DEFCON Dining: 11th Street Cafe

Any port in a storm...
Any port in a storm...

A DEFCON 1 dining event doesn't necessarily look the way you think it does. I have no doubt you're envisioning screaming kids and some sort of urine-slicked "playplace," but that's not necessarily the way it shakes out. In fact, the specifics of DEFCON 1 change dramatically from event to event. Not only are the situations leading up to that status wildly different, but so are the restaurants at which you end up.

Occasionally, a DEFCON 1 dining event will arise from one child's absolute and intractable insistence on a certain food. I've eaten more bowls of phở that way than you could possibly believe, so complete is my youngest daughter's insistence on subsisting on a diet of noodles and tea.

Our most recent DEFCON 1 dinner was a simple matter of indecision-fueled hunger. I can't remember what we had going on that day, but we were in a rush to find a place to eat. We headed out without a plan (usually a bad idea with young diners) and debated options as we drove. Every single one of them was shot down by somebody in the car.

As we passed place after place and my kids dismissed suggestion after suggestion, I grew increasingly convinced that they were never going to settle on what they wanted to eat. At the same time, they were beginning to complain, that universally familiar "Iiiii'm huuuuungry" whine emanating from the back seat every 30 seconds or so.

The point at which you realize a pre-emptive strike is necessary, finding some place to get the kids out of the car and in front of some food before they really turn on you, is the point at which you have entered DEFCON 1. Selectivity is largely out the window. Price? No longer a consideration. There have been DEFCON 1 dining events where I would gladly have paid $20 a head for a couple of hot pockets and a warm juice-box, rather than risk igniting the powder keg that is a hungry and car-weary child.

I quickly and decisively announced that we would be eating at the next restaurant to appear, and we soon turned into the parking lot of the 11th Street Café. It looked promising enough, with a large, sunny deck and the slightly ramshackle appearance of a laid back neighborhood joint. Inside, it was another matter.

It wasn't that the place was dirty, just slightly dingy, dim, and generally uninviting. It looked, for lack of a better phrase, well used and then unused, as if it had seen better days many days ago. We settled into a checkerboard-tabled booth and perused the slight menu.

I opted for a chili cheeseburger, which wound up coming as a semi-open-faced sandwich, the top bun split in half and fanned on opposite sides of the chili-swathed patty. Oddly, that was my favorite thing about the sandwich. I love chili cheeseburgers, but hate having to resort to a knife and fork in order to actually eat the thing; you always end up looking like a mincing fool eating a burger with a knife and fork. Here, there was clearly no other option, and I was free to wield utensils unapologetically.

Unfortunately, the burger was terrible, fostering flashbacks to my middle-school cafeteria. It had that weird spongy-rubbery texture that pre-frozen industrial patties so often do, and boasted absolutely no flavor of its own. That left the chili, inoffensive but ignorable, holding center stage.

I don't remember what the rest of the family ate, aside from one daughter's potato soup. Its weirdly gluey consistency and stale, cardboard-like taste made me wonder if the kitchen had not only used a box of potato flakes to make it, but included the actual box.

Inexplicably, it worked out pretty well, from a DEFCON dining perspective. The family was so unified by the unpleasantness of the meal that we bonded together in quiet commiseration. In hindsight, we should have just gone for phở.



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