It was 6 PM on a cool Sunday in May, and our waitress was enjoying the leisurely trickle of customers through the patio door. It wasn’t really warm enough to justify the icy pitcher of sangria that we’d ordered, but it didn’t matter. After recording our request, our waitress – A – headed for the bar and disappeared; returning some time later with a knowing smile, a weeping pitcher and a pair of highballs filled with ice.
Serving as some kind of bizarre [and increasingly difficult] game of target practice, the unnecessary napkin coasters she had placed beneath our drinks were instantly soaked. Imbibed, limp, and lazy; the white squares stretched thin over the webbed metal tabletop between us, giving in to the unforgiving and uncomfortable seating in the only way it knew how. In addition to being weather-friendly and easy to clean, the unbearable rooftop seating at this Michigan watering hole served as encouragement to open a tab and drink oneself under the table – if only in search of more comfortable seating.
Needless to say, the sangria was only helping.
I’d been to this restaurant – El Azteco – many times before in my life, but I’ve never really enjoyed it. My parents both went to MSU, and because this was my Mom’s favorite place to hang out on Saturday nights when she was my age, we made a point to stop in every time we came to town to visit my Great Grandma. To be completely honest, I protested whenever I found that we were going to be having lunch or dinner there. Even when I was younger, I didn’t like the food and had a hard time understanding why everyone loved the place so damn much.* It hurt me, as a rather food-obsessed-individual, to have family insist on El Az when I knew it wasn’t EL’s finest offering. But it’s what they like, so it’s what we get. It may not be great, but it’s what’s familiar, so it works.
Also, it was kind of Mother’s Day and it is kind of Mom’s favorite restaurant in the world. I’d kind of be the worst daughter ever if I denied her dinner there, hm? She said we didn’t have to go, but, c’mon. Sure we did.
Mom and I both keep pretty busy and haven’t had much time to hang out in recent years (same goes for Dad). We text, call, and FB stalk one another pretty regularly, but no matter what those crazy Gen Y kids will tell you: it just doesn’t compare to just sitting down and talking face to face (suck it, Skype!). So when Mom found that she had a little down time after back-to-back play rehearsals on Mother’s Day, she decided to spend it by coming to visit for dinner – because she’s freaking awesome. And I, by contrast, am apparently a thoughtless, lazy homebody that makes her mom drive foreverrrrr on her holiday. Oops.
Anyway: five bowls of salsa, three baskets of chips, two glasses of sangria, a bowl of cheese dip and a few years of maturity later, I was starting to understand the restaurant’s appeal.
Only acutely aware of the darkening sky overhead, Mom and I spent hours talking. As we sipped our drinks and took advantage of the endless chips and salsa finding their way to our table, I realized that the enjoyment of company and conversation was what really made the experience of dining there special. It had nothing to do with the quality of the food, the uniqueness of the menu or the “wow factor,” and it never would. It was about laughing and catching up and just spending time together. These were the memories that she had of the place – and I finally understood.
It turns out that all the restaurant needed was a new perspective.
And now it’s not so bad.
P.S. Thanks for coming to visit, Mom. You’re welcome to come sleep on my couch anytime
*I have to point out that they do have the best salsa of any Mexican restaurant I’ve ever been to and their cheese dip (a unique mix of cottage cheese, sour cream, muenster cheese, and scallions – have you heard of this before?) is the perfect thing to relieve a burning mouth.
Best Birthday Cake with Sour Cream Chocolate Frosting
2 c + 1 Tbsp (284 g) cake flour
1/4 c (23 g) powdered milk
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 c (113 g) butter, room temp
1 c (200 g) sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 c (237 ml) buttermilk, room temp (make your own by adding 1 tbsp lemon juice or vinegar to 1 c milk)
Preheat oven to 350F and oil and line two 6-inch round cake pans. Set aside.
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, powdered milk, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar for about 5 minutes, until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then beat in the vanilla. Scrape down the bowl again and add the egg. Beat about 30 seconds to combine, scrape the bowl, then add the yolks. Beat to combine. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture, mix just to combine and add half of the milk. Continue adding the dry and wet ingredients in this fashion, ending with dry.
Divide batter evenly between the pans and tap on the counter a few times to eliminate large air bubbles. Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then run a knife around edge of pan. Invert onto a sheet of plastic wrap, wrap well and refrigerate until well-chilled.
15 oz (425 g) semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 1/4 tsp instant espresso (optional, but can be used to pick up the flavor of average chocolate)
2 1/4 c (532 ml) sour cream, room temp
1/4 c – 1/2 c (59 ml – 118 ml) light corn syrup, to taste
3/4 tsp vanilla
Combine the chocolate and espresso powder in a glass bowl over a pan of simmering water. Stir until the chocolate is melted. Remove from heat and allow to cool to a little warmer than room temp.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the sour cream, 1/4 cup of corn syrup and the vanilla until well-combined. Whisk in the cooled chocolate and stir to incorporate. Taste and add additional corn syrup, if desired.
Place frosting in the refrigerator and let cool until it is an appropriate spreading consistency, 20-30 minutes. If it gets to stiff in the fridge, let it set on the counter for a bit before using to frost.