Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty.
I'm a big believer in the notion that dessert follows dinner. Call me a wet blanket (my kids do), but it just seems like an invitation for trouble. It was, then, a significant concession when I took not only my girls but also a tagalong friend to Cloud 10 Creamery on a recent weeknight.
We'd been asked to pick her up from school as a favor to her mom, and proceeded to drive her around to various after-school activities with us. By the time swim class was over, the girls all annoyed at the fact that they'd been so tantalizingly close, yet so frustratingly unable to actually play together, we all decided that ice cream before dinner was the best of all possible ideas.
On a gambling whim, I suggested Cloud 10, dodging the "will there only be weird flavors" question with a quick perusal of their online menu. The minute I said "marshmallow and Nutella," we were on our way. The gamble paid off in the form of the Dulce de Leche/Chamomile ice cream my wife ordered, a delicious and surprisingly subdued blend perfect for my less-than-sweet tooth.
The kids, being kids, all insisted on getting the exact same thing, pairing the aforementioned Nutella with a scoop of chocolate, on a waffle cone. As they chatted and ate, comparing ice-cream goatees and using up practically every napkin in the place, I decided that, just maybe, ice cream before dinner wasn't the worst idea. Then we got back in the car.
Filling kids with ice cream and cramming them in the backseat of a mid-size sedan is a lot like dropping Mentos in a two-liter bottle of Coke and screwing the lid back on. No sooner had the doors closed than I began to regret my decision. Excited and energized (SUGARRRRRR!!!!!), the kids were conversing in a combination of high-pitched whirring sounds for a few minutes before the car erupted in uncontrollable giggling. I don't know how much time you've spent around ten-and-under girls, but this is usually a bad sign.
Turns out, they had caught some twentysomething dude in the back of a Benz being overly concerned about his hair. As kids are wont to do, they stared. Like, for a while. Apparently, his friends noticed, but he, fingers gently but insistently teasing elegant curls into his coiffure, did not. His bros helped with that, slowing the pace of the car to match ours for a few blocks. When he finally looked up, he was met with the terrifying intensity of the gaze of three little girls who've found an adult behaving ridiculously, and the quantum wave collapsed into hysteria. You could have powered a mid-size American city with the force of their amusement.
This, of course, prompted the retelling of other stories of embarrassing adults, including my favorite, a story about driving home from Galveston, making faces at a guy, then acting normal when his wife looked, like the "gremlin on the wing" episode of Twilight Zone. They were discussing plans for a repeat performance when we got to Chacho's.
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Being right down the street from our friend's house helped with the decision to visit Chacho's, as did the extensive menu of better-than-it-should-be Tex-Mex, the more than reasonable prices and the fact that three slightly overexcited kids wouldn't be overly disruptive. On a Friday night, Chacho's was more or less equally split between friends just setting out to begin a night on the town and families getting ready to end theirs. I knew it would be perfect for our group when the girls began singing a Taylor Swift song and the little boy in the booth next to ours joined in on the spoons.
As we waited on our orders, my pregnant wife did her best to eat the salsa bar out of pico. She was on her third bowl, going at it with a fork, by the time our food arrived. Between the ice cream and the "appetizer," nobody was terribly hungry, warily eyeing the taco salads (older girls), breakfast tacos (younger girl, who had stated her order simply as "eggs") and cheesy migas (mine). I couldn't help folding some deliciously porky refried beans into a pillowy flour tortilla, but none of us managed to finish more than half our plates.
Of course, the portions at Chacho's are enormous, especially given the cheap prices, so maybe that wasn't so bad. It also meant I had leftovers for a few lunches (my wife and kids generally eschew leftovers, a tendency that tends to benefit me). It also meant that the kids had essentially eaten ice cream for dinner, with a few bites of picadillo for dessert. I'm back on the "dinner first" wagon, and if the kids have a problem with it, I am sure they will let this adult know, loudly.