Distrust is a wicked matter to deal with under any set of circumstances and, offhand, I can't think of anything more frightening than too much of it in the restaurant business.
Having returned from a couple of weeks in Hawaii, I've been giving some thought to a rather strange experience there at the kind of restaurant where relative normalcy should be expected. At the heart of matters was the good old American hamburger.
Not exactly hamburger heaven, Hawaii does have some dining spots where a good burger can be found. Top of the list is Gordon Biersch, not surprisingly a brewery pub with an impressive reputation. The hamburger is, I fear, largely bastardized in Hawaii and good luck finding one that isn't either soy sauced to death or the possessor of other Asian add ons and you can throw in an old standby: bread stuffing.
During our stay on Oahu's North Shore, wife Jan and I decided to pay what has become close to an annual visit to nearby Turtle Bay in Kahuku where a exquisite luxury resort is located. Turtle Bay Resort's spectacular 880 acres are enhanced by huge waves whose presence is irresistible to surfers. It's one of those places where simply watching waves crash on rocks recall T.S. Eliot's cogent observation: "Time you enjoyed wasting is not time wasted."
The Turtle Bay Resort is democratically located next door to a public beach which means hotel guests, should they become bored with their own impressive swimming pool, have access to it. A small food/bar featuring burgers, hot dogs and lots of beer has for many years been available to the hoi polloi plus hotel guests who would rather get sand in their toes than loll in an expensive pool deck chaise.
As usual, we checked out the hotel's lobby and shops, then ventured around 2 p.m. into the pool area where we had drinks at the always lively bar now called Hang Ten. Turtle Bay has had numerous ownerships and the bar's name has been changed with nearly each new owner. Seated at the bar (mai tais for $10), I noticed that a woman to my left ordered a medium rare hamburger and my mind leaped to a hallucinatory stream of memorable burger moments at such places as Charlie Beinlich's of Chicagoland's Northbrook, Bob's of The Fourth Corner and expanding, and the memorable Fuddruckers whose burger quality established in the 80s could not overcome controversial management decisions including a much-publicized enforcement of a no-weapons policy believing armed patrons might deter unarmed onces from entering. When a Boston company like the original Fuddruckers moves its headquarters to a series of Texas communities, guns become an even greater reality and strange things can happen including Chapter 11. I felt strongly that the little bar at the public place would have something decent and I was curious to see if the folks over at the beach had also packed for Motel 6 as had far too many of those luxuriating by the pool. Among other shortcomings, Americans have become the unchallenged dress down champions of the world.
Wending our way through the hotel lobby and around a corner to the public beach, we soon discovered that the little bar was gone--probably a victim of island politics aimed at aiding and abetting the hotel's business. Left to service the beach crowd is Ola's one of those upscale, casual and over-priced restaurants where much of the luncheon food is served at much higher prices in the evening when a rack of baby back ribs is $31.50. Ola's great attraction is that it is literally on a beach offering memorable views of the pounding surf beyond a reef guaranteeing safe swimming within less than 50 yards of the restaurant.
A well-mannered and attractive young man took our order. Jan requested a cheese and fruit plate and I opted for a medium-rare hamburger and a Longboarder, a Big Island beer whose popularity on the immediate mainland is reminiscent of Southern California days when the highly-overrated Corona crossed the Mexican border. Also, I couldn't help recalling those hopeful times when Coor's finally made it from Golden, Colorado to Kansas City and stopped at the Missouri line meaning that those on the Kansas side of the border could get the kick-less suds while Missourians had to, in many instances, take long drives.
The burger arrived an it was a severely charred mess. Scratch that. In truth, the meat looked as though the preparer had used a blow torch while the condition of the bun offered further proof that a pyromaniac was roaming the kitchen. I beckoned the waiter, complained, and he took back the offending hockey puck re-appearing almost immediately. He asked that I cut the burger to see if I was satisfied.
"Do you see any pink?" he challenged as I applied a knife to what could easily have been identified as Kingford's finest. It was at that point that I asked the waiter if he had ever heard of "Candid Camera," Alan Funt's great early-on TV fun involving a hidden camera? I confided in the young man that I had been looking for a hidden camera because I had become convinced that I was being had having been told there is no such thing other than a pitch black hamburger of no interior pink.
Pink-less it was and I began to believe the waiter had determined I was a Honolulu County food inspector, a supposition suggesting the restaurant was on notice regarding under-cooked food leading to those deadly possibilities: E. coli and ptomaine. After a third incinerated mess had been been rejected, the restaurant's day manager appeared and sat down at our table. As Inspector Jacques Cousteau once observed in an old Pink Panther film: "There is a time to laugh and a time not to laugh and this is not one of them." Perhaps even more appropriate would be the unique detective's response to being asked if he had ever experienced the hamburger: "No, it's a disgusting American food." We were going to get to the bottom of the Case of the Three Incinerated Hamburgers.
The manager was affable and concerned and I gave evidence of knowing that laws vary from city to county to state and that Aloha burgers are probably supposed to be cooked at a minimum of 160 degrees. Whatever was going on in the kitchen was not going to be revealed by her and her pleasant stone-walling was understandable. She insisted upon not charging us for the meal and I later learned that, indeed, someone was suing the restaurant, not owned by the Turtle Bay Resort, for a claimed encounter with ptomaine poisoning. Such are the vagaries of dining with the biggest problems in the kitchen.
Googling produced nothing in the way of complaints against Ola's and it could very well be that the restaurant's sensitivities were put on additional guard by an Associated Press story published last October 14 in which a soldier, based in central Oahu's Schofield Barracks, had damage done to his tongue when he bit into a Triple Stacker at his base's Burger King. The offending agent was a needle and the soldier required five days hospitalization.
Admittedly, the Case of the Three Incinerated Hamburgers strongly suggests there's a great deal of difference between what happened at Ola's and the Burger King incident in which the quality of meat and the cooking of it had nothing to do with a soldier's chewed up tongue.
All quality restaurants should be able to serve a burger free of potential intestinal problems be the diner's order rare to well done. The quality and safety of the hamburger meat, produced in this instance by nearby North Shore Cattle Company and served by Ola's, has to be trusted by the restaurant.
Without that trust, I guess a restaurant is suspicious of anyone asking for a medium rare or rare hamburger for fear that person might be a food inspector. It's a hell of a way to run a business.
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