Saturday, June 19, 2004


Today's restaurant review: The Sunrise Cafe, corner of Foster and Ravenswood, Chicago.

Before Steve and I leapt from the frying pan of the city into the fire of Suburban Hell, I used to drive past this lesbian-owned crunchy hippie restaurant with stars painted all over the twilight-colored brick exterior. "Homemade vegetable soup!" the signs on the windows cheerfully proclaimed. "Fresh scones! Sandwiches! Salads! Birthday cakes!"

"You really should go," my friends would say. "They have great scones."

I put it on my to-do list, along with reading Ulysses and taking French lessons, and five years went by and Ulysses is still sitting on my bookshelf with an unbroken spine and it's still a big non as far as relearning the French I'd forgotten from high school. The Sunrise Cafe, however, was another story all together. This was something I could actually accomplish.

So before the boys and I went to the park, I spontaneously aimed the Ski Car to the side of the road when we approached the little restaurant, and I dragged them out of the car, happily anticipating a veggie sandwich for me and some Tofu Pups for the boys.

The Sunrise Cafe only had three tables, and a bar with stools running along the front window. A deli area was set up in an L-shape that ended with an old fashioned brass-colored cash register. The only other people in the restaurant were two men sitting at one of the tables. We went up to the register, and I peered back into the kitchen in an attempt to catch someone's attention. One of the men, a very young Japanese man in his early 20's, got up, greeted us and motioned us to a table. I led the kids to the table and put my purse down onto the edge of the table top, which caused the top to flip over.

The boys were overjoyed by this, but frankly I didn't think it bode very well for the rest of the meal. We sat down, and Christopher amused himself by playing with the pepper, pausing occasionally to sneeze, while Alex and I looked around the place.

"What's that music called?" he asked.

"Japanese music."

"What kind of Japanese music?"

"You know, I'm not really familiar with Japanese music, so that's about as much as I know. It sounds like Japanese new age to me."

Behind the deli case window were rows and rows of sushi. Japanese pop bottles were lined along the wall on small shelves. It seemed I had come to the restaurant about 5 years too late, and I probably wouldn't be getting any of those scones.

The young owner came out again with a menu for me. It seemed to be an old menu from the previous owners, promising all sorts of hippie goodness. I looked at him hopefully.

"Sushi?" he returned my look of hope with one of his own. "I make sushi! Good sushi!"

Alex is a trooper in many ways, but there's no way he's diving into raw fish topped with wasabi. And Christopher we won't even discuss.

On the second page of the menu, an item read: Peanut butter and strawberry jelly, $4.99.

After kicking myself for not making the peanut butter and jelly at home and eating it at the park, I pointed to it.

"Oh, yes, yes," he said, nodding agreeably.

"Okay, just one, and they'll split it, and a chicken and vegetable salad for me."

He nodded again, and backed into the kitchen. He returned seconds later with ice water in small plastic glasses. Thin circles of lemon hovered just under the ice. He placed the water down on the table, and returned to the table with a small bowl of edamame just in time to see Christopher dump a sizeable portion of the water down the front of his shirt.

"Ahhhh, baby wet!" he said, and came back again with napkins.

Alex and I enjoyed the edamame quite a bit, mostly because he likes to shell things, and I like it when he takes a liking to new food.

"You wanna ham?" asked the owner.


"On salad? I put ham..."

"No, no ham, please."



He then asked a series of unintelligable questions that I knew would just result in a complete communication breakdown, so I cut to the chase and waved him away, saying, "Okay, okay."

Lunch came quickly. My salad was romaine lettuce with glass noodles, tomato, cabbage, mushrooms, Kraft singles and chicken pot stickers, with orange french dressing on the side. He seemed very much like he wanted me to know that he made the pot stickers himself, so I feel like I should pass that along, along with the fact that they were pretty decent, and would have been better had they been warm and served with a soy dipping sauce.

The promised peanut butter and jelly sandwich arrived as well. He set it down in front of Christopher. Usually what I do is take their food right away, divvy it up and cut Christopher's into manageable, bite-sized chunks. This time, though, I was completely paralyzed by what was sitting quietly in front of my child.

My God, this sandwich.

My God.

I sat staring at it, unable to process what I was seeing, unable to hide the look of dumb horror on my face. The owner, seeing my strangled facial expression, grew anxious. His face clouded in concern, and he began wringing his hands.

"Yes?" he queried nervously. "Yes?"

But I was forced into silence, as the only words that had formed in my brain were words that I could not say to this sweet man standing in front of me, this man who, it was now excruciatingly clear, had no clue about American food combining.

This is what sat on the wobbly table top in front of me, this food abomination contrasting sharply with the simple goodness of the edamame, the thoughtfully served lemon-water, the cheery yellow-checked paper table cloth:

A club-style triple decker sandwich, on unwieldy puffy french bread. Layered between the slices of bread were, in this order, peanut butter avocado, lettuce, tomato, onion, cucumber, Kraft American singles, and strawberry jelly. I was momentarily sure I was being punked, that Ashton Kutcher was going to show up and point and laugh. And I totally would have deserved it, because
I literally could not speak. And, for awhile, neither could the owner. Clearly, he had done something very wrong. But what? He did not have the vocabulary yet to ask me what the matter was, nor to understand my answer. But he tried. He pointed to a spot under the top layer of bread.

"Is very good peanut butter," he said.

A small hand darted out and grabbed one of the sandwich halves. Alex crammed a point of the sandwich into his mouth.

"What do you think?" I asked him, appalled but trying to hide it.

"Mmmmm. Tomato," he said appreciatively.

I looked up at the owner, who hovered over Christopher, his brow furrowed. "I guess it's okay, then."

And that was one of the tougher decisions I've made, to say nothing. But really, the owner made it, the customer for whom it was made saw no problem with it, so I let it go. None of my business, really.

Unfortunately, the owner had become upset. He pointed at Christopher. "He not eating!" he said.

To be fair, it might not the the devil's own sandwich sitting in front of him that's doing it. Christopher is a pickier eater than his brother, and lately just prefers to occasionally graze rather than eat a meal. But again, I couldn't explain this to the owner, who wasn't waiting for an explaination anyway. He shot off to the back and returned with a huge chocolate chip cookie, which he presented as an olive branch for his mysterious offense.

I don't care if one child hasn't eaten in four days and has crawled through a river of raw sewage to reach the table, and the other has ridden up on a fancy pony, you just can't give one child a cookie without giving one to the other, too, so I quickly broke the cookie in half and distributed the pieces.

The owner settled down into the remaining chair at our table, and began talking in some sort of Japaglish, of which I understood about every fifth word. The only thing I understood, I think, was that he was not married, but that someday he would be, and that he would like to have two boys and one girl, the girl coming last. "She be a princess baby," he said.

"I want to be a princess!" announced Alex. "Princess Fiona knows karate! Princess Elizabeth wears a paper bag! Why are you Japanese?"

The language barrier, a mixed blessing.

Then the owner began talking to Alex, which worked out very well. If you remember from your high school Spanish or French beginner classes, most of the conversations in the beginning of the book went like this:

Marie-Claire: Bonjour, Pierre!

Pierre: Bonjour! Comment allez-vous?

Marie-Claire: Tres bien, merci! Et vous?

Pierre: Tres bien! Alors, Marie-Claire, Quelle age etes-vous?

Marie-Claire: J'ai 17 ans. Et vous?

Pierre: J'ai 18 ans.

Marie-Claire: Qu'est qu'il y a a mange pour le dejuner?

Pierre: J'ai mange un peanut butter and jelly sandwich with lettuce, tomato, onion, and that shitty cheese food those stupid Americans eat. Etes vous?

Marie-Claire: Ah! Moi aussi! Les Americans sont tres stupide, n'est pas?

Pierre: Bien sur!

Both: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

This is perfect small talk for a four year old, so they chatted in that vein until Christopher decided he had had enough and climbed out of his chair and began marching toward the open front door. I ran to scoop him up, and he evaded my evil clutches and darted behind the deli counter. The owner pitched in and got up, coming around the other side of the counter and blocking his path. Christopher fled in anxiety back to me.

"Maybe I just have the girl," said the owner, thoughtfully.

Time to go.

So I paid the check ($10), scooped up the kids, and took them to the park. On the way out, the owner told Alex that if he came back on his (Alex's) birthday, the owner would make him a birthday cake. I'd be all for this, except I suspect we might be presented with an eel covered in pink sugar roses.

Despite all this, the Sunrise Cafe is now my new favorite restaurant, and everyone should go to wish him well.

Just don't order the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

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