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 remember the first time it happened. In vivid detail. My youngest was still not in school, I was still working Shift Work, it was a weekday. Back then, it was not at all uncommon for my wife and me to take the little one for breakfast after we'd unloaded her sister at school. Totally unfair, I know; we took lots of well-deserved shit from big sis for that setup.
One morning, we decided we were in need of enchiladas for breakfast, and headed over to Los Dos Amigos. My wife and I had been many times, but it was a first for the kid. We only stayed for 12 seconds. Four steps in the door, my daughter announced, loudly and seemingly to the whole restaurant, "This place smells really weird." We didn't come back for a month.
Now, anyone who's eaten enough Mexican food has surely, at some point, encountered the "Mexican Food/Body Odor Corollary." Don't pretend it hasn't happened to you. I know it's happened to me, in both directions, so I can see where the kid was coming from. That experience cemented our practice of pre-game talks, which we employ whenever taking the girls to a new restaurant that falls outside of our middle-ground.
Fancy restaurant? Pre-game talk required. Divey? Pre-game talk. Ethnic? Definitely pre-game, if they haven't been there. Himalaya was a perfect candidate for the pre-game, being both slightly divey and assuredly ethnic. Unexpected and/or unfamiliar smells, sounds, faces or clothing can rightly be a point of interest for small children, and I don't want to extinguish their curiosity. I do, however, want to avoid "This place smells weird" or "Why do they all talk funny" or, which happened to my mom when my youngest brother was six, "We're the only white people in here." Classy, Brendan. Reeeal Classy.
Our pre-game for Himalaya covered the usual bases. We discussed the fact that there would be strong aromas (my older daughter ended up being just as intoxicated by them as I always am; my younger daughter didn't seem to notice); we mentioned that the place could be a little dog-eared (I think this just made them feel more comfortable); we went over a list of observations they were not allowed to make aloud. No food would be spit out, no unpleasant comments made, no references to weirdness of food/surroundings/fellow diners.
If this seems an odd checklist, you have to consider the general curiosity and lack of inhibition of most kids. If they want to know something, they ask. They don't care if it's going to make you or anyone else uncomfortable. If they want to make an observation, they make it. Even if it's negative, they don't necessarily mean it negatively. Very few filters exist between the minds and mouths of children.
I suppose you can call it ironic that our little chat, while effective in its way, had some rather unintended consequences. While there were no inappropriate comments made, no embarrassing napkin-spitting of food, our eldest seemed to over-compensate out of fear of transgressing. As we walked in, she announced, loudly and seemingly to the whole restaurant, "This place smells great!" The exclamation point seemed to hang in the air for an eternity as we found our seats.
When she was asked if she liked the food, some items were met with enthusiastic chatter. Others, with pointed silence that spoke more voluminously than a simple "no" would have. Given that, upon further interrogation, the worst she had to say about anything was that it wasn't her favorite, I'm afraid we went a bit overboard in our warnings against offense. Still, I stand by the policy, as I'm certain it's kept many meals out of the danger zone of over-sharing kids.
My wife and I are recent converts to Himalaya, this having been only our second visit. That's second in as many weeks, mind you, the place having secured an immediate spot in our list of favorites.
Predictably, both kids gobbled up the naan, smitten as we were by its slightly smoky, crisped exterior and dense yet pillowy crumb. They were similarly enchanted by their creamy-cool glasses of mango lassi, the little one asking if we could come back every day, just for that.
A plate of aloo tikki found a divided audience. The older one sided with the adults, reveling in the crisp exterior of the potato croquettes, which gave way to a luxuriously fluffy and light filling, subtly spicy and earthy-sweet. The younger one eschewed the potatoes in favor of the thin tamarind sauce, swiping it up like a slightly tangy maple syrup.
Mains were similarly divisive. The younger preferred the plainest scoops of rice mined from my wife's mound of goat biryani (a massive amount of food, easily enough for two or three people), while the elder girl wanted nothing more than to swipe tears of naan through the malai kofta. Dodging the moist and savory dumplings, she chased every drop of creamy, nutty sauce through the bowl. I can't say that I blame her.
Nobody else seemed to care much for my rich and viscous bowl of haleem. I'd ordered it in honor of my friend Chris Frankel, who recently completed his own edge-of-your-seat Haleem Sweet 16 bracket, sampling this dish at far more places than I would previously have guessed serve it, all in the name of crowning a champion. No spoilers here. Go check out his exhaustive coverage of all things haleem.
This was my first bowl of haleem, and it took me a few minutes to warm up to it. The consistency of the thick porridge of goat, legumes and grains takes on a very specific texture, something like stringy oatmeal interlaced with okra, all cooked down to a very smooth paste. It was a bit unexpected, and certainly seems more suitable to colder weather. It's more or less the corporeal realization of the "stick to your ribs" cliché.
Once I adjusted to the unexpectedly thick and viscous feel of the stuff, I began to appreciate its subtly meaty chew, hint of goat-funk and masterful layering of spices. It was spicy stuff, but well balanced by its other components to create a dish with layers of individual flavor, while also managing a cohesive flavor. For her part, my older daughter approved of the garnish of caramelized onions, picking them from the top. Yes, with her hands.
That haleem put me in Chef Kaiser's good graces, I think. Our first visit, two weeks prior, the chef was somewhat dictatorial. He approached our table with a slightly wary demeanor, then more or less told us what we would be eating. I didn't mind, but the exchange felt a bit odd.
I thought I sensed a glimmer of recognition in his eyes on that second trip, and we were allowed to choose our own meals. Perhaps our quick return, family in tow, proved to the Chef that we hadn't stumbled in via dumb accident. If that hadn't done it, I'm convinced the haleem did. On one of his visits to the table, he grinned broadly at my bowl, noting his approval while telling me that not many people order the dish. He asked if it was too spicy, and was pleased with my firm assurance that it was not.
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SHOW ME HOW
The kids wanted to close the meal with something sweet and, by God, they got it. In fact, I think I actually found a dessert too sweet for my six year old. Given that she's been known to sneak sucralose packets off restaurant tables while my wife and I are distracted, I think this stands as an accomplishment of sorts. Odd, then, that I enjoyed it so much. I don't have much of a sweet tooth, with a firm preference for cheeseburgers over cheesecake. Something about the floral rosewater syrup and dusky cardamom balanced out the sweetness, creating a captivating bite, if only for a few of them.
We made it out without incident, my kids proving that DEFCON Dining is certainly capable of false alarm. The alert system is not foolproof, and bad intel occasionally slips in. Never mind that it's intel about my own kids, and maybe I should know better. They're fickle little things. Besides, I'd rather go in guns drawn but unneeded than beat a hasty retreat, reinforcing every stereotype about dining with kids as we hump it back to the car in defeat.