The Night I Couldn’t Get Cajun Food in Hot Springs

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OK, onto Hot Springs.

I want to make one thing clear: the hotel I was staying at was not The Arlington mentioned in my previous post. It was another one I’d booked on Priceline because it was $89/night and had decent reviews. Let’s leave it at that so that I can speak freely about the rest of the night…

When I showed up that evening, I was feeling a lot of things. I was tired from the drive, I was severely dehydrated from the bath, and I wanted a shower so badly I could practically smell the complimentary hotel soap suds.

So, when the guy and the girl manning (and wo-manning?) the front desk had my reservation wrong, and I went for my standard reserve of no-big-deal-this-stuff-happens tolerance, all I found was a vast expanse of how-could-you-do-this-to-me? crazy floating beneath a dangerously thin shell of keep-your-mouth-shut-lest-you-get-thrown-out-of-the-inn preservation instinct.

They clacked on the front desk keyboard. Click. Clack. Somewhere beyond those clacks was a hot shower. I knew it. And all I had to do to get to it was keep that shell from cracking and unleashing the crazy.

The guy who was the manager and the girl who was pretty, but not much else, were puzzled. Hadn’t I ordered both a room and a suite? Not just one room? After all, it said right there on the computer, plain as day, that I’d booked two rooms. Well, a room and a suite. And they’d only just turned down a nice couple that wanted that suite, because it had been allegedly booked—by me.

It was probably the crazy talking, threatening to bubble up and burst forth at any moment, but their tones sounded accusatory.

I told them that I wasn’t sure why the computer was saying what it did, and that I was sorry they’d turned down the couple (though I wasn’t particularly sorry), but I really had only booked one room. I was traveling by myself, and had no reason to book two…It wasn’t like I planned on room hopping that night, checking to see which of the rooms had the most comfortable digs, because, guess what, bet it would have been the suite.

I left that last part out using my last shred of self-control, but I really should have left the first part out, too. The part about being alone. You’ll soon see why.

“You’re by yourself?” the woman at the front desk repeated a little too loudly.

“Yes.”

“Well, you really don’t need a suite then, if you’re traveling all by yourself.”

I wished she’d keep her voice down about that.

“Right. That’s what I’ve been saying. I just need the one room.”

“Well, then, let’s get you in there.”

I relaxed, thinking a shower was in my very near future, and that even if the whole lobby knew I was traveling alone, they didn’t know my room number, and there was a certain false sense of security in that. Sometimes false senses of security are the best we can hope for.

And then she said, “Oh…oops.”

“Oops?”

“We accidentally booked that room.”

“So…there’s another one, right?”

“Well, there’s the suite…but you’re traveling all by yourself. You don’t need all that space.”

I should have walked out right then. By that point there was no denying it. Everyone knew I was traveling alone, and that’s dangerous business. But I can’t even explain to you how tired I was and how little interest I had in trying to find another hotel and how incapable I was of making the 4+ hour drive home.

“So find me another room. Or give me the suite. Either way, I booked a stay here, and I’m staying here.” The crazy was surfacing, cracking the shell of self-preserving politeness I’d tried so hard to maintain.

“What about 621?” the manager leaning too closely over the pretty one’s shoulder asked. Great. I thought. There goes the sliver of anonymity I had when at the very least no one in this lobby knew my room number.

621? I think we put someone in 621. Didn’t we?” the pretty, worthless one asked.

“I don’t think so, no. I think 621‘s free.”

The manager started to make me a key.

“Do you mind checking to be sure?” I asked. “I’d hate to, you know, WALK IN ON SOMEONE.”

If he heard the edge in my voice, he didn’t show it, bless him. He went to check.

When he came back, he had a huge grin on his face. He was very proud to announce that no one was in 621. It was all ready for me.

I thanked him through clenched teeth, took my key, and went up to my room. I was in 621, in case anyone was curious. And I was staying alone. And having everyone and their mom be in on that fact was probably horribly unsafe.

But my exhaustion reasoned with me that that was what deadbolts were for. And exhaustion can be very persuasive. So I went inside, locked the bolt, and immediately took my shower.

And oh, what a glorious shower it was. I emerged from that cheaply remodeled bathroom a whole new person. A clean person, if still a tired person. And, suddenly, a hungry person.

I always think it’s funny the way the body suppresses other needs until the most pressing one is taken care of, and then the next most pressing one suddenly surfaces with a vengeance. Our bodies are so high maintenance. Always crying out for water, food, rest, shelter, bathing. It never ends, does it? Or, it does, but then we do, too.

Anyway, I was hungry, as people tend to become every handful of hours. I’d made a mental note of signs in lobby and the elevator on my way to my room advertising the hotel restaurant. I looked it up in my hotel services packet, or whatever you call those things, and was delighted to see that while they didn’t do room service, I could call down and order food to go. So I wouldn’t even have to put on makeup! This evening was taking a turn for the better.

It didn’t even really bother me that it was a Cajun restaurant outside of Louisiana. And that’s saying something, because as a Louisianan Texas transplant I have become very distrustful of Cajun food outside of the Pelican State.

It wasn’t that I had any false hopes of this food being not terrible. No. I was sure it would be just that. But sometimes convenience wins out over taste (read: any fast food restaurant ever). And this place said they served lobster ravioli that I decided would probably be about the same as the kind I sometimes picked up in the frozen aisle at the grocery store when I was feeling like a fancy lady. So, it would do just fine.

I called the number, and the phone rang. And rang. And rang. It probably rang six times before the answering machine picked up that informed me I had called after hours and to please try again at another time.

Well, that was frustrating. It was 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday night. That restaurant was most definitely open.

I wasn’t deterred. I was getting that lobster ravioli, and I wasn’t putting on any makeup for it!

I tried again. And then again. And then again. I tried seven times. Each time that maddening answering machine picked up telling me I’d called after hours, when I most certainly had not.

I really didn’t want to have to get dressed up at this point. In my exhausted state, I was feeling a little bratty, a little entitled to takeout that was advertised so prevalently throughout the hotel. (The signs had even promised a free appetizer! Just for getting food there! Because the restaurant was new and they needed the business! And I was going to give it to them! If they’d just pick up that damn phone…)

But they didn’t, and so I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to walk down and order food from a real person in the flesh. Life is hard sometimes.

I dressed, put on my makeup (ugh), and went downstairs. There were plenty of empty seats at the bar. I took one of those because I thought it would be less awkward than dining alone at a table, which shouldn’t be awkward at all, but always is, somehow. When the bartender came by I ordered a glass of wine—white, to go with the lobster ravioli that I was sure would be forthcoming. She dropped off the glass right away, but then didn’t come back with a food menu. After fifteen minutes or so, I managed to flag her down and asked her for one.

“You want food?”

“Yes, please.”

“Oh, well. The kitchen’s real backed up tonight. You know it’s Saturday.”

I did.

“They don’t usually serve the bar on Saturday.”

“Oh, OK. Well, then I’ll just pay for this drink and get a table.”

“Diya have a reservation, honey?”

It always freaks me out when women my own age call me “honey.” It’s just plain unnerving. But, never mind that, back to my quest for food.

I told her that I did not have a reservation.

“I’m not sure that they’ll be able to seat you…”

She must have seen the desperation on my face. I was a starving person. I hadn’t eat in, like, five hours. Situation was dire.

Her face softened in reaction to my obvious despair.

“Well, since it’s just you…I can go to the kitchen and see if they can make an exception for just one person.”

“Oh, would you? Thank you so much,” I told her, voice oozing with gratitude that was very, very real. Because the thought of driving around Hot Springs that night in search of dinner sounded truly terrible.

She went to the back, then returned about ten minutes later with a look on her face that told me I wasn’t going to be getting any food at the bar.

“I’m sorry, it’s just…the kitchen’s real backed up tonight.”

I told her not to worry about it, and asked if there was anywhere else I could go. She mentioned a Mexican place across the street.

I live in Texas these days, so maybe that’s why the idea of getting Tex-Mex in Arkansas was more offensive to me than Cajun fare. At least I couldn’t get good Cajun food in Dallas, so crappy Cajun food or not, it would still have been something different. But the idea of paying for Tex-Mex in a city where it was likely to be awful when I would be in a city where it was almost always great the very next day seemed downright ludicrous. I thanked her, telling myself there was no way in hell I was going to that Mexican place, then walked out of the bar toward the hotel exit.

At this point, it’s important that you understand the layout of the hotel lobby. There was the entrance to the hotel, the hotel restaurant on the right, and the hotel bar about ten feet ahead, also on the right. The external parts of the bar and restaurant were completely separate, though they did share the interior kitchen. What this means is, to get out of the hotel, I had to walk past the main dining hall of the Cajun joint. As I did, I made the mistake of peeking inside.

The restaurant had about 15 tables within it, and that’s being generous. Only two of those tables had parties. These tables were four-tops. So, there were a total of eight people seated in this restaurant on a Saturday night, and the kitchen was “real backed up.”

If what the bartender had been telling me was true, this kitchen was essentially incapable of hosting a house dinner party.

I decided there must have been some sort of miscommunication. Or maybe the bar didn’t get along with the cooks and so they refused to serve their patrons. Whatever. I didn’t want to get involved in that turf war. I didn’t care. I just wanted crappy Cajun food in my belly within the next hour.

I approached the host stand. There was a pimply faced teenage boy at the counter, probably around 17. I smiled at him, exercising my right as a woman to flirt just a bit to get what I wanted, and asked if he had a table for one.

He looked around cautiously, as if I was hiding a party of ten somewhere behind my person. When he had satisfied himself that I was probably not, he asked, to be fully certain, “just one?”

“Yes,” I told him, “just one.”

“OK,” he said with some conviction and what sounded like a hint of pride at the favor he was about to do for me. “I’ll seat you.”

He did, and then proceeded to make a show of pouring olive oil with herbs and olive oil with vinegar onto two saucers. He poured seriously and with studied movements.

I thought this was pretty strange, because wasn’t that more of an Italian restaurant thing? And wasn’t this a “Cajun” place? Louisiana cooking uses Crisco, not olive oil. But I wasn’t about to get caught up in semantics. Lobster ravioli was moments in my future, and so I gave him another smile, and thanked him.

He walked away. Once again, I let myself believe that I food was going to happen! I could practically taste the overcooked pasta and too-buttery cream sauce.

But, when he came back to my table about 15 minutes later, he had the same look on his face that the bartender had had. The look that said food wasn’t happening for me tonight, not here, anyway.

The only difference in what I saw on his face and what I’d seen on hers was that he looked like he had either recently been crying, or was about to.

“I’m sorry,” he told me, “but the kitchen is real backed up tonight.”

I balked, truly shocked. I started to say something in protest, something not very nice, but stopped myself, realizing that this poor guy was just the messenger.  And, clearly, he had already suffered enough. Whoever was in the kitchen must have chewed his ass out, Cajun-style.

So I bit back the urge to blurt, “I know you’ve got a pot of gumbo in the back—pour a lady a bowl, son!” and instead I just said, “You’re going to have to kick me out, aren’t you?”

“I don’t want to,” he mumbled, biting his lip and looking down at the ground. “I just…I don’t know what else to do.”

“Don’t you worry about it,” I told him, grabbing my purse.

“Can I get you a free drink or somethin’?”

“No, no thanks, I just wanted food.”

And at that point I’d had two glasses of wine in my room, another at the bar, was still dehydrated from the bath, and really did need food.

I walked out of the hotel and looked across the street. The Mexican restaurant I’d promised myself I wouldn’t set foot in was there, alright, with a bright neon sign in front of it that read “Speak-Easy.” Subtle. Also, inviting.

Speakeasy Mexican restaurant and bar in Hot Springs, AK

I walked in. This place was packed full of people enjoying a live band playing classic rock covers. This was clearly the place to be in Hot Springs on Saturday night. There were no seats available at all, just a tiny spot at the bar, and all the stools were taken. But I smiled at the bartender and asked if he minded if I just stood there and had dinner. Bless him, he said didn’t mind at all.

I ordered a margarita and a beef burrito with everything in it. It may have been the hunger talking, but that was one of the best damn burritos that I’d ever had. Texas, watch yourself. Hot Springs, AK, has a new contender in the tasty Tex-Mex restaurant scene.

After demolishing my burrito and chatting with the bartender, a few locals, and the live band after their set, I went back to the hotel and went to bed.

On the way I’d decided that because I’d had a couple of margaritas at the bar, I probably shouldn’t speak my mind about the Cajun restaurant ridiculousness to anyone at the hotel that night, lest I be seen as a drunken irate customer, who is never taken nearly as seriously as a sober irate customer. I told myself that if I was still pissed when I woke up, I would say something to a manager.

Well, I woke up, and I was.

As I showered in the cheaply remodeled bathroom, I planned my strategy. I decided that, actually, the irate customer angle wouldn’t solve anything at all. What I had to do was come from a place of trying to help them out.

And, I rationalized, by saying something, I really would be. Because if 8 people got the kitchen really backed up on Saturday night and they couldn’t give a hungry Louisianan so much as a cup of gumbo, never mind the ravioli, there was no way they were going to be able to turn a profit and survive in this town. (I had become an expert on the Hot Springs restaurant business climate overnight, it seemed.)

While checking out at the front desk I asked the manager (pretty and worthless wasn’t around) if there was anyone I could talk to who was in charge of both the restaurant and the hotel.

“Well, the restaurant isn’t really affiliated with us. They’re sort of their own thing.”

“Like a separate entity?”

“Right. Like that. But we heard there were some problems with the restaurant last night. Some guests couldn’t get served. I’m really sorry you were one of them, ma’am. We’ve taken down the signs advertising and won’t be putting them back up until things turn around over there.”

And that was all I really wanted to hear! That someone was sorry! But I wanted it to come from the source.

The manager told me that if I would like to talk to someone, that would be the restaurant owner. He was in there getting ready for brunch right now.

I walked over.

There was a large, tall man with dark, curly hair standing around surveying what looked like a highly presumptous number of tables that had been set for brunch. I wondered why in the hell they’d set so many tables when they would clearly only be able to serve like 12 people all morning, but then returned my focus to my mission.

“Excuse me,” I said, “are you the owner of this restaurant?”

“Yes, I am. Something for you I can do?”

He had an accent that sounded Russian, although I couldn’t be sure, and for a brief moment I was distracted by the fact that a Russian immigrant was, inexplicably, living in Hot Springs and had opened a restaurant that served…Cajun food. What was he doing there? He must have had an interesting story. But that wasn’t what I was there for. I was there to be sure brunch was served with a heaping side of justice. And so I again regained focus.

“I tried to eat here last night and was turned away because the kitchen was backed up, but there were only two tables.”

“Yes. Last night we were very busy.”

“Two tables doesn’t sound very busy to me.” I told him, sounding more indignant than I’d originally intended…but tones are hard to control when you’re pissed. Ever tried it?

“To me it sounds like, if you can’t serve more than two tables on Saturday night, you need to hire some more people for the back.”

I could tell by the sudden deep scowl that appeared on his face that he did not appreciate that little bit of unsolicited advice. Friends I’ve told this story to since have explained to me that this is because it sounded like I was trying to tell him how to run his business. Well. Maybe I was. But maybe he needed to hear it! (Or, more likely, I needed him to hear it for reasons that are unknown to me, as a person who was really not invested in his business.)

“Well, where am I to hire them?” He spoke with his hands. They gestured in an all-encompassing way, as if to say there was no one in the whole of Hot Springs, AK, who he could possibly hire for the most impossible of tasks of serving more than eight people a night in a hotel restaurant.

“That’s not a problem I can solve for you—but across the street, where I ended up eating last night, they’ve found enough people to serve well over 30 tables.”

Again, this did not have the desired effect on him. He did not seem to have a light bulb moment of, “Ah-ha! I should hire more people to feed the hungry would-be patrons of this restaurant on Saturdays.” Instead, he scowled more deeply, which I wouldn’t have thought possible only moments before.

“Perhaps they just know better than I, eh?”

“Look, there’s no need to be mad at me. I’m not saying they know more than you, but serving only two tables on a Saturday night is a problem.”

“You want free breakfast?” he asked in a tone that said that if I accepted I would most certainly be picking broken glass out of my eggs.

“No, no I don’t want free breakfast—”

“Well then I don’t know what to do for you.”

“You don’t need to do anything for me! I was just trying to help you out.”

“How are you helping? You are not telling me things I do not already know.”

“Ok then, alright,” I said, giving up. “Goodbye, sir!” And stormed off, luggage in-tow.

At that moment, I knew I was dangerously close to making what is known as a “scene.” But I didn’t care. I was a stranger in that town, and I was angrier that I could remember being in a long time. And I still had more to say.

So, midway through the lobby, I turned back. I planted my feet. I put my own scowl on my face (two can play at the scowl game, Mr. Russia!) and I yelled:

“You need to adjust your attitude—because maybe if you were nicer, more people would want to work for you!”

Then I stood waiting for something to happen while the words hung in the air, crackling like electricity.

He stared at me a moment, and then just shook his head and gave me a low wave with the back of his hand—the type you’d give to a fly or a gnat that was bothering you. Again, not exactly the reaction I had hoped for (although I can’t tell you what that reaction would have been). It didn’t matter, though. I’d spoken my piece. And there’s comfort in that.

I’d like to think that later he went home, took a good hard look in the mirror, and thought to himself, “That red-headed bitch was right. I need to make some changes. I’m going to be a better man, starting today.”

In all likelihood, that isn’t the case. But it’s nice to think about.

My consolation to all of this was that I drove by McDonald’s on my way out of town and ordered an egg and cheese biscuit that I’m sure was way tastier than whatever crap he was serving people for brunch under the Cajun banner with his Russian ‘tude.

Moral: Avoid Cajun food in Hot Springs. Stick with Mexican food from the hilariously well advertised speakeasy.

 

3 thoughts on “The Night I Couldn’t Get Cajun Food in Hot Springs

  1. The last time I was in Arkansas, I passed a place advertising Ark-Mex and shuddered in horror. I’ll check it out the next time I’m there.

    Also, never mess with crazy Russians, Leigh. Did you learn nothing from 80s movies? Undoubtedly, his staff was pulled from the extensive Russian mafia network in Arkansas, probably too busy trafficking illegal arms through the kitchen to be bothered heating up your frozen ravioli. You’re lucky you made it home alive.

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