Many friends know that I’m immersed in Stanford’s Writer School. Along with keeping up with my business of Writers Resource Group, and my weekly class assignments, there’s just enough time left for fun. I recently found myself in Sacramento on client business. We went to Ella’s Bistro for dinner. Here’s what happened next. Enjoy.
“I’ll have the spinach and kale salad, please.”
She peers down from all of her 6-1 height. She wears black-black slacks, black shirt, black bow tie and a black jacket. All so sharply creased any one could cut bread. “You want Ella’s Burger. You do not want the damn rabbit food salad.”
The dinner crowd is just tucking into their white-clothed tables. Mine faces the glassed-in exhibition kitchen where a team of white-coated chefs race around chopping, mixing and sautéing.
She holds out her hand for the menu. Apparently decision time is over.
“What’s so special about Ella’s Burger?”
“You’ll just have to trust me. If you don’t like it, I’ll personally buy your dinner. So?”
“I’ll have Ella’s Burger.”
“Ah, Ella’s Burger.” She draws out the word reverently. “An excellent choice, Sir.” She spins in place to face the kitchen. Her right hand shoots up, index finger proudly extended. I see the kitchen immediately stop-all hands now face my table. The head chef-also dressed in black-snaps off a salute aimed at me.
“I’ll have yellow mustard with that, please,” I say.
“No. You won’t, Sir,” answers my waiter. The rebuke sounds like I just swore in church.
I busy myself watching the goings on in the kitchen. With all the human traffic around the cooktops and prep areas it is hard to make out where my order stands in the line-up. Then I see the headman himself gently lay two round discs of red meat onto the flaming grill. Another slowly lowers a steel basket of French fries into the bubbling fryer. An urgent text message from a partner interrupts me. I read it. I respond. I read his response to my response, then answer that. Time passes.
“Here you are, Sir,” says my waiter, carrying an overly large plate under a stainless steel dome. She sets the plate down and yanks off the dome. “Ella’s Burger.” A cloud of steam rises.
There she sits, amid crisp leaves of lettuce, red tomatoes, disks of green pickled okra and strips of yellow pickled bell peppers. French fries forming a perfect crosshatched box sit to the side as if supporting actors.
“Lovely,” I say. It is tall. “How does one tackle it?”
She produces a bowie knife large enough to impress any Marine. She offers it across an extended forearm, handle facing me. “Cut it in half, Sir. Then the fried egg can spread its sunshine.”
I accept the knife. Then I cut, sawing from top to bottom. A river of yolk spreads over the Burger and runs down its ample sides. Juices from the beef, melted yellow cheddar, thousand-island and the tomato all merge with the yolk. This is not finger food. I whack off a corner.
“Well, Sir?” she asks, still standing at my table.
A tsunami of flavors spread over my pallet. Savory, salty, cool crispy, a subtle bite comes from left field. “What’s in this?” I ask, and then resume chewing.
She looks to the heavens. “Chef begins with a brioche bun he bakes right here. The tiny green flecks are freshly diced jalapenos for a slight kick. Notice the egg yolk is orange, not yellow. It’s from the owner’s hen house. We grow the produce in a lovely garden out back. We pickle the okra and peppers right here. The meat-”
I put down the knife. “Comes from the ranch out back?”
She shakes her head. “We’re not zoned for that. But the owner-Mr. Ella himself-has a cattle ranch about 20 miles down the interstate. For the Burger we grind a mixture of rib eye, top sirloin and chuck for flavor.”
I take another bite of heaven. “There’s something in this thousand-island.”
“Cumin and Indian garam masala along with a dash of cayenne to keep things interesting. And no, we don’t make the cheese. Used to. But a creamery in Stockton makes a better cheddar than we could hope to. So?
“I have to be honest,” I begin but suddenly run out of words.
“I get that a lot, Sir. Something tells me I won’t be buying you your dinner tonight.”
* * *
Enjoy this holiday season,