I ALWAYS wanted to be able to drop into a place and for the owners to say “The usual?”
I would only ever have wanted it to work that way round. You never ask for “the usual”. I saw a man walk into a pub once and ask for “the usual” and then have to explain to the barmaid what his usual was.
It’s impossible to come back from that. It’s the hospitality business equivalent of coming up with your own nickname or liking your own posts on Facebook.
I always thought it would make me feel like James Bond, or the late Sir David Frost, or Rihanna, a cut above the other customers, who are just a faceless mass.
I was very wrong.
Over the past six months or so, I have been frequenting a small Korean takeaway. It’s a little treat on a Friday evening. If you have never tried Korean food, it basically keeps all the things you like about East Asian food, discards all the things you don’t like about East Asian food, and adds mayonnaise and crispy fried chicken. I blame the Americans.
After a couple of successful meals, I found a dish on the menu that is like the ambrosia of the gods. It’s a sort of crispy chicken with a spicy sauce served with vegetables and rice, and as I write that down I realise it sounds like 93% of all food sold in Chinese takeaways, but it is so much better than that.
It was love at first sight. I didn’t know that chicken and rice could work so well together. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I ordered it the next time, just to see if it was just a one-night stand. It was just as good.
This specific meal is only available at this one takeaway under this specific name, and so, to help maintain some sort of anonymity for the takeaway in the fairly safe expectation that the owners do not read this column, I will call it Bang Tidy Chicken.
It got to the point where I would wake on Friday mornings and be excited that I would be having Bang Tidy Chicken that evening. It would literally be my first thought, or my second if my first was “Oh, great, I’ve just knocked my glass of water over my phone. I need rice. Oooh, that reminds me…”
Sometimes I would go into the takeaway and look at the board and think, “You know what, Gary, maybe there are other dishes on this menu that you would like just as much as Bang Tidy Chicken. You should branch out. This is how Brexit happened.”
But Bang Tidy Chicken would always win out, its gravitational pull was too great. Even if I’d decided to go for a katsu bibimbap, my mouth would form the words “Bang Tidy Chicken”, saving me from myself.
And then… One Friday evening I walked into the takeaway, and the owner said, “Bang Tidy Chicken?”
Oh, no, I thought. This is not how I imagined it would be. I don’t feel like James Bond at all. Not only have I proven myself to be predictable and unadventurous, but I am, by a process of elimination, insulting all his other dishes.
“Er, er, no,” I said. “I wanted, erm, erm…” I scanned the menu wildly and picked a dish at random.
I took it back to the office and tucked in. It was fine. If I’d never had Bang Tidy Chicken I’d probably have been pleased. But it wasn’t Bang Tidy Chicken, not even close.
Still, I had wrong-footed the owner. And when I went in to the takeaway over the next few weeks, he did not take for granted the fact I wanted Bang Tidy Chicken, even though I definitely ordered it.
But the following week he did it again, as I walked through the door. “Bang Tidy Chicken?” he said, somehow making the question mark at the end of that query into an exclamation mark.
Shame made me buy a different meal. And so I find myself in a position where I have to alternate Bang Tidy weeks and other, lesser, weeks, until the owner works out the pattern.
After that, I don’t know what will happen. But, currently, I am effectively paying twice as much for the privilege of having my Friday treat, but only having that treat half as often.
This is just typical for me. The usual, you might say.