Every now and then, a novice prompts a scientific or medical breakthrough, discovers something previously unknown to the professional community.
That’s me — the latter day version of the chubby, gap-toothed high school bozo who could make neither heads nor tails of physics, and who barfed when it was time to dissect the fetal pig in biology class.
I’m going down in the books as a groundbreaking researcher!
I discovered PTRD.
A rectangular commercial space in a tacky shopette in southeast Denver.
My research colleague?
My brother, Kurt.
Post Traumatic Restaurant Disorder.
The experience begins after I weaken my system on a Friday night.
Kathy (let’s call her the “Internet Bargain Queen”) procures an “incredible discount” on fine dining from an Internet service. Her record with such services is not good to this point; through such services, she has managed to ensconce us in windowless, basement hotel rooms with creaking beds and crackly blankets, in rooms next to rumpsprung ice machines, and in “suites” in the middle of an entire floor of rooms reserved for teams in the 8 and under state soccer championships.
I am suspicious of the restaurant deal, to say the least.
Rightly so. The best part of the evening is the superb job Kathy does parallel parking on a busy Denver street. Things go quickly downhill from there. True, we pay only sixty dollars for an experience that would normally run us more than a hundred bucks. Also true: we pay twice what the meal is really worth. The joint is mundane, at best. And there are fewer things more disappointing than a mediocre restaurant.
I am implementing a program to monitor Kathy’s Internet activity, seeking filters that prevent her from entering any site that uses the words’“deal” or “bargain” in a promotion.
So, much like someone who has spent ten hours in an ice bath, I am a prime candidate for a bodily disaster of some sort. I am ready, come Saturday, to suffer a terrible fate.
“I have an adventure planned,” says Kurt.
When my brother says this, I can expect a trip through the city that includes stops at any number of interesting, out-of-the-way shops, as well as a run through one of the city’s better liquor stores … and lunch. We’re not talking a sandwich at a small café, mind you, and certainly not a fast food diversion. When the “adventure” includes lunch, the meal is the true focus of the day.
First, we zip around Denver in search of salt cod. I need a big, stiff hunk of salt cod so I can make brandade this fall. Kathy has concerns about the odor in the car during the six-hour trip home. I assure her salt cod is odorless. I figure I can deal with the deception later — say, three hours into the trip, when the truth is inescapable.
Alas, Spinelli’s Market and Tony’s Market, two ordinarily sure sources for the magical, desiccated fish flesh (a life source for how many mariners in times gone by?), produce no results. Both markets have sold out, much to the puzzlement and delight of the proprietors.
A check at H Mart, where we purchase all manner of odd Asian condiments, turns up old, yellowish slabs of salt cod, far past their prime. Apparently the Koreans, Chinese and Indians who frequent the place don’t make a lot of brandade.
We give up on the salt cod and traipse to the liquor store where our spirits are revived.
I snag a bottle of Buffalo Trace at a sale price and add a couple bottles of Spanish red to the basket.
On to the zenith of the adventure! And to the nadir as well — the first recorded case of PTRD.
See if you can identify the points in the process where, with a wise decision, I could have avoided the dilemma (to help, I will mark them with numbers).
“I know just the place,” says Kurt (1).
We make our way out to the southeast suburbs, to a shopette (2) and we enter a Korean barbecue restaurant Kurt assures me is a “doozy” (3).
The long, rectangular space has several private rooms built on one side, each containing a large, low table with a big iron griddle in the center. It seems the patrons in these rooms can lock the doors from the inside.
On the opposite wall of the sleekly decorated space are tables with iron griddles in the center, above which are hung separate vent hoods.
Down the middle of the restaurant are a series of tables and booths for those wishing to order prepared menu items, rather than taking a grill table and cooking the foods themselves.
We opt for a booth in the center of the room.
A diminutive waiter appears at our table. He is approximately five feet tall, thin as a wisp, and has a Peter Pan haircut with bangs cut just above his eyebrows (4). He is wearing black stirrup pants and Mary Janes (5).
A name tag tells us our waiter’s name is Kwang-Ho.
He hands us our menus, brings us water and smiles broadly. I find him utterly delightful (6). He hovers tableside, hands clasped below his waist as we peruse our options.
Kurt’s eye goes immediately to beef tendon jelly. I spy an appetizer I think might do the trick — a kimchi and scallion pancake with a zesty, sweet dipping sauce. I order it.
Kwang-ho asks me what I want as an entrée, his teeny eyes sparkling. He is so adorable, I decide to put myself, figuratively of course, in his delicate hands.
“Well, tell me, Kwang-Ho,” I say, “what is your favorite thing on the menu? What do you eat?” (There is no number affixed here because this ploy has worked wonders many times in the past.)
Kwang-Ho puts the tip of his pinky in his mouth and his eyes roll heavenward. He’s deep in thought and it takes him a minute. He finally tells me: ”Spicy squid.”
When the Asian Peter Pan speaks, I follow. I love squid. “That is exactly what I’ll have” (7).
“But,” says Kwang-Hon, a frown crinkling his otherwise smooth and well moisturized forehead, ”it is very, very spicy.”
“Ha!,” I say, “I have never encountered a food that’s too spicy. I’ve eaten the spiciest foods from the world’s major cuisines, and never had a problem (8).”
The most radiant smile I have seen in years lights the little tyke’s face (helped by the fact he has his teeth bleached) and, I swear, he skips back to’the kitchen with our order.
“We need beer,” says Kurt, “plenty of beer.”
Kwang-Ho materializes tableside with our kimchi and scallion pancake and twelve small bowls, each containing a condiment, an amuse bouche, if you will. Some are recognizable (squash, kimchi, beansprouts, cucumber in chile paste) and some are mysteries, but delicious. We order beers, and we tuck into the pancake.
Several minutes later, Kwang-Ho wheels a cart around the end of an adjacent planter at breakneck speed. He puts Kurt’s entrée in front of him, then he unloads my spicy squid.
The platter he places before me is a relatively long oval. On the platter is a mound, four inches deep at its crest — a tangled mass of who-knows-what, all of it a very dark red color. Closer inspection of the ingredients reveals large hunks of squid, many of them tubular in shape, unidentifiable vegetable matter, and an enormous amount of red chile pepper and what appears to be hot bean paste.
Kurt does not notice what is in front of me. He is attempting to eat a yellowish, gelatinous substance with chopsticks. It is not going well.
I pick up my chopsticks. Kwang-Ho is still at the table. His little hands are clasped in prayerlike fashion in front of his chest. His eyes are wide.
I take a bite (9).
I am sure the expression on my face is like that of a man shot in the chest with a large caliber handgun.
Kurt is oblivious to my pain. A chunk of the gelatin has escaped his chopsticks and has splashed in the mystery sauce in which the block of beef goo floats. He is getting a bit frustrated, so he snatches an iced tea spoon from an adjacent table and gets down to business.
Kwang-Ho is thrilled. The fat, old guy is actually eating the spicy squid. He scampers off to tell others.
“Here,” I say, once I catch my breath. “Try this.”
Kurt reaches over and grabs a wad of the spicy squid with his chopsticks.
He puts the stuff in his mouth, his chin tucks in to his chest, his eyebrows shoot up, he chews … and chews … and chews … then, with some difficulty, he swallows.
“Holy crap, that is hot!” His voice is an octave higher than normal.
“And the squid is overcooked. It’s like eating surgical tubing. The hottest surgical tubing known to man.”
I look down the aisle. Kwang-Ho is peering around the edge of the planter, watching.
I can’t let him down (10).
This is a matter of pride (11).
I determine to finish the spicy squid (12).
And I do (13).
How to sum up what follows in a way that minimizes the reader’s disgust? How to describe PTRD?
Have you ever been a passenger in a car and had the driver ask: ”What was that? Was your stomach making that noise?”
Have you ever sat in a living room with relatives and had one turn to you and ask: “What was that? Was your stomach making that noise?”
Have you ever stood in line at a store and, with your fellow shoppers, listened to your gut make sounds like an injured circus animal?
Have you ever had to excuse yourself and adjourn to the “facilities” on a 30-minute schedule?
For four days?
At a concert, during the slow movement of a Brahms symphony?
During a long (incredibly long) car trip through the Colorado Rockies?
In the middle of a conversation with a friend?
During a phone call (Can you hold, please? Because, I can’t).
Have you ever exuded an odor that knocks birds from the limbs of trees?
If you answer yes to these questions, you probably had PTRD. The syndrome simply hadn’t been named yet.
It is easy to note that, if you avoid diminutive, sensitive Korean waiters and their suggestions, there is little chance you will contract this disorder.
Perhaps, but now that I am a scientist, I am not so sure this is the right course
— if adding to the store of human medical knowledge is your goal. And, I assure you, it is my goal.
So, I’m calling Kurt soon to tell him that the next time I am in town, we are heading back to that shopette.
Back to the lab.
This time I want to try one of those griddle tables.
They have eel on the menu.
I hope Kwang-Ho is there.
He’s absolutely precious (14).