My aunt came up and my uncle came down today and we went out to eat lunch at a smart little Chinese buffet in West Plains called Diamond Head. I assume it's named after some obscure Dick Tracy villian, because the only other Diamond Head I know about is a volcanic mountain in Hawai'i, and I cannot fathom any real connection between that and crab rangoons.
It doesn't have the variety of Houston TX's Lucky Village, but for an eatery in a relatively small town saturated with Chinese buffets, it's pretty good.
The hostesss asked us how many of us there are. We counted ourselves and allowed that there seemed to be four of us.
"Booth or table?" she asked. We huddled up and studied on this question a moment and picked the table option. "Table!" we answered, "Table Table Table!"
Well, no, not really, but I wonder how she would have reacted if we did.
She directed us to an excellent table, virtually in the entrance to the buffet line, next to the fish tank. I have often wondered if I could get away with sneaking a kiddie rod with a little Zebco 202 reel on it into the place and going fishing for the either giant goldfish or small koi that reside there.
On a shelf above the fishtank, among various Oriental knicknacks, sits a television that is always set on Fox News Channel and always has the MUTE on. It seems a bit out of place, and I wonder why it's there. Maybe it radiates Conservative Waves that soothe the fish. Or maybe the owners are trying to teach the fish to read closed-captioning.
"Your waitress will be with you in a moment," the hostess said, and she was off to return to the front desk to help the next customers.
It was actually three-fifths of a moment. We had barely gotten into our seats when a cheery American waitress appeared. That's one thing I really like about Diamond Head-- they have a good mix of Oriental and non-Oriental employees. Too many non-Orientals and the place has no ambience. Not enough and you run into a frustrating language barrier. And they all wear neat little professional-looking but not stuffy uniforms.
This one was not long out of high school, I would estimate. She had long dark brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, and if she wasn't genuinely glad to have us as customers, she was certainly an expert actress. Not an ounce of insincerity was detectable.
"You guys having the buffet today?" she inquired.
We assured her that indeed we were.
"How many get the senior discount?"
Now, that is a more complicated question than it seems. In some places, the senior cutoff is 65. In others, it's 62. We had two over 65 and one over 62, and I. Gray hairs in my beard notwithstanding, I am not yet a senior citizen. We elected not to bog down our waitress with a quiz on the details of their senior discount policy and answered that three of us were eligible. (We later made up the difference on the tip we left, so no coming after us with torches and pitchforks and angry, shouted denunciations about how cheap we are!)
"And what can I get you to drink?"
Four teas -- two hot, two iced.
"Help yourself when you're ready."
And she was off to East India, or wherever it is they get their tea.
Because of health issues, there are things my mother is not supposed to eat -- pork and sugar among them. Because of mobility issues, going through the buffet line would have been difficult for her, so I got her plate for her.
And so I found myself picking through all the typical Chinese food and selecting mostly rabbit food off the salad bar -- grapes, olives, cantaloupe, a couple of small chunks of General Chicken (wasn't he a character in a murder-mystery boardgame?) and three even smaller pieces of Honey Chicken (which, if I remember correctly, was the name of Raul Julia's character in the blaxploitation remake of Kiss of the Spider Woman). Other diners would look at my selections, look at my considerable size, and pause a few bewildered seconds before a blue screen would pop up on their foreheads that said "404 Error -- File Not Found."
To help them reboot, I put a piece of garlic bread, slathered in butter, on the plate.
That's another thing about Diamond Head. 95% of their selection, not including the rabbit food, is the epitome of Oriental cuisine -- pepper steak, mandarin pork, sweet-and-sour beef and the like. But in the middle of all that Far Eastern fare, they'll include two or three selections that are so obviously non-Oriental (fried catfish, onion rings, apple pie, etc.) that when you come across it, you almost get a 404 Error yourself.
I brought my mother her plate and saw the waitress had made it back from East India with my tea. It had been a remarkably quick trip, considering she made a stopover in Florida for a lemon, a crisp slice of which adorned the top of my glass.
I returned to the buffet line for my own plate, which I filled with a small helping each of Vegetable Noodles, Bourbon Chicken, Beef(?) Skewers, General Chicken, Crab Salad, a Crab Rangoon, and an Egg Roll. The last two aren't as good as they are at the Bamboo Inn in Springfield MO, where the owner disconcertingly shouts your order back at you while you are ordering the next item. But then, in all my travels, I've never found eggrolls and crab rangoons that good anywhere else, either.
I garnished the plate with another piece of garlic bread and returned to the table.
I was famished. Knowing I was going to the buffet that day, all I had for breakfast was three thin little strips of microwave bacon, and because the power was out the night before, I couldn't cook supper, so all I'd had then was a couple of slices of turkey lunchmeat.
I finished my plate first, but I couldn't go get another plate yet because I have a wierd aversion to being the first one to get seconds. I have no problem wolfing down my food like Rosie O'Donnell let loose in an innocent and unsuspecting doughnut factory, but when it comes to being the first to go for another plate, I have a hangup.
So I pushed the miniscule pieces of leftover food around my plate with my fork until the cheery waitress came and took it away and refilled my tea from a full pitcher she had apparently brought back with her from East India.
The others were still eating, so I watched the fish as they made Mickey Rooney faces and pooped and were blissfully unaware that pieces of their unscaled, bewhiskered brethren lay battered and fried and ready for consumption not ten feet from where they were swimming. At least I assume they were blissfully unaware; it's hard to gauge the emotions on a fish. For all I know, they may have known exactly what lay in the warming trays on the buffet line, and they may have been giddy about it. There might be some civil war raging in the fish world that we are totally unaware of. Hell, the goldfish may have orchestrated the whole addition of catfish to the menu themselves.
For the first time this visit, I became aware of the music piped into the place. Thankfully, this was a Smooth Jazz day. Sometimes they decide to add "atmosphere" to the place and play jangly, melody-challenged Oriental instrumentals. I know there must be some people somewhere that enjoy Oriental music, but to me it all sounds like a set of windchimes beating up a xylophone inside a running clothes dryer that is rolling down a pile of scrap metal.
I also realized there's something not quite right about the lighting in the place. It should be brighter than it is inside, given the dozens of lights on the ceiling. Something about the combination of the lights being recessed and the maroon vertical blinds on the sizable windows being closed makes the light all funky inside. I suppose it's to make the experience seem all "mysterious" and "exotic" but it just makes me want to get up and go open the window blinds and let the sunshine in.
I grew weary of examining the fish and the light fixtures and let my gaze settle on a couple in a booth maybe 15 feet from us. They were, I would guess, in their late 60s. If the man had a black cowboy hat, he'd have been cast as the evil owner of a neighboring ranch in a spaghetti Western. His hair was snow white with Martin Van Buren sideburns, and he wore a Western shirt with an Arapaho/Brooks & Dunn print, a black leather vest, some lanky Levi's that appeared to be starched, and a pair of polished cowboy boots with the wierd metal tips on the toe end.
But it was more his demeanor than his attire that suggested he was the antagonist to Lorne Greene's protagonist.
She, on the other hand, wore frumpy hausfrau clothes and had a giant, Clairol-black white-girl Afro held together with Aqua Net and wore a set of glasses she seemed to have stolen from a 1950's suburban librarian.
They were an odd pair to behold, but the oddest thing wasn't their appearance; it was their seating arrangement. They were seated side-by-side, on the same side of the booth, the way you would sit with someone if you didn't want to talk to them. I thought for a moment someone else was going to join them, but they had already made a couple of trips each to the buffet line. If they were waiting on someone, they weren't waiting on them.
Finally, my uncle went back to the line for seconds.
I got some more crab salad, another crab rangoon, and two egg rolls. My aunt got a piece of apple pie and some decidedly un-Chinese vanilla ice cream. I asked my mother if she wanted anything else, even suggested a small piece of cheesecake. She decided to get something herself. When she returned, she'd gotten a sample of a few things, including a sizable and conspicuous serving of a pork dish. I didn't say anything.
We were all too stuffed to go back for thirds, so we paid up and left.
Before going home, we made a quick detour to the Dollar Tree, where I bought batteries, pretzel sticks, Burger King Onion Rings that taste nothing like onion rings but are good nonetheless, pork rinds, a universal remote, a DVD with two old beatnik-type movies on it, laundry detergent, fabric softener, some little Ziplocesque bowls so I can store leftover ramen noodles in the fridge, and cat litter.