The Russian Roulette of “hole-in-the-wall” restaurants

I don’t know what the official measurements have to be for a restaurant to be considered a “hole-in-the-wall”, however I am fairly certain this one fit the bill. There was enough space in the dining area to fit four tiny tables and one table that squeezed our family of five in, if one of the kids was sitting on our lap. The decorations were simple, a large tv playing Bollywood music videos and pictures of the food they could prepare.

Nearly the rest of the restaurant was comprised of the kitchen which was separated from the dining area by a half wall. If one passed through the kitchen and under the beaded screen they would find a compact storage area and public toilet tucked in the back. To be fair, no one came to this Indian restaurant in order to spend time in the small bathroom, but having a light in there would have been helpful.

We were visiting southern Portugal and had been walking through a port town when we needed to get food into the children. One thing I have learned as a father is that when the kids are cranky, no pep talks about culture, history, or beauty will do. You must feed them. There on the wharf was a burger franchise offering hamburgers for 1.25€. How could one possibly go wrong for that price? I suppose fairly quickly, which is why my wife vetoed the idea and we hiked back up the hill into the heart of the city searching for something better. This was not the heart of the city where one expects to find quaint cafes and artists with berets, but the heart of the city where you wouldn’t be surprised to see burned cars and renegade shopping carts.

And that is where we found the “Vegetarian, Vegan, Indian Restaurant”. We were welcomed in by our friendly host in Portugese and then hesitant English. I figured we would be in for the “Tourist Roulette”, some desperate point and choose. Thankfully they had the pictures of food up on the wall.

I pointed to the fuzzy print-outs and shrugged my shoulders. “You just wait and I tell you all!” Our host replied with more confidence and then proceeded to work through the whole menu of what they could cook. We were assured that they offered nothing that was pre-packaged. After he finished his passionate explanation, I was overwhelmed. The mixture of English and Portuguese words describing cuisine from Mumbai was a bit much. All I could do was look up and say, “Let’s just imagine we are coming to your house to eat with you. What would you prepare for us?”

And that was all he needed. He stepped around the waist-high wall into the kitchen and he and his wife began cooking. One of our daughters stood on her chair so she could look into the kitchen at the spices, oils, and vegetables being mixed. Our other two children zoned out on the vibrant colors of the flamboyant music videos. I just sat there and smelled. We had been invited into their home to eat. What would they make?

Before the meal made it to our table, we all took turns passing through the kitchen into the bathroom. In situations like this it is paramount that one makes a mental note of where all the important fixtures are before closing the door and entering the darkness. Trust me.

Then the food began to arrive. There were fruit smoothies, small spicy appetizers, little puff balls to be filled with chickpeas and yogurt. These were followed by na’an, curries, and rice. Our host would periodically lean over the half wall, or slide out next to us and ask what we thought. It was probably unnecessary since he and his wife could clearly see that we were enjoying it. However I think there is joy in hearing affirmation both with inarticulate exclamations of delight and with simple words, no matter what language.

By the time we had finished there was absolutely nothing left on the table except for a few stray beads from the after-dinner mints. The plates were wiped clean. Our stomachs were full. Our hosts were pleased. And that is how it should be. We were at our friend’s home, after all.