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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 26, 2002

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Fast Food, Mexican Cuisine, and Churchill

We all make fun of McDonald's and pretend that we're "above" eating there, but let's be honest. When we're on the road in a strange place, isn't it nice to know that there's a restaurant where you can get predictable food? It may not be your favorite food in all the world, but you know it will not be the worst meal of your life, either.

And it's not just McDonald's, of course. I depend on the fact that there's a Subway offering pretty darn good sandwiches wherever I go -- including at home. We rejoiced when a Subway was opened just a few blocks away from us on Elm just north of Pisgah Church, and we stop there when we need a quick meal in the midst of a busy day.

Right now, my wife and I are on the road, moving so quickly from town to town that we rarely have time for a sit-down meal.

But because we're far from North Carolina, we have a chance to try out new fast-food restaurant chains that haven't reached Greensboro yet. So if you stray from within the tarry boundaries of the Tar Heel State, you might want to give one of these a try:

Jamba Juice. This is the ultimate smoothie shop. Using only fresh fruit and pure juices, with yogurt and various sherbets, they blend together the most amazing combinations of flavors. And if you want a combination that isn't on their menu, they make substitutions without complaint.

If you happen to want various herbal or protein additives, they have a wide selection -- but most of the time the unadorned fruit is enough for me. I can't think of a better breakfast or lunch.

The blenders make the store noisy, and there can sometimes be a bit of a wait since every order is made from scratch, but there's a reason so many people crowd into these stores -- they're the best at what they do.

There is one Jamba Juice in North Carolina -- in Chapel Hill.

Souplantation. This is what a smorgasbord ought to be. Most buffet restaurants have food so awful that for me, "all you can eat" is usually not much. But at Souplantation, even though the menu is limited, the soup and bread are so good, the salad ingredients so fresh, that I can always make a good meal of it.

You enter past the salad bar, which offers Caesar and oriental salads as a base, besides the normal iceberg lettuce. Once you pay your under-$10 entry fee, you can go on to take as much soup and bread as you want. They even offer frozen yogurt as a dessert.

In North Carolina, the only Souplantations are in Raleigh and Cary.

*

Most Mexican restaurants thrive on being cheap and fast -- a filling, flavorful meal when you don't have much to spend. In Greensboro we have no shortage, and my favorite in town is the mini-chain Mexico. I know the family that runs it, and I know the food will be good.

But gourmet it ain't, because so far at least, Mexican food in Greensboro is a price-driven commodity.

Outside our fair state, however, there are some truly extraordinary Mexican restaurants. My favorite is La Serenata in Los Angeles, where the chefs are a bit snooty -- they will only serve certain sauces on certain dishes, regardless of what you might prefer -- but the food proves that Mexican cuisine does not have to depend on "heat" alone to avoid dullness.

Closer to home, the Rio Grande in Reston, Virginia, is always crowded because there are, quite simply, no better chips and salsa in all the world. The rest of the menu is also good, though I wish they offered shredded beef instead of ground beef in their tacos and enchiladas.

Speaking of ground beef, in Kansas City we ate last night at Mi Cocina, where they have raised the ground-beef taco to an art form. I didn't know you could do that to hamburger. While in Salt Lake City, the Café Pierpont makes an extraordinary tableside guacamole.

All these restaurants prove that Mexican food can compete with any other cuisine for quality and creativity.

There are a couple of reliable chains of Mexican restaurants, too. In southern California, the small El Cholo chain is steeped in history and loved for its dependable quality -- and their sweet-corn tamales are the best in the world. El Torito is considerably more widespread, but they also offer sweet corn, and while their chips are disappointingly coarse and their salsa only so-so, the main course will be dependably good, and they beat out such chains as Chevy's, South of the Border, and all the others whose names I have mercifully forgotten at this moment.

Even when you're looking for Mexican fast food, you don't have to settle for Taco Bell. In Greensboro, we have our first of a new breed of Mexican fast-food chains, the Baja Fresh restaurant on Westover Terrace just north of Wendover. The name tells you the key to its excellence -- everything is fresh and crisp, and there is a small array of salsas that prove that Mexican food is definitely not all the same. Yet the prices remain competitive.

Baja Fresh may have been the first Mexican chain of this type to reach Greensboro, but even though it is excellent it is not the very best. That distinction belongs to the mini-chain Poquito Mas ("a little more"), which so far exists only in the Los Angeles area. With seven or eight salsas, Poquito Mas wins the spicy-flavor competition hands down, and the quality and variety of the meats, the beans, and the tortillas are so good that Poquito Mas actually competes with the sit-down restaurants, while leaving all the fast-food chains in their dust. I actually go out of my way to eat at least one meal at Poquito Mas every time I'm in L.A., and every time I go there, I wish Greensboro had one.

In the meantime, you'll see me at Mexico or, when I'm in a hurry, at Baja Fresh.

*

By the way, if you haven't been to Arby's lately, we just discovered that they have added to their menu some very good deli sandwiches. They were the best thing available when we were on the verge of starvation in the middle of the Mohave Desert a few days ago, and I suspect we'll be grabbing them now and then after we get home to Greensboro.

*

The maps on the Weather Channel are showing green-for-rain over Greensboro during this week. I sure hope they turn out to be right. It would be nice to be able to tell the difference between the Mohave Desert and our front lawn when we get home.

*

Want some history that feels way too much like current events? I just read the second volume of William Manchester's biography of Churchill: The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Alone 1932-1940. Manchester remains one of the best writers ever to turn his hand to biography -- I first read him when I was a teenager and Manchester's The Arms of Krupp turned a family of gunmakers into a gripping story.

But The Last Lion: Alone is not valuable just for the quality of the writing and the thoroughness of the research. Yes, Manchester makes Churchill come vividly alive, and he succeeds in showing even Churchill's flaws without disparaging his greatness and courage.

More important, though, is the story he tells. For eight long years, Churchill was the only voice raised in opposition to those who thought they could have peace by handing Hitler everything he wanted.

The appeasers who betrayed Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland and thus laid the groundwork for the fall of France now seem to us like cowards or idiots or both. But at the time, they were enormously popular in a Britain that remembered World War I with horror.

What is most appalling is how the same arguments that the appeasers made in favor of giving in to Hitler in order to "avoid war" are almost identical to the arguments I'm hearing today from those who have the delusion that we can have peace with Islamicist terrorists by blaming ourselves for the current war and giving them what they want.

The appeasers don't seem to realize that when your opponent wants war -- when war itself is his goal -- you will have war, and the only important decision is when and where it will be fought.

Because the appeasers ruled British foreign policy right up to the day the Germans poured over the borders of the Low Countries and sliced through the Ardennes into the heart of France, World War II was far bloodier and lasted far longer than it would have if the British had stood up to Hitler at any earlier point.

And when I hear people talk about how we shouldn't attack Iraq or "widen the war" for fear of "provoking" our enemies, I can't help but hear clear echoes of the whimperings of Neville Chamberlain and his crew in the 1930s. The analogy is far from exact, but then the lessons of history are never clear cut. That's why we have to keep relearning them.


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