Tag Archives: downtown lunch

That’s My Dog

Nobody wants to feel like optimism is a mistake.

Yet, walking back from the new downtown hot dog cart, that’s exactly how we felt. The problem, we felt, in the classic act of victim blaming, was not that the hot dog cart didn’t “get it.” The problem was that we don’t belong here, vegetarians in a state that resents vegetarians. And our botched lunch plans were not the fault of the hot dog cart. They were our fault for expecting any better.

We were cautious at first. We heard that there was a new hot dog cart downtown and thought about big cities, where carts and food trucks are viable sources of tasty lunches. We thought about the massive number of trucks in Washington D.C. that line up outside government offices, forking over delicious pizza and Chinese food and felafel to workers conscious of time and money. Those other cities have taco trucks and cupcake wagons and vans that cook empanadas with solar powered ovens. Here, we would be content to start our journey to mobile food sales with the humble hot dog stand — no New Orleans Lucky Dog, to be sure, but a start.

Still, we knew, being Montgomery, that our cart might not be likely friendly to our radical fringe vegetarian beliefs. But when a friend assured us on Twitter that she had inquired as to the status of veggie dogs, we were reassured when she told us that they would begin serving them. She contacted us later to confirm the news: The hot dog cart had veggie dogs.

Today was the day. We walked over, confirming the location on the cart’s Facebook page. There it was! State workers were in line, lanyards dangling around their necks! And there, on the menu, veggie dogs! Two dollars! I wanted to order four of them.

I settled for two, my dining companion for a solitary veggie dog. We were disappointed when the vendors told us that the City of Montgomery had forced them to stop selling cans of soda for some reason related to the fact that they were doing it out of a cooler. Thanks City! Looking out for small business!

But when we received and paid for our dogs, excited to sit down and consume them, even without a beverage, my dining companion poked through her hot dog bun and asked if they had forgotten the veggie dog – you know, the thing that the food product is named after?

No, it turns out that this hot dog bun full of toppings – cole slaw, relish, some shredded cheddar – was what they called a veggie dog. This was what they had added to their menu after a request they had received from some other poor Montgomery vegetarian.

We explained that we had expected a soy based cylinder there in the bun, nestled underneath the condiments, and they seemed curious but receptive to the idea, as if we were explaining that hot dogs could also be constructed from sonic energy and distillations of human love.

Oh, Montgomery. On a day when we in Alabama have elected Roy Moore to return to the office from which he was humiliatingly expelled, our greatest disappointment is a misunderstanding by a start-up small business. Because in the latter case, we made the mistake of expecting better.

Update: Based on the discussion in the comments below, we did a follow-up at Midtown Montgomery Living.

Olive Room Lunch

There’s an old saying about wanting something so much that you wish it into reality.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember that old saying right now, although I have the vague feeling that it may be Eastern European. But I’m not about to sit here and Google, “Old Saying About Wishing For Stuff.”

Needless to say, that old saying wouldn’t apply here because, as much as we wish that a decent place for lunch would open up downtown, we’re still stuck with the likes of the greasy and slow Flames (142 Montgomery St.) and the country-fried meat-laced veggies of the Farmers Market Cafe (315 N. McDonough).

Sure, we know Cool Beans has recently re-opened, but we have yet to return to their newest incarnation for a lunch. Here’s hoping their prices have come down a bit. And yes, Saza is really good. But we still need more decent lunch places downtown.

Our hopes were exceedingly high when we heard that the Olive Room was going to start serving lunch. It’s a nice venue. We’ve never had dinner there because entrees run between 20 and 30 bucks, but we’ve heard the food at night is among the best in town. But lunch? At $9 (including chips and a drink)? Sounds awesome!

Yet, again with the wishing.

We wished so hard that I even went twice to see if it would be better the second time. That’s because the first time I went, I was puzzled that the menu seemed to consist of only five things. You have to go in and walk up to the bar in the back to order. And you’ve got five options. And if you’re vegetarian, you’ve got one: the pine nut salad.

I explained to the guy that I didn’t want a pine nut salad and he said his chef could “do me up” a Caprese Panini. It turned out to be sort of a Cuban with, well, tomato, cheese, and maybe a tiny green ribbon of basil in there somewhere. It was greasy and pretty good, as would be any decent cheese that had been pressed into bread in some mass market sandwich pressing machine. Also greasy and pretty good (in that order) were the homemade chips it came with. Yet, at the end of the meal, I reflected on the fact that I had just spent $9 on a grilled cheese sandwich.

Sure, the tomatoes were good. And sure, it’s a hip, funky, sort of dark place, with couches and a weird ancient elevator in which they have placed a tiny table (think about a romantic date that edges closer to creepy due to the tiny size of the elevator). But a $9 lunch is supposed to be a bargain, not an investment in atmosphere. And when they’ve cranked 70s glam rock so loud that you have to yell to be heard, we left less than thrilled with our lunch, although we were coated in a nice shimmering reflective glaze of grease from the homemade chips.

But like those theater performances of Peter Pan, where they get the lady to play Peter Pan and the fast-moving spotlight to play Tinkerbell, the kids in the audience have to clap to bring Tinkerbell back to life after she is pierced by Captain Hook. You have to clap really loud to show that you believe, because, kids, the power of belief can conquer death. Note to self: Peter Pan is a damned filthy liar.

No matter how much you want to believe, lunch at the Olive Room is not, in fact, good. We went back another time for a $9 special and I decided to try something else: a tomato-basil “pita.” I asked about the nature of this “pita” and the guy behind the counter (who had just been bragging about being a big supporter of off-the-deep end Tea Party Congressperson Martha Roby), explained that it was more of a “pizza” than a “pita.” Maybe they just thought those two words sounded enough alike that they were likely synonyms.

Well, it was either that or the damned pine nut salad. And it may be an odd thing for a vegetarian to say, but a salad ain’t a lunch. Maybe you can trick it out with some boiled egg and artichoke hearts, like some kind of mutant concoction at Jason’s Deli. But most places, I don’t want your salad as my entree.

The pita? Sure enough, it’s got tomato. And cheese. And basil. Where have I seen these ingredients before? Oh right, on the grilled cheese I paid $9 for last week. This time around, they’re all laid flat on a crusty piece of dough cut into four pieces. And some chips. And a drink. Sigh. Nine dollars. Salt cheese salt coma.

My dining partner had no complaints about his chicken sandwich, although noted that it was “nothing exceptional.” He was far more impressed by the atmosphere and hoped to return for a dinner sometime.

And I guess I’m willing to do that too. The dinner may well be spectacular. The lunches certainly were not. But it’s not their fault they saw an opening in the totally crappy current downtown lunch market. And the $9 lunch seems like a bargain when you factor in chips and a drink. And yet, you leave feeling greasy and light in the wallet. No wonder it has been pretty empty both times I went.

Sorry Tinkerbell. I just can’t keep clapping.

The Deli at Alley Station

Dear friends, readers, and Internet search-bots,

We realize that posting here at LiM has dwindled to a meager trickle of late. We know. We get it. You are starved for content from our fertile minds. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on who you are), we have been busy with other antics, including our other blog about Montgomery — Midtown Montgomery Living. No, we have not left this blog to wither and die as the mainstream media would suggest. Rather, we have waited, biding our time, to return to LiM with a vengeance. We plan to be updating it much more frequently from here on out. Thanks for bearing with us (if, in fact, you have). We love you.

Here’s the setup: Historic American city trying to get back on its feet after years of neglecting its downtown takes bold new strides to re-zone and re-develop its urban core. A big fancy hotel is built with convention space! The (heterosexual) river is turned into something people might like to walk alongside and have lunch near! There’s a new bar with a surprisingly good happy hour, even though it’s stupidly closed for daytime football! And a new Italian restaurant that, despite being prone to bouts of extremely sketchy service, offers some damn fine food (including an outrageously tasty pizza with eggs on it)! And baseball! And oysters!

Even as the exclamation points pile up, redevelopment isn’t without its hitches. Lofts are built and occupied at a trickle. Others see construction slowed or completely abandoned when the economy collapses. Ultimately, everyone knows that if downtown is really going to thrive, people are going to have to live there. To get people to live downtown, there needs to be food available for purchase. Food that goes beyond ribs, pizza and vile “Chinese” food. Bigger cities than Montgomery have struggled with this very same issue. Los Angeles’ downtown residential prospects snagged for years on the “no grocery store” issue.

Functioning high density urban neighborhoods are full of delis, bodegas and other corner stores – residents need to run out and get food, diapers, cat litter and other city living essentials. Also they want to be able to eat delicious and reasonably priced food before and after attending the many urban cultural functions that make downtown living worthwhile.

That’s why we were so enthusiastic about the Deli at Alley Station. It seemed like a first step toward sustainable downtown living in Montgomery. Sure, there may never be a Winn-Dixie downtown, but that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a nice market (milk, eggs, toilet paper, wine) that also sells tasty sandwiches. Alas, despite the various efforts of ex-mayor (and one-term Congressman) Bobby Bright and various other economic development types neither possibility has yet come to pass.

The Deli at Alley Station is an exercise in disappointment. First, you’ll be disappointed in the food. Maybe their Reuben is good – we’ll never know for sure. But the things we ate on a recent visit were truly terrible. One of us had the “Deli Salad Sampler” with pimento cheese, tuna salad and egg salad. Each salad came ice cream scooped onto a longboat-style lettuce leaf destined to ferry them into infamy. For those of us who have suffered the many indignities of repulsive office meals catered by Chappy’s Deli, this meal was the S.S. Minnow to Chappy’s Kon-Tiki. A total of four crackers accompanied this festival of objectionable goo.

It was probably for the best that we were unable to obtain more crackers. The egg salad may be the worst we’ve ever had (and the genre isn’t replete with luminaries). If you had told us in advance that it was actually a scoop of a flavorless mush called root marm, we probably would have believed you. Immediately after tasting, we were filled by regret. As it turns out, the consumption of emptiness is less glamorous than French philosophers have led us to believe. It is more like the feeling after watching Rhianna’s NBA All-Star halftime show, which is to say that you will need at least a shower and possibly a box of Girl Scout Thin Mints to rid yourself of its aftertaste.

Speaking of aftertaste, there was the tuna salad. Let us speak no more of it except to say that it is not good when your customers are unfavorably comparing it to the tuna salad at Subway (also served with a depressing ice cream scoop, and also the color and consistency of our coming nanotechnology Armageddon).

Finally, and with fleeting shreds of hope for a decent lunch, we dutifully sampled the pimento cheese. Which was served in a scoop-sized portion probably large enough to employ a small army of cardiologists. Now, we know from pimento cheese, and we can honestly say that this stuff was, um, edible. It wasn’t good (that honor is reserved for the edgier kinds of cheese spread that come with small amounts of diced jalapenos), but it was edible. But not in the bucket size. And not with four crackers. And really, not as a stand-alone entree for a lunch (which, where we come from, is a meal). We must emphasize that it was not good. But it did at least taste like the thing it was supposed to taste like.

On the other side of the table we had a cup of soup and the Alley Station Special Grilled Cheese Panini. This is a tarted-up grilled cheese, but it was heavily sold on the online menu, as well as the giant wall-sized menu in the store. This was no obstacle to our cashier’s total ignorance of the item’s presence on the menu. Which seemed odd since it was one of three items flagged with a fork to signify a “signature” item.

We assume, in this culture at least, that a “signature” appellation means that the item is one of the best on the menu – that it stands above the crowd of mundane club sandwiches and turkey wraps as something the chef stakes his or her name to, that it is therefore worthy of flourishes and the word “special” and the little hearts over the “i”s, or what have you. Not for nothing is John Hancock still associated with the politics of personal endorsement. If this is the case, then the Deli at Alley Station is in big trouble. This sad disaster of a sandwich was chewy and cheesy in all the wrong ways. Yes, Virginia, grilled cheese sandwiches can be gross. It was even gross dipped generously in the cup of mushroom bisque. Which soup was edible in the same way as the pimento cheese. Its cook, alas, had made the decision to replace flavor with extra cream. In the age of Rhianna, we all settle for simulacra.

The day we were there we felt it was almost certainly drawing lunch diners off of Sa Za. Which is too bad, if only because this meant more people were eating mediocre sandwiches when they could have been eating delicious egg pizza. It was the allure of the new, we are almost certain – the same reason you couldn’t get a table at Wintzell’s when it opened, but now can walk in and sit basically anywhere.

After you finish being disappointed in the food, you can start being disappointed in the place. The Deli at Alley Station misunderstands the problem with downtown living. The problem wasn’t that people couldn’t get lunch. Sure, maybe they couldn’t get much breakfast outside of the Renaissance’s restaurant (and certainly not “all day” breakfast – let’s see how long that lasts). But is a turkey club (or even a good Reuben) really a revolutionary addition to the downtown foodscape?

The problem was the lack of “grab and go,” of actual deli food (meats, cheeses, breads, the stuff a market offers) and the lack of market offerings. The DAS has decided, in the latter area, to opt for the Rhianna solution and substitute simulacrum for reality. They have a refrigerator case full of candy and dubious health waters up front. On the side there are moon pies and Cracker Jacks well out of reach of any adult (let alone child) who might like to purchase them. There’s a weird display of cans of dog and cat food next to Chef Boyardee ravioli on the other side of the freezer cases. It looks like it’s for show, but is “reachable” by sliding ladder (along with several six packs of beer that are seriously more than eight feet off the ground). Is this really going to be the thing (or a thing) that convinces folks that downtown is now livable?

The DAS could possibly appeal to people who think it’s a treat to go to Panera Bread. This might also eventually serve as an acceptable eatery for people that work downtown. Unfortunately, since the state is broke and probably due to fire all of the state workers soon, there will be fewer of those in the times to come.

There are too few tables for it to be a “hangout,” and we have outlined its total failure as any sort of grocery store, despite the hilarious prop cereal boxes that seem to suggest that someone once listened to an audiobook about urban redevelopment in their SUV as they sped off to their Eastside Hellscape McMansion.

Just because the Deli at Alley Station fails as a deli doesn’t mean it’s bad. We like Dr. Dre despite the fact that he’s not an actual physician. The problem is really with its failure as a restaurant. It will be interesting to see whether Montgomery consumers reward the DAS’ abject mediocrity, and whether downtown ever gets the necessities for the real urban living it claims to want.

Taking the Subway Downtown

We were looking for lunch in downtown Montgomery — a dangerous enterprise soaked in optimism while perilously close to the match of compunction, as when we have eaten (and regretted for a long time afterward) a mix of the Flames grill cheese fries and “Cajun” fries (Cajun, evidently meaning dusted with brownish powder far inferior to its crack-infused powdered cousin used by a different corporation to render the Sonic tater tots impossible to put down). We were too lazy to bring lunch to work, even knowing perfectly well that we could not afford to eat out. Perhaps a desultory glance through the refrigerator had convinced us that even lunch was too much of a future for our various poorly-identified containers of leftover vegetable medley, of garlicky meat substitute, of hummus. Hummus is not really much of a meal in itself, we’d say to ourselves by way of rationalizing the inevitable.

By rationalizing, we’d slipped already into the specific milieu of the downtown Subway (22 Dexter Avenue) nearest our offices, itself a flourescent-lit temple to the Cartesian lunch, a place where the promise of banana peppers’ vinegary snap and an array of mayonnaises can make us both fully empowered and strangely desubjectivized, each of us Hercules liberated of his labors and set free to roam the salad bar.

Some of us did not want cheese. Those Internet literati had already visited Subway’s website and discovered that their “Six under Six” did not include cheese. Which omission struck some of us as a grim testament to the doomed struggle against obesity and another reason to pillory (if not stone) that annoying pitchman Jared if he ever so much waved a flavorless green bell pepper slice in our general direction. Others of us were inspired by the man in line just ahead of us whose sandwich consisted of four pallid, steaming “grilled” chicken parts straight from the microwave, stacked two at a time like props from a zombie version of Animal Farm, on wheat, with a generous John Hancock splortch of some kind of white sauce. That man stood before a woman truly befuddled by the idea that flatbreads are not, in fact, sold in foot-long lengths.

Those of us who wanted cheese had several options — all in thin, neat triangles lying peacefully in interchangeable plastic bins — the cheddar, the pepperjack, the white American. Which latter choice meant we had to look the African American Sandwich Artist® behind the counter in the eye and orally evince our preference for White American. This, next to the building where the first shots of the Civil War were ordered and just down the street from Doctor King’s church.

Often, when in Subway, we were secretly thankful that we do not live in one of those nanny states where caloric information must be published – otherwise we might never order the tuna sandwich, which is surprisingly delicious for a menu item in its price range and is therefore one of the only tasty non-ice cream items we have ever been served with an ice cream scoop. Other times, we are not feeling too much like contributing to the rapidly approaching extinction of tuna by ordering it as a flavorless mush on breads of dubious nutritional value. In which case we will order the Veggie Delite® and begin to run the gauntlet of justly disaffected Sandwich Artists® reaching their plastic-begloved hands into a variety of black tubs of toppings.

We are dazzled by our own autonomy, the captains of our own destiny, set free from employment’s subjugation into a world of design that will capture the Sandwich of Our Imagination. Or else we are slouching through the line with the rest of our kind, feigning animated half-conversations about Jeff In Accounting or Melinda In The Front Office or This Client I Had The Other Day — secretly eyeing the wicker baskets of chips to see if the Parmesan kind can be had, or if once again we’ll settle for the indignity of the barbecue. Some of us have mastered the process and know the cues and secret verb combos to maximize the place’s Cultural Studies 101 Fordism, the accumulated efficiencies of such an obvious kind that their mere mention is enough to incur at least a little back-channel ridicule among those of us who are plainly Too Smart For This Job.

Some of us are awkward, indecisive, anxious, displaying intercultural incompetence like a poignantly visible case of the hives. We hem. We haw. Unsure of what it means to haw, we hem some more. We commit to the Monterrey Cheddar. No, no, the Italian Herb and Cheese. We forget to say our sandwich type. We choose a cheese and are passed along, exasperated, to the Sandwich Artist® tasked with the distribution of shredded iceberg lettuce, paper-thin slices that are more reminders of tomatoes than the fruit themselves, onion and bell pepper bits, never enough black olives, amnesiac transparent cucumbers, low culture pickles and banana peppers put there only to remind us that we have tastebuds (if, at this point, we wish to remember). If we wish to forget we might order jalapenos. Because we are already in the process of forgetting, we will not remember that the Sandwich Artist® is incapable of providing a smattering of jalapenos, but must out of some post-industrial necessity lavish the peppers in a final gesture of extravagance. We are tempted to read it as making up for stinginess on the black olive front, but deep down we know that it is mere revenge for our hesitance, nothing more than a petty penance for our overwhelmed everyday indecisive mortality.

There is no unsweet tea. This is Dexter Avenue. There is only sweet tea and a variety of Coke products and water of questionable origin. There is also a cooler of bottled drinks that is likely only for decorative purposes. We have combos, or else we soldier on with only chips or drink, or neither, leaving with our wrists through the carrying holes of a sad and sagging plastic bag of ennui, of regret, of compromise and simulacrum. Also it includes napkins.