What follows is the first of a series of conversations that I have with Charlie Hamer, an old friend of mine. Charlie enjoys eating at restaurants, not as a food critic or a connoisseur, but as a simple working man who has learned to enjoy the pleasant things of life. The title of this series comes from the idea of seeing the many places where a guy might get a plate of food in Vancouver Washington and surrounding areas, picking one and just diving in. I hope that you enjoy the short stories and are inspired to try, or avoid, some of the places that Charlie mentions.
I had breakfast with my friend Charlie Hamer this morning. That’s not an unusual occurrence. Charlie is an old friend of mine who long ago paid me to help out on his construction projects. I wasn’t much good at the construction trades but I poured a lot of energy into my work. He paid me enough to attend and graduate from a community college with a degree in a much less physically demanding line of work than construction. Charlie told me that he admired my dogged determination to be useful when it was obvious that the work didn’t come to me naturally, and I have been grateful for his generosity ever since.
Usually we meet at some restaurant or other around town. Charlie loves to eat out, even though his wife, Carline, is a very capable woman in the kitchen when she has time to cook. Charlie is best kept out of a kitchen. He went through a couple of pretty rough years a while back, and a remarkable waitress at a remarkably unremarkable restaurant in downtown Vancouver played a big part in his process of rejoining the world of the living. He has had a special place in his heart for restaurants, restaurant food, and the people who work in restaurants ever since.
On this particular day I had Charlie sitting at the small, square table in my small, square dining room. I had cooked up some sausage and eggs, fried potatoes and collard greens. Hey, I’m Southern, and that’s what you get at my place. Charlie was just happy that I didn’t put grits and sardines on the table.
“I had some real food last night” he said, inferring that what I was serving him was not real food.
“Come on man” I retorted. “You’re packing away my groceries fast enough, and this stuff is better than what Tank cooks for you down at Leroy’s. I’ve eaten there once, and I know.”
“Don’t knock Tank’s grease and salt” Charlie said while pointing a fork menacingly close to my nose. “I don’t know anyone else who can turn out a breakfast that you can either eat or use to lube your differential gear with equally gratifying results. You oughtta show some respect.”
“Yeah, yeah” I said, and refilled his coffee mug. “So where did you eat last night?”
“It’s a place called Rally Pizza. It’s down in what used to be called Garrison Square. You know, the strip mall that Caroline picked up for cheap back when we began dating?” My blank look was all Charlie needed to see. “It’s that place where we tore half of it down, restored the remaining half and rebuilt the first half from the ground up. It’s called ‘The Mill’ now, and has a bunch of new restaurants and businesses there.”
“Oh, yeah. I know where you mean. It’s just west of Peace Health Hospital on Mill Plain, right?”
“Yeah, that’s the place. Give me some more of those potatoes.”
“Man” I said. “You got a hollow leg or something?”
“Shut up and give me the spuds” he replied.
I handed the bowl of potatoes to Charlie. He spooned out the last of them onto his plate and returned to his main point. “Anyway, there’s a pizza place there and I tried it for the first time. Caroline and I took Lucas, her nephew. Kid is a linebacker for Washington State and eats like a horse! I ordered this thing called Pizza Bolognese. Lucas got a pepperoni and Caroline got a salad and some roasted vegetables. She abstained from the pizza; said that she had to maintain her girlish figure.”
“Is the food any good?” I asked as I chewed the last of my sausage.
“Yeah” Charlie replied. Pretty good. The crust is thin, and I’m used to thick crust pizzas. The toppings are thin too, but I found that I liked the combo a lot. I didn’t think that I would, either. You know how I like a small mountain of pepperoni and sausage and shrooms and jalapeños and so on. Well, I wondered how this pizza was going to fill me up.”
I looked at the last of the potatoes which followed the eggs and sausage patties that had proceeded them into the bottomless pit that was Charlie’s stomach and wondered how a thin crust pizza could fill that void. “And did it?” I asked
“Yeah, it did. I ate the whole thing, to be sure, but it was light enough that I didn’t feel like I was stuffed, and filling enough that I didn’t feel like I needed any more.”
“Humph” I grunted. “Maybe I’ll try it.”
“You could do a lot worse” Charlie said. “Lucas’ pepperoni was a little more substantial, but the same thin crust and tasty sauce. He killed his pizza too, and had half of Caroline’s roasted veggies.”
“She didn’t eat any pizza?” I asked.
“Naw. She ordered a Market Salad, and they brought a big bowl of salad that was meal enough for her, and a nice helping of roasted veggies; looked like sweet potato and carrot and stuff like that. She couldn’t finish half of the roasted veggies, and Lucas polished them off.”
I picked up an armload of empty plates and bowls and carried them to the sink. A fresh pot of coffee sat in the coffeemaker and I brought it over to the table and refilled our cups. “So” I asked. “You intend to go back?”
“Yeah, I’ll go back there. You know, it’s not like a flavor explosion in your face, but it’s a good, mellow pizza at a good price. The service is good too. Yeah, I’ll go back.”
“Maybe I’ll give it a shot” I said.
“I recommend it” Charlie replied. “Good drinks and desserts too.”
After that Charlie gave off a loud belch (“That’s old Walt’s influence on me” he said) and we went on to a different topic. I made a mental note however that I would soon go to Rally Pizza to check it out for myself.