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Thrill-of-your-life restaurants in
Fresno

 

Dining in Fresno

Gary Soto

 

In Fresno,
you can eat at Cuca's,
the quintessential hole-in-the-wall
in Chinatown, a restaurant where you can sit on a
wobbly stool and order huevos con weenies, a sort of steak-and-eggs for poor people. It was a dish that I remember growing up. One weenie went a long way.

In turn, in Fresno you can dine at the Daily Planet, a restaurant with a marvelous California/Italianate cuisine. It's a place where flowers scent the air and the wines come with corks, not twist-off caps. The lighting is darkly romantic, the piano bar tinkles, and the waiters hurry by with pepper mills.

When I was a kid in Fresno during the 60s, we never ate out. If we did, it was Italian pizza from DiCicco's or Mexican, even though we could have had that at home.

Now there are hundreds of restaurants, from Armenian to Thai to vegetarian. While Fresno's palate has lately become more sophisticated, dining in Fresno has not always been so pleasant. I'm thinking of l983 when I drove 180 miles from Berkeley to Fresno to visit my buddy Jon Veinberg. We needed to talk about the super-eight movie we were planning about the rock group called "The Ministers of Love." In short, we were thinking of a comedy.

I arrived in the late afternoon. We had a few beers in front of the TV, and toward dusk we left the house to have dinner at a Basque restaurant, now gone, called the Yturri. Since it was a weekday, business was slow. There was a young couple along the wall and two families with their elbows on the table, waiting. Flies circled between the two major dining rooms, indecisive about which room to haunt.

The waitress hurried over, plucked two menus from the side of the cash register, and showed us to a table along the wall. We took a cursory peek at the menu, although we both knew we were going to order deep-fried chicken. You couldn't beat the price: six-fifty for a five course meal, with coffee and the choice of three kinds of ice cream to chase it all down.

We gave our orders, and soon dipped spoons into lentil soup, spoons that splashed like the paddles of a rowboat. Scraped two kinds of salad onto our plates, vinegary lettuce and potato. Clunked chunks of stew, green beans and garbanzo beans onto our plates. Tore pieces of French bread we buttered entirely yellow. Talked with food in our mouths and ate like hungry campesinos.

We raised industrial-thick wine glasses to toast one another, slurped water, and sighed for the good life that Fresno offers. When the chicken came, piled a foot high on a plate, I waved mine off and asked the waitress to bring a doggie bag. She smiled and remarked, "Big boys can't do it?"

"Whoa," said Jon, uncomfortably stuffed. I smiled, patted my belly like a trucker, and pushed my chair back.

We ordered coffee and were gossiping about friends when a family, all sporting Fresno State Bulldog sweatshirts, began to make faces at a skinny family at the end of their table. In turn, the skinny family soured their faces at this rival family with fancy sweatshirts. Finally, the oldest son of the Bulldog sweatshirt family got up calmly, walked a few husky steps toward the the skinny family, and ripped the cigarette out of the father's mouth.

"What the hell!" the father said in a strained voice, getting halfway up, eyes stinging with anger.

With a snicker on his face, the Bulldog son returned to take his place with his family. His own father pretended nothing happened, while his mother turned to one of her daughters and muttered, "The guy can't read! There's a 'No Smoking' sign right above his gourd. I swear!"

"You better watch it, bulldogs," the father of the skinnys threatened, jabbing an angry finger. His face was pink and excited. "You hear me?" He stood glaring while his own family­wife, two daughters, and his own son­played with their salad forks, eyes down, embarrassed. Finally the father sat down and picked up his fork.

Jon and I looked at one another, half-snickering.

"Did you see that?" I asked in a low voice. "Slapped the cigarette right out of his mouth!"

Jon wagged his head. "I've been telling you for years, Fresno's crazy."

Both families began to mutter and throw ugly glances at each other. Finally the waitress asked the Bulldog sweatshirt family what the beef was Pointing fingers sprung up like spears, followed by accusations and more pink faces. The waitress listened like a school teacher and disappeared into the kitchen to return with four liters of house wine­two for each family. She poured gurgling, kick-ass wine into stout glasses, which the adults gripped like clubs. Soon they returned to their meals and talk of work and daily matters, though occasionally one would steal a glance at the other family.

Jon and I finished our coffee and chewed on ice cubes from our water glasses. We hoped something would happen, so we could step in and tell them to please act like human beings. But nothing happened. We left with our doggie bags. Instead of heading home right away, we walked around the block to work off dinner.

It was a pleasant evening.
The moon was a broken tooth hanging over the Fresno Ice Company; the wind was cool against our faces. What a life, I thought. We sauntered like tourists as we pointed out rundown houses, vacant lots, and brick warehouses which would go for hundreds of thousands of dollars in San Francisco, Berkeley or Santa Cruz.

We were walking past a boarded-up machine shop when a squeaking Pinto full of youngbloods slowed to a stop in the middle of the street We also slowed to a stop. They looked at us, the red coals of their cigarettes coming and going, and didn't say anything. We knew what it meant; if we continued walking, they'd jump our asses for the three or four dollars in Jon's wallet and the twenties in mine! Without looking at each other, Jon and I turned around, took a few nonchalant steps, but hurried away when they called us to help push-start their car, an old trick. We ran back to the glare of the Yturri restaurant-ran because we loved our wallets, not theirs.

We stood at the entrance, hands on hips, and waited to catch our breath. Jon said, "You're a lucky dog to live in Berkeley. There ain't a damn thing to do here except get beat up." Perhaps that was true. In the best parts of Berkeley, you can go out for dinner, take in a movie or play, and return home safely. In Fresno you can go out for dinner and later be thrown from a speeding car, dead.

We went back inside the Yturri. We hoped that the Bulldog sweatshirt family and the skinny family were so drowned in house wine that when they saw us, they would motion us over to choose sides and fight for the simple thrill of being alive.