Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Tonight, in my quest for fresh guacamole, I had a flashback to my days in Illinois. Here in Florida, authentic Mexican food is just about as rare as a bargain at Disney World. Even though I miss it, my taste is somewhat saited by the pseudo-Mex at Chevys. They serve something called Fresh Mex, which means that nothing comes out of a can. While their dishes are not necessarily authentic (I babysat for a Mexican family as a teen, and nary a crab and shrimp flauta nor portabello mushroom quesedilla issued forth from their kitchen), I still enjoy them. Chevys is one of my regular haunts for a quick lunch or dinner.

Once upon a time, back in Illinois, there was a Chevys doppleganger called On The Border. Actually, it wasn't an exact replica; although they share menu items like fresh guacamole made tableside, Chevys doesn't have one very important delicacy that was featured at On the Border: Chocolate Turtle Empanadas.

How do I describe them? How can one put into words the pure ecstacy and bliss of the world's perfect dessert? I'll start off with the official menu description: flaky pastries filled with chocolate, caramel and pecans, rolled in cinnamon sugar. Served warm with vanilla ice cream.

Take it from me, they don't need ice cream. I always turned it down because ice cream merely distracts from the culinary symphany of chocolate, nuts, caramel and pecans all playing their masterpiece on my tongue. Sadly, Chevys doesn't have any dessert items that even come close. Or maybe I should say "gladly," since the absence of that calorie laden temptation has probably saved me from an untold number of additional pounds of body weight.

But when I lived in Illinois, the turtles were easily attainable. I lived in ignorance of their existence for years, until one day I was at a training seminar and went to On the Border for lunch. Upon discovering its wonderful food, of which the dessert was only the cherry on the sundae, I decided to see if there was a location closer to home (the seminar was over an hour's drive away).

I discovered a location at a shopping center called River Oaks; not right in my backyard, but neither was it outside of reasonable striking distance. Thus, On the Border became a regular stop on my regular restaurant rotation. Hubby and I also had a particular fondness for the tableside guacamole, which your server would create right before your very eyes...you can't get much fresher than that.

One day, only a few months after discovering On the Border, we innocently drove out to Calumet City, all set for avocado heaven and chocolate bliss. As we approached the building, I wonder, "Why does the parking lot look so deserted?" Upon pulling up, we discovered the reason. It was boarded up tight as a drum and obviously no longer in business. We had been there only a couple of weeks earlier, and our server had excitedly described several new menu items that they were planning to add. There had been no hint of the doom just around the corner.

Alas, there were no other On the Border locations within reasonable striking distance, so they became a distant, melancholy memory. Sometimes I would think back, and it boggled my mind to remember pulling up to the building, my taste buds all set for a familiar meal, only to discover the restaurant gone. The only other time I had ever experienced that was with my favorite German restaurant; one weekend we were going to stop there, but there was a festival so we couldn't find a parking spot. We vowed to return soon, but when we did only two weeks later, we found that it had literally burned to the ground.

Meanwhile, we had discovered Chevys in Illinois. They weren't close by, but we'd go every now and then in memory of On the Border because the food was very similar. When we moved to Florida, we were pleased to discover not one, but two Chevys in our area. We found one at Lake Buena Vista, near the entrance to Disney World, and another on 192 in the heart of Kissimmee.

We generally visited the Lake Buena Vista location, but occasionally we'd go to the one on 192. Tonight, I was in the mood for some guacamole, and I figured that 192 would be less crowded than the one near Disney, so I set off in search of my green, smooshy reward. It was nighttime, so I kept an eye out for the Chevys neon beacon that would signal me when to turn left. I drove and drove...hmmmm...I thought it was near the Target. But I didn't see it, so I kept on going. My inner sense of direction was shooting off alarm bells, but I was sure that I hadn't seen the sign so I kept on going. I passed the K-Mart, passed the half-vacant mall...by now I was certain that I'd gone way too far. I made a quick u-turn, wondering how I could have missed my destination.

I slowed when I approached the Target, my eyes peeled for the restaurant. I almost missed it again, and I quickly discovered why. It was dark. Totally dark. There was not so much as a night light or security light shedding the smallest beam on the forlorn parking lot or in the deserted building. It wasn't boarded up, and hubby wasn't with me...otherwise, it would have been a near total flashback to my On the Border experience.

I pulled up gingerly to the building. Normally its neon looked so inviting, but tonight it was sinister as it sat enveloped in blackness, with not one sign of humanity around it. It was like a blown out bulb on the gaudy string of lights that make up the 192 corridor.

I was hoping that there might be a sign in the window, but no such luck. It was so dark that I couldn't see inside to tell if the building had been stripped. I think that the Chevys sign had been painted over, but in the gloom I couldn't be sure.

Dejectedly I got back in the Family Truckster. At this point, it wasn't about guacomole. It was more about the shock of seeing something I had taken for granted in my world suddenly and unexpectedly disappear. In a way, it was symbol of all the things we take for granted until one day poof! They are are gone. And it was made doubly ironic by the fact that this is 9/11, the day when an entire country lost something it had taken for granted. On that day, we lost something tangible: The Twin Towers. And we lost something intangible, too: A sense of security on our home soil. Before I saw those towers fall, I never could have imagined such horror on American soil. Now, forevermore I could never be that innocent and naive again. That day subtly but permanently changed my entire outlook and the outlook of all my fellow Americans.

As far as I know on the Mexican food front, the Lake Buena Vista location is still open so I can still get my fix. But my unrequited jaunt tonight was a reminder of a much bigger and more important picture. We must never grow too comfortable in our expectations because the solidity of life is an illusion, and we will be reminded of that fact at the most unexpected times.

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John said...

I'm glad you are writing more with frequency again. I really enjoy your work, and being up here in Wisconsin, feel as though I can live in the Land of the Mouse vicariously through your postings. I was wondering about the German restauraunt you wrote about. Was it Deeter's? Just curious.

Barb said...

Tbe restaurant is Chef Klaus' Bier Stube. The one that burned down was in Frankfurt, IL, and they opened one in Peotone that is still there.