Eight hours spent touring the Johnson Space Center with a bunch of semi-bored/semi-spastic Brownies makes for a long day. By the time I hauled my three charges (my kids, plus a tag-along neighbor) from the sprawling indoor playground that reigned as exhibit of choice, I was starving and semi-delirious, thinking that I had a good idea of what it would be like to wake up from a cryogenic fugue-assisted mission to some far-flung planet, if cryogenic fugues involved chasing eight-year-olds between the ball pit and the gift shop.
As we walked, bleary-eyed, into the still-bright air of early evening, our hunger descended like a fog. Suddenly, nobody could think of anywhere to eat. One of our fellow Brownie parents consulted her phone, and suggested Frenchie's Italian Restaurant. Frenchie's is tucked into a strip mall in an odd corner underneath the NASA Road 1 overpass as it skirts El Camino Real, and I drove past once before finding it. When we walked in, the staff seemed a bit surprised to see us.
You get the impression very quickly that Frenchie's is patronized almost exclusively by regulars. As we waited for our six-top to be set, the owners and staff greeted other diners by name, sharing hugs and handshakes. We were treated very cordially, but it was clear that we were not the target demographic.
The staff was gracious, correcting our ignorance about children's portions of regular menu items (they are, for the most part, available), and patiently accommodating multiple changes of mind on drink orders. Once one kid orders soda, you're almost bound to have a cascading plea to swap milk for Shirley Temples all around.
Once beverages were arranged and meals were ordered, as we adults tried our best to mediate the minor dramas and silent squabbles that accompanied the introduction of a new Brownie into an existing troop. Jealousies ensued, the silent treatment was implemented, and we played moderator, wheedling conversation out of recalcitrant children.
Once the food arrived, the kids abandoned their turf war, absorbed in ample plates of pasta. The kids' portions at Frenchie's would feed most reasonable adults, and the regular portions might serve as a light meal for a family of four. When presented with her adult portion of spaghetti with white clam sauce (not available in a half portion), one girl's eyes threatened to bulge out of her head. She ate fully half. Impressive.
My plate of Spaghetti Alla Carbonara was similarly gigantic, and good, after its own fashion. I've been a carbonara junkie for around 15 years, when my dad introduced it as his first signature dish upon taking helm of the kitchen when my mom joined the work force. It was a simple affair - consisting of very good Pecorino, egg, and whatever cured pork product he had handy - and I still haven't found its equal. While my dad's isn't strictly traditional (the Romans would only ever use guanciale), it's certainly closer than most, including Frenchie's version.
Somewhat thickly coating the nutty and nicely chewy spaghetti, the carbonara sauce seemed more an amalgamation of cream and thick slices of pancetta than the simple versions I love, balanced as they are between the austere and the decadent. Rather than allowing each flavor to clearly ring its note, everything sort of blended into a porky version of Alfredo. Not bad, by any means, just not Carbonara. Despite its relative distance from my carbonara ideal, I enjoyed my meal thoroughly.
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Unfortunately, I can't say that the rest of the diners enjoyed us enjoying our meals. As the kids' appetites fell away, their voices picked up the slack, increasing both in volume and in frequency until I found myself quietly but firmly admonishing all of them to keep it down. It had taken me largely by surprise; I was wiped, and I hadn't spent a solid two hours climbing a three=story jungle gym.
As we paid our bill and made our way through the tiny dining room, packed with regulars enjoying their meals in more civilized fashion, I caught the eye of a woman looking ever-so-slightly disapprovingly in our direction. I offered a weak smile, mouthed the words "I've got my hands full," and gestured toward the gaggle of girls. Her frown softened, she returned to her plate of pasta, and we returned to our vehicles. The girls all passed out within five minutes of getting on the freeway to head home.