She couldn’t make a good cup of coffee to save her life. At least that’s what she told me as she set the chipped white mug of inky black liquid in front of me. Kiss me! I’m From New York, it read. The incessant honking of the yellow taxi cabs just outside the small East Village diner seemed to chide the mug’s cheeky sentiment. More, “kiss this!” than “kiss me!” I found it all so very charming; so very New York. She snatched the pencil out of her high-perched bun, readying it to take my order. The perfectly sharpened tip never actually met the surface of her small pad of paper though, as I rattled off my order item by item. Bagel with lox and cream cheese … large orange juice … turkey sandwich to-go. It seemed like more of a formality, that pad of paper; those things we do for show because they’re expected of us, not because they really matter or make much difference.
It was a sultry summer morning on New York City’s lower east side, and I had wandered into a small, non-descript diner looking for a break from the heat – relief that came in the form of bagels, chive-filled cream cheese, pulpy juice and the enjoyable company of a waitress whose name tag read “Susie Q.” I called her Susie throughout the duration of my morning visit to this diner, although I suspect that it wasn’t her given name. Oh, I just love this song! She’d said to no one in particular, as she hummed and sang along to the music coming from the small radio behind the counter. Girl put your records on … tell me your favorite song … just go ahead, let your hair down. I’d sidled up to “her” counter and taken temporary residence on one of the bright red stools with which it was lined.
She saw me staring at her small pad of paper as I gave my order, as if I was expecting her to begin scribbling something down any second, and she just smiled. “This little pad has been empty for years. I keep it handy though, right here in this pocket, because I always think today will be the day my memory fails me. Hasn’t happened yet though! She exclaimed proudly, tapping her forefinger on her temple. The old mind is still sharp as it ever was. Oh, good morning Sal! Will it be your usual today?”
Sal was one of her regulars.
The concept of being “a regular” at a restaurant is one with which I have long been enamored, and it is a status for which I will strive eventually, when we stop moving around so much and settle down somewhere with more of a sense of permanence. I don’t know if it is because I watched an inordinate number of “Cheers” episodes at some point in my life or what, but for some reason, I have been a longtime fan of the notion of restaurant regularism (not really a word).
That day at the diner in New York, I watched Susie Q and Sal weave their way through conversational pleasantries with beautiful familiarity and an almost tangible sense of comfort. You could tell that they’d had this same talk – exchanging the same series of questions and answers – for quite a while. His “usual” was a tuna melt on rye with Swiss AND Cheddar. She poured him a Coke while the bread was toasting, and by the time she’d placed the finished plate on the counter in front of him – complete with crinkle-cut potato chips and a dill pickle spear – they’d already caught up on just about everything that mattered.
As it turned out, Sal had been coming to that diner for years just as I’d thought. After he’d paid his bill and tipped his hat to both Susie and me (the awkward bystander/quasi eavesdropper), Sal made his way out the door, disappearing into the ubiquitous sea of New York taxis. What fascinated me about the friendship between those two, and perhaps what allures me so much to the whole notion of “the regulars” are the unique boundaries of the interactions. The entirety of Susie and Sal’s long-term relationship had existed within the confines of those diner walls, never to venture outside so as to taint the charm of the diner dynamic. But still, somehow, it had managed to be a very caring, appreciative, and deep relationship – more than meets the eye. Sal’s son had his first cheeseburger in one of the diner’s booths, and Susie had been their waitress. He’d taken his family there to celebrate birthdays, Yankees victories, graduations, and even a lost tooth. Susie told me all of this while I sat there at the counter, completely captivated as I ate my ice cream sundae – which I’d mostly ordered because I didn’t want to leave. Susie had insisted on giving me an extra scoop of their freshly made vanilla, saying it was “too damn hot outside to not eat extra ice cream.” Who was I to argue?
I lived in New York for a very brief, sweet time that summer. It was such a fleeting thing, really. Certainly not long enough to become a regular anywhere, but long enough to dream about it, I guess. And that counts for something. I, too, paid my bill and said goodbye to Susie Q that day, disappearing into the sea of taxis and into the blisteringly hot summer sun. Before I left, I turned around to give her a wave and to leave an extra tip on the counter and I caught her dancing to the song that she was singing quietly as she went about her work.
Summer came like cinnamon, so sweet … little girls double-dutch on the concrete … tell me your favorite song … go ahead let your hair down.
It’s the one that had been playing on the radio before. I liked the song too, even more so after that day. Makes me think of Susie Q every time I hear it. She smiled at another patron who’d just entered the diner – a newbie like myself – and she assumed her position … pad and pencil at the ready … as if she was really going to write something down this time. Never can tell …
I just put on another pot of coffee, she said. But I have to warn you, I can’t make a good one to save my life …
The recipes in this week’s post are snapshots of what I’ve got going on in my kitchen right now. Filled to the brim with some of the season’s finest produce, I cover many a table with various iterations of these dishes all summer long.
Roasted Two-Potato Salad with Corn, Avocado & Queso Fresco
*You can stick to all white potatoes or all sweet potatoes, if you prefer
1.5 lbs. small red or white potatoes, halved or quartered (depending on size); no need to peel
1.5 lbs. sweet potatoes, cut into pieces that are of similar size to the red potatoes (keeps the roasting time the same)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
3 ears worth of fresh corn kernels, shucked, cooked, cooled (I boil mine for about 5 minutes, or until done), and cut off of the cob
1/3 – 1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 packet of onion soup mix (such as Lipton)
3 scallions, thinly sliced
1 – 2 avocados, sliced
Cilantro, for garnish
1/2 cup crumbled queso fresco (feta cheese or cotija also work well)
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F and spray a large baking sheet (or two smaller sheets) with non-stick spray.
In a large bowl, toss the potato pieces in the 3 tablespoons of olive oil and season with salt and pepper (about 1 teaspoon of each should work; the onion soup mix that we’re adding later is very salty). If you need a little more oil to evenly coat all of the potatoes, that’s fine.
Arrange the potatoes on the baking sheet(s) in an even layer and roast in the preheated oven for about 35 – 40 minutes, tossing them once halfway through the cooking time (may take a bit longer, just keep an eye on them). When they are golden brown and cooked through, transfer the potatoes back into the large bowl and add the corn, mayonnaise, half of the contents of the onion soup mix packet, and the scallions. I advise people to start by adding half of the soup mix, tossing and tasting to see what they think. The mix is salty which I personally love, but you can start with half and go from there. I use the whole packet typically, but this is up to you. Either way, it’s delicious.
Toss very thoroughly until everything is evenly coated and the soup mix is well-blended, adjusting for seasoning. Transfer the potato salad to a serving bowl and arrange the avocado slices on top. Garnish with a sprinkling of cilantro and the queso fresco and serve right away, or refrigerate before serving.
Ancho & Honey-Marinated Cantaloupe Salad with Sopressata & Watercress
1/2 cup honey
1 teaspoon ancho chili powder
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cantaloupe, peeled and thinly sliced (slightly under-ripe works best)
Flaked sea salt
6 – 8 slices of sopressata, either pre-sliced or you can slice a whole sopressata yourself (you can usually find this pre-packaged in the supermarket; Boar’s Head makes a nice version)
2 cups watercress
Olive oil, for finishing
Whisk the honey, chili powder, black pepper, and 1 cup of boiling water in a 9″ X 13″ pan. Allow it to cool. Add the cantaloupe and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least four hours or overnight. Drain and discard excess syrup. Serve on a platter (or individual plates) along with slices of spicy sopressata, a sprinkling of sea salt, the fresh watercress, and a drizzle of olive oil. (adapted from Saveur)
Watermelon & Vanilla Bean Juice
For the juice (often referred to as “aqua fresca”), simply place fresh watermelon pieces (peeled, seedless) into a blender with the seeds of a fresh vanilla bean (split the bean open with you knife and use the back of the knife to scrape out the seeds). Vanilla bean paste or extract work beautifully as well (about a teaspoon of either for a full blender’s worth of fruit). Blend until smooth and frothy. Pour into a serving container and refrigerate until cold.