American Hungry (The illusion of restaurant choice)

This week, I asked Hamish Macfarlane, to be our guest writer. Born and educated in Scotland, Hamish lives in Madison, Tennessee, where he teaches English and writes. I visited Hamish and Rebecca in the summer and we went to their favourite restaurant. Las Cebollas was a family-friendly, cheerful and colourful Mexican that served the best queso I’ve ever had. I was saddened to hear that it had closed and intrigued to find out what the restaurant options are now. As it turn out, there are so many, yet so few.

Our favorite restaurant has shut down.

Before, if I wanted to lament the lack of decent food choices, I could afford to show a little whimsy, because we had a secret weapon; an unassuming family restaurant hiding between a sports bar and the skating rink, that knowing about proved we were paying attention. But now the doors are closed and I’m broken-hearted.

Las Cebollas Mexican Grill, Madison, Tennessee

Las Cebollas has closed its doors. (Image from the restaurant’s Facebook page.)

There are many restaurants in Madison, Tennessee. This creates an illusion of variety and a reality of irritation. Whatever happens, I won’t starve, but going out to eat here is like slumping on the couch to pick a movie on Netflix – is a choice of a thousand shitty movies (and Thor – I could watch Thor again) really a choice?

For steak, we have The Outback, Rafferty’s, Logan’s, Longhorn, and Calhoun’s. Five steakhouses in two city blocks. Welcome to Tennessee.

For “getting home late” Chinese we go to Panda Express. For wide-eyed, cold-plated Italian horrors, we have the Olive Garden.

And for “I get the feeling that one day something headline-worthy is going to go down here” American buffet, we have Ryan’s; an all-you-can-eat experience I love without guile for the duration of the meal and then spend the rest of the day regretting.

And then there are the burgers, which I rarely buy but take seriously when I do.

You don’t go to Burger King in Madison, even when you have coupons, because they will take forever and then give you the wrong order, and so you will cut out the coupons but keep them in your car until they expire and then throw them away, feeling like the worst victim of a zip code lottery.

I can love a #1 or, belt allowing, #2 burger combo at Sonic, but it has to be the right Sonic, and Madison…let’s just agree it’s not the right Sonic. Wendy‘s is great, but hey, is it really so great, or have I just turned it into something so mythical that it will inevitably disappoint?

The Jr. Deluxe Burger from Sonic Drive-In. (from Wikipedia).

The Jr. Deluxe Burger from Sonic Drive-In. (Image from Wikipedia.)

For Mexican, we go to Las Cebollas. Except, of course, now it’s shut. So are we supposed to take a deep breath and go to Taco Bell instead?

Madison is another strip-mall riddled town that you can drive through with every chain restaurant imaginable and still see nothing you want, nothing you can stomach.

If you’re sharing the ride with Americans, no one will agree, because we’ve all been burned by these nasty restaurants, our taste buds have broken. We’re tired, and a little sickly, and already thinking about what we’ll do after dinner, so why can’t we skip the anti-climax and have food injections instead?

It’s easy to fall for American restaurants after the British experience, not because of food quality but because the servers are motivated to serve, they’re open when you’re hungry and yes, you will get parked. I became infatuated with the likes of Applebee’s, Chilli’s, and O’Charley’s, and Madison has all of them.

But now I’ve gone native, and I see the holes, and I feel ripped off even when the check is absurdly cheap, and I feel sorry for the minimum wage staff, and I wonder, driving past, how all these bad restaurants stay in business, why they’re so busy on a Monday night, and of course I know why – we’re just so lazy – we’re not having a good time, this isn’t remotely close to a treat – the only positive emotion on display is relief that we’re not at home, there won’t be washing up, and there’s an excellent 4G signal.

Las Cebollas was my exception. The one place we agreed on, inexpensive but not a health gamble, where the staff were friendly but not cloying, and with authentic food that my wife and I knew what we were going to order before we walked through the door. Where we felt comfortable enough to have the best conversations of our married American lives.

Las Cebollas was colourful and lively, a comfortable place to be.

Las Cebollas was colourful and lively, a comfortable place to be. (Image from the restaurant’s Facebook page.)

Last December we rolled up to Las Cebollas and the doors were locked and the windows were dark. And now we’re screwed. Now we’re hungry.

So we’re looking for a new place: a tired-meal restaurant, our big/little night out for under $30 – or we face the alternative; flying back to Edinburgh once a week for a smoked sausage supper. And to be honest, I doubt anything we find here will ever come close to that level of raw indulgence.

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About Caroline von Schmalensee

Cooking, eating and drinking is fun as well as necessary. I do food for fun and I write for a living. Good food makes the world a more delicious and satisfying place. Good writing, meanwhile, can make the world a less confusing place.

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