Monday, November 9, 2009

97 Seconds

Everybody has a special place that they used to hang out at in high school.    It's like Arnold's Drive-In on Happy Days, or The Peach Pit on Beverly Hills 90210.  Given the budget, and eating habits, of teenagers, it's usually a fast food place like McDonald's or Zippy's.   But whenever my friends and I would get together in high school for dinner, there is one place that would inevitably be our destination.   We went there just about every other weekend.  All that we would have to say is, "you guys free for dinner next Friday night?", and we wouldn't ever have to ask where.   It was always the Old Spaghetti Factory in Ward Warehouse.

Now while Spaghetti Fac's food is decent, it never ever compared with my mom's spaghetti.  My mom's spaghetti is probably my favorite thing that she cooks, and no other spaghetti in the world can compare with it.   So it wasn't exactly the the spaghetti that I would ever long for at Spaghetti Fac, but the company.    When you're in high school, and you've got a night out on the town, Spaghetti Fac is one of the few places where you could get a nice meal for a very decent price (usually under $10/person).  It became our place.   Our collective dining room.

The evening would always inevitably start out the same.   Jeff would be late, of course.   Something we dubbed the "Jeff Factor".  Usually on a Friday night, it gets pretty crowded, and Spaghetti Fac would have a 40 minute wait or so.   So we would wander off to the comic store, Other Realms, check things out and wander back.  When we would return, we'd probably sit down and play a few games on their vintage Ms. Pac-Man tabletop while we waited.   Ms. Pac-Man, debuted when we were in elementary school, so even in high school, playing it was something of nostalgia.   For the life of me, I could never get past the "pretzel" level.  We would always make sure to put in some witty name, so that when they finally called it out over the loudspeaker it would really catch everyone's attention, like "Wise Men, Party of 3!  Wise Men, Party of 3!"

Once seated, we would almost dispense with the formality of looking at the menu, but we would usually let the waiter do his shpeal first.   I could practically order for everyone strictly off of memory.   Erich, would have the marinara, and no dressing on his salad.   James would have the rich meat sauce, with blue cheese dressing.   Jeff would have the manager's favorite, a mix of their rich meat sauce and their mizithra cheese & brown butter (as he claimed the mizithra was better than sprinkling parmesean on your spaghetti), with creamy pesto for a dressing.   Nerida would have white clam sauce with blue cheese on her salad.   And Polly.... well, Polly is one of the only ones who would actually look at the menu. 

Once the orders were placed, we would let the waiter tell us about the butter (garlic butter in the blue dish, regular butter in the white).   I think that they started to realize that no one ever ate the regular butter (certainly we didn't), because they stopped including it.   Then Polly and Erich would get into some heated debate about the bread.   Erich, would want his bread sliced of course.   Whereas, Polly would insist that the bread should be torn (or broken), as that was the proper Christian etiquitte.   And we would settle in to our normal discussions.

Bread at Old Spaghetti Factory
Then the spectacle would start.    Everyone does some pretty stupid things in high school.   I had done quite a number of them actually.   But probably my most visible (and it was highly visible) display of stupidity came in the form of my speed eating spaghetti.   It started innocently enough.   One day we noticed that Erich would slice is spaghetti into smaller, bite sized segements.   When asked why, he stated that it was for efficiency sake, as it aided in the ease and speed of consumption.  James counter argued that the most expedient way of eating spaghetti was with the pasta spoon, as he demonstrated by twirling his noodles.  I, being slightly more versed in the Japanese manner of slurping their noodles, had to outdo them both using this technique.   When none of them could possibly match the speed at which I inhaled my noodles, and everyone utterly revolted yet unable to turn away, I began trying to beat my time.   For over two years, I began slurping faster and faster, incorporating a two handed/two fork technique.  Until I ultimately degenerated into a Cookie Monster like frenzy of gobbling, slurping, and smacking.   I am told it was one of the most truly hilarious and completely ridiculous things any of them had ever seen.   Finally, after two years, I retired at a speed of 97 seconds for a plate of white clam sauce.    Now honestly, I really don't recommend that anyone try this, not just for the obvious choking potential, but that you really don't get to taste your spaghetti as you inhale it down.

It never really occurred to me then, but our initial different approaches to eating spaghetti were really culturally based.   Erich's slicing of his spaghetti was clearly an Western habit, as no Asian would ever slice their noodles (long noodles being a symbol of longevity).   James' pasta spoon technique was obviously an influence of his European origin.   As for my voracious slurping, while it would never pass Miss Manner's inspection, it is perfectly appropriate etiquitte for a bowl of soba or ramen.   Of course no school of etiquitte probably endorses the Cookie Monster frenzy of 97 seconds, but when you're in high school comedy far outweighs propriety.

Following our pasta consumption, as per our ritual, those who finished their meal could engage in a rousing game of 20 questions.   Naturally, as my meal would be completed in 97 seconds, I would usually go first.    Afterwards, it was usually back to one of our houses with a movie rental, or a game of Golden Axe on the Sega Genesis and a bag of French Onion Sun Chips.   Those were the days.  Cherished memories of growing up, of camraderie and companionship, of youth and dreams.  

Today whenever one of my friends comes back into town, a visit to Spaghetti Fac is an imperative necessity.    Erich and James even went on a cross country road trip, visiting all of the Spaghetti Facs on the entire route.   But none of them compare to our own.   This was OUR Spaghetti Fac.  But things are slightly different for me.    I don't usually go to Spaghetti Fac on my own.   It just doesn't feel right without the rest of the gang with me.  And when I go, I don't usually order the white clam sauce, since I don't really feel the need to try to inhale it in 97 seconds anymore.

Salad with Blue Cheese at Old Spaghetti Factory
I still like to get my salad with blue cheese.    Their simple little salad is one of the best side salads I've eaten anywhere.   It's just a simple mix of lettuce, shredded carrot, and croutons.   But everything is always served perfectly chilled.   Even the plate is chilled.   The coldness makes the lettuce supremely crisp and refreshing.   That coupled with the fact they have have the creamiest, most perfectly blended, not overpowering, blue cheese anywhere, makes for a perfect salad.   Actually, what really makes their salad so great, is the fact that it automatically comes with every meal, something that really appeals to high school kids who wouldn't usually have the cash to buy a starter of any kind.

Meat Lover's Trio at Old Spaghetti Factory
Since my high school days though, Spaghetti Fac has introduced a dish that I really love on its own.  It is their meat lover's trio, which includes rich meat sauce, a meatball, and a full Portuguese sausage (or linguica).  While other Spaghetti Fac's around the country may feature this dish with an Italian sausage, the inclusion of local style Portuguese sausage makes this is a true Hawaii only treat.  As I've said before, no spaghetti in the world can match my mom's for flavor, but if I'm going out to eat spaghetti for whatever reason, this is definitely the one I would order.   Having a whole Portuguese sausage is what really makes it, rather than the few medallions you normally get on a breakfast platter.   Maybe it's the fact that I'm not tryiing to eat it in 97 seconds, but I like it a lot better than the white clam.

Mizithra Cheese & Brown Butter (with Garlic, Mushrooms & Bacon) at Old Spaghetti Factory
My wife's favorite has always been the mizithra cheese and brown butter.   It's probably Spaghetti Fac's most unique dishes, and I have never seen it anywhere else.   We even found a block of mizithra cheese at Safeway once, and tried to make it at home, but didn't have the slightest clue as to how to recreate their classic dish.    The last time they went, they had a special which made it even more deluxe, by adding garlic, mushrooms, and bacon (3 things which my wife really adores).  It was as if they had reached into her mind, figured out what her favorite things were, and put them on a plate for her.  I really love my wife.   Most women wouldn't really be attracted to a guy who can put away a plate in 97 seconds, but she humors me (and has even witness the spectacle once or twice herself), and she lets me keep my treasured memories.

Where are my friends now?   West Virginia, Massachusetts, California, and Australia.  I really miss the gang, and our times there.   But whenever one of them comes home for a visit, you can bet that a trip to Spaghetti Fac will be in order.

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