right up to me, not even flinching when I baritoned and barked “HERE KITTY, KITTY, KITTY!” It did wake up my folks though.
We all hugged and greeted, I hadn’t seen them since Thanksgiving. In mere moments my mom asked if I’d eaten. I hadn’t since breakfast so they cleaned up a little and told me they wanted to take me to a Mexican restaurant that they had discovered. It was recommended to them by the pastor of their United Methodist Church (vastly superior to the old 'Disorganized Methodist Church'), Rev Steven Spitzer. I’ve met Rev. Spitzer a few times, he seems to be a sane and reasonable man. My parents like him a lot and respect his judgment, so I could not think of any reason to NOT try the place. Mom added that the pastor would like to know what I thought of the place, so I grabbed my top-secret critiquing notebook and jumped into their space-shuttle-like van.
Mom drove since she and my younger but bigger brother finally and permanently took the car keys away from my father. Dad grumbles about this of course, but he grumbles about most things, in a quiet though monotone-ish and generally annoying way that he finds quite amusing.
I won’t say my mother is a bad driver. There, lets just leave it at that. She probably drives just fine, its just that I get nervous around old people, I’m always afraid they’re going to tip over and break something. I’m haunted by that old lady on TV years ago, the one that had ‘. . .fallen and can’t get up!’
We arrived safely, I relaxed my white knuckles.  Mom had told me on the way about one of the restaurant's dishes, a Mexican-ized seafood plate that she liked quite well.
This place was also on the East side of town in a small shopping center strip. As it was only three o’clock, the place wasn’t very busy. In fact we were the only vehicle in the lot.
The Place:
'El Bracero', translates roughly as ‘strong arm’ usually referring to a laborer, one with strong arms, as opposed to the other kind of strong-arming which relates to Mafioso-like motivational methods. 
The d├ęcor of the place was clean and fresh. The walls were adorned with bright murals depicting a view through a Mexican-like casa window or doorway, outward to a beach scene, solitary palm trees, sand, waves crashing in. On the ceiling was a large Mexican flag nailed flat, the colors of the murals and the walls picking up the red, white and green color scheme, with a few yellows and pinks mixed in. The dark green carpet was in very good shape, no evidence of recent vomiting, always a good sign.
The place was staffed by Mexican-like people, attentive, friendly and smiling. I saw no one in particular with stronger arms than any of the others, but most looked stronger than me, so I decided not to cry out for sauerkraut.
Our waiter asked about drinks, my folks both asked for Diet Cokes. I stumbled for a moment. It would have been cool to order a beer, something I’ve never been able to do in Cadiz before. The county only became ‘wet’ a year and a half ago so there would be a novelty to having a beer served to me (legally) in Cadiz. But I was with my parents. Neither of them drink, neither of them have ever imbibed alcoholic beverages whatsoever. So out of respect, coupled with  the fact that I wasn’t really in the mood for beer, I asked for iced tea.
Our drinks arrived quickly along with the ubiquitous basket of chips, a beaker of red salsa, and three salsa bowls. Dad mentioned that he could make a meal out of those chips alone. The house salsa was spicier than I usually get at Mexican places, these particular braceros were bold.  It wasn’t too spicy though, it was a good spicy a little forehead sweat, but no screaming.
The Mexican music played in the background, slower stuff, trumpets and accordions. Sad sounding, yet always with a crescendo toward the end that indicated hope for better times to come. I couldn’t make out the words though, three years of Mrs. Hopson’s Spanish tutelage just didn’t stick. I never really made it past ‘Hola Paco, que tal?” and “Donde esta usted?” which I can remember, but for the life of me I’ve never found an actual use for.

The Food:
We all ordered the plate mom had talked about, the Bracero Seafood plate. Grilled tilapia filets, shrimp, rice, and a salad of shredded lettuce and diced tomatoes. We munched on the chips and talked about people whose names no one could remember, that did something we couldn’t quite recall, back about, what was it ten years ago? Twenty? “Didn’t he marry that one girl, what was her name? No I mean the other one, the dark haired girl from, what was it, Princeton?"
Fractured and meandering conversations like this, especially with my dad are constant. Twisting and turning memory exercises that usually end up with me just agreeing with whatever he said.
They of course asked about Angel and Adam, Angel’s dog-work fascinates them as it does everyone I tell the many rich, only slightly embellished stories about her to.
The food arrived quickly, and there was plenty of it. Three hand-sized filets, eight steaming jumbo shrimp, a large pile of rice and a tower of lettuce and tomatoes.

The fish was perfectly cooked, flaky, moist. The shrimp was expertly seasoned, the rice was…. well it was good. The lettuce and tomatoes were fresh. The tea though was cloudy and a bit bitter.
We continued catching up as we dug through the meal. I realized one filet in that I wasn’t going to be able to finish. Dad was eating kind of slowly, but certainly enjoying it.
I managed to get most of the way through the second filet and all eight shrimp when I finally gave up. I was stuffed to the gills. Mom had finished most everything dad still plodded along. The waiter came by and refreshed our drinks and took away the two plates. Dad looked frustrated. “I hate to keep eating after you two are finished, it makes me look like I eat a lot, but I don’t.” This is dad’s nature, to apologize for things that don’t actually need an apology, a silly, charming trait that I’ve inherited. Thanks dad.
He finally ate all he could and we sat a bit longer enjoying the air conditioned comfort, a luxury very few real braceros are ever afforded. The bill came, dad grabbed it, I made a token protest offering to pick up the tab. I knew going in that my dad would never allow me to pay for it.

Summary:

The food was really, really good. If I could find anything at all to gripe about it would be this. The plate was lacking a fluid of some kind, a sauce or maybe refried beans. The fish/rice/lettuce/shrimp were well prepared but there was an overall dryness to the plate. Some form of liquid bonding agent would have made an exceptional meal that much better. Something for the food to swim or be dunked in.
The price was very good, the plates cost a mere $7.99 each for a big pile of food. We left happy and full.
The drive home was pleasant, I got to look out at the rolling hills of the county that was my entire universe so many years ago. The farms, the quaint homes, the shirtless guys walking down the road, a few horses prancing in green pastures, the tobacco barns, cattle somberly counting down the days to inevitable butchering. All calming stuff of heavily sanitized yesteryear memories.
We stopped at their new Church building. My mom’s a huge church fan and is quite proud of the new place, as she should be. It was unlike any church I’d seen. An auditorium with two long office/classroom wings. The ‘sanctuary’ was designed as an open, high ceiling-ed space, the soft padded ‘pews’, more like connected chairs that could be easily disassembled and stored away to take advantage of the carpeted recreation surface. This building is phase one of a three phase building project. The real, permanent sanctuary is to be built later. The building still had that ‘new church’ smell to it.
We got back to Cerulean and settled in to relaxed talk, all of us full enough to not require any more meals that day. Especially since my younger, but bigger brother was going to fire up his smoker and cook various meats for a delicious feast on Saturday.
As for El Bracero, I highly recommend it. Sure, the four hour drive each way from my home might keep me from going there as often as I’d like, it’s still a pretty good place to eat.

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