Sanjeev’s phone GPS tells us that our restaurant is off to the left on a side road, but looking around, I am starting to get suspicious. The restaurant we are searching for is a pizza joint, quite terribly named Big Slice – a place we’ve been meaning to visit (since the day we got married) as a thanks to a friend of a friend who, having never met us, agreed to be a witness at our marriage. Six months ago I remember the guy swearing that their wood fire pizza is made with authentic mozzarella cheese. At the time it was quite impressive since pizza and its cheese in India tend to be awful. The only pizza I trust in the country is Dominos, which quite amazingly, is able to remain true to America’s “under 30 minutes guarantee” even in a shit-hole driving city like Bangalore.
Our Tuesday night out was a celebration for us having been married for 6 months. I was quite excited for a nice dinner instead of our usual eat-outs at restaurants with questionable sanitary methods. Last week at the mall, we stood at the counter of one of our frequented Indian restaurants in the food court and laughed as we watched a cook quite thoroughly contaminate Sanjeev’s dosa with his bare hands. But tonight, tonight was going to be different. I was picturing the scene of a high scale Bangalore restaurant – a low lit and nicely decorated place, no mosquitoes, and a relaxed ambiance. Maybe I would order a glass of wine. It was all to be a very romantic anniversary evening. Tonight we were going to pay more than $3.00 for a meal, yes indeed.
In our borrowed car, we wrestled our way through the thick evening traffic down a side road that contained far too many speed bumps and potholes. I was shuffling through the roughly 2,000 songs in my IPod connected to the car’s stereo system, searching for a song I’m not sick of. Tonight it’s damp and chilly after having poured in the early afternoon and drizzled all evening. The monsoons should have receded by now, but apparently, like everything else in India, they will move on from Karnataka when they are damned good and ready. The side road that wound through a haphazardly developed colony has led us to some main road I’ve never seen before. It’s buzzing with people finishing their days and returning home. Every empty space is filled with stores large and small. Outside the brightly lit department stores and despite the cool wet night, all the small scale business people are out hoping to earn some money from the evening crowd. Farmers sit out with their produce under their makeshift tents with blue tarps held up by wooden poles, or stand out in the open with a large wooden cart displaying the last of their fresh foods. Flower wallas stand in their tiny metal stalls, varieties of flowers displayed in metal cans. A pirated movie merchant squats low on a plastic stool, his ripped off DVDs conveniently packed in plastic sleeves complete with movie label print-outs, and piled up on a tiny fold-up table. Chatt stall guys stand in the muddied edges of the road, handing out little paper bowls full of pani puri to customers who are willing to risk getting ill. It’s the kind of area that lacks Bangalore’s cosmopolitan side and most definitely is not an area where you’d find an upscale restaurant. Put simply, the food options in this area are likely to give you a serious case of food poisoning, parasites or both. (Granted, this area is a thousand times better than the area we visited yesterday, where I counted far more white hats than I care to admit to.)
We turn down the road the GPS woman tells us to take, slowly driving down it, we peer out the driver’s side window looking for our destination. I spot the unlit awning sporting the name of the place, and see that it is attached to a restaurant the size of a matchbox. Brightly lit with florescent lights, its walls are white and quite grungy. We drive past and I see that there are cheap wooden tables with plastic chairs, and no door. The absence of a door means a lot in India. Many restaurants here operate with an open entrance, effectively exposing their restaurant and food to the dirty, dusty, and polluted atmosphere outside. The absence of a door is in essence a red flag which alerts me that sanitation is also most definitely absent. It’s the kind of spot where a dingy South Indian restaurant would set up shop to sell poorly made food to the local workers who can’t afford better. At this point, I am ready to abort the entire dinner, even Sanjeev appears to be shocked that the restaurant is not at all what we imagined. But earlier in the day, Sanjeev had told our friend we were finally making that visit, and we came all this way, so we have to try it.
We park in a no-parking area that is deserted and make our way to the restaurant. I feel thankful I didn’t get really dressed up, though the stares at my Eastern/Western outfit are evident. The guys working inside all seem shocked that they have customers when we enter. It is empty, and the three tables they have available are occupied only by flies. We sit down and wait several minutes before someone thinks to give us a menu, giving me time to observe my surroundings. The walls are even grubbier looking up close and the décor is objectionable. Two small square plaques with artistic sketched images and quotes from Michael Jackson and Al Pacino are propped up in the one big window. About ten dated, random and totally unrelated black-and-white framed photos are hung on the wall I face. I see Sanjeev staring at the wall behind me with a puzzled look on his face. I turn around to look at the wall I am seated backed up against, and I realize it is decorated with bright red three-foot-long egg racks, complete with about 5 dozen real eggs that have been emptied and glued to the vertical racks. They are dusty, and look old, gross, and just plain weird. Behind the counter, and about ten feet away from us is the wood fire grill. It’s the only attractive thing in the place, because it gives off a comforting smoky smell that reminds me of our wood stove at home. Sanjeev stops a young waiter walking by us, dressed up in typical North Eastern pop culture attire with thick wavy hair that looks like it hasn’t been washed in days. Speaking in Hindi, he orders a margarita pizza – just cheese, and we wait. I distract my disappointment by using Sanju’s phone to search for Independence Day deals on ethnic wear at one of my favorite online stores. Another server brings us plastic glasses full of water, Sanjeev automatically sets them off to the side – neither of us will touch unbottled water. The waiters nervously drift from backroom to the main room; I never actually see the pizza get put into the oven. In roughly twenty minutes it is served to us, and surprisingly it is quite good, even superior to other pizza I’ve had in India. The cheese is scant, but that’s because it is in fact mozzarella, imported, and therefore very expensive. Sanjeev wolfed down four slices before I could finish two. It’s no Salvatore’s of Long Island, and the atmosphere is terrible, but the pizza is worth the trip. I finish the last of my slices and Sanjeev calls for the bill. I am expecting it to be outrageous, but the charge is only 180 Rupees, less that $4.00. They (not surprisingly) don’t accept cards, and I am the only one with cash. The waiter hesitates when I hand him over a 500 rupee note (less than $10.00) because they don’t have change for it. We tell him it is all I have, and he leaves the restaurant to get change from a local vendor. Upon his return we give him a tip and leave, saying our thanks to the servers, each guy looking utterly relieved that we liked the pizza.
Sanju says he’s not sated so we agree that we will splurge even more and get dessert. We walk to the busy street, carelessly stomping through the mud to avoid the steady stream of cars moving past us. The amount of lights and bustle is disorienting even in the dark. We see a rather large Spencer’s food market, and curious to seek out its contents, we decide to momentarily deviate from our dessert plans. At the entrance, cardboard boxes are laid out to reduce tracking in the mud. I find cranberry juice (elusive and expensive in India), grab some fresh bread, and finally pick out that clothes iron I’ve been waiting a year for. Sanjeev wanders over to the tiny Daily Bread side stall, famous across India for their high quality baked goods. He appears to want to eat our dessert there, so we pick out small slice of cake from the little windowed display. I pay 82 rupees for it, and we stand at a wobbly table and eat. It’s not delicious enough to want more of, but not tasteless enough to stop eating. At the register, I get a pack of a weird cotton candy kind of bubble gum and stuff the whole thing in my mouth while we wait for the cashier to complete his fifteen-minute process to check out our seven items.
Back out in the chilly night air, and navigating the busy crowd, we walk to our car relaxed and joking. As I blow big bubbles with my tasty and way too big piece of bubble gum, I tell Sanju that I enjoyed tonight, and I am just going to chalk it up as another interesting experience in India where nothing is predictable. At least I was right in my determination to spend more than our average $3.00 meal – we spent $5.00.