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This is the story of a cook who lost his more than his place.
My mother subscribed to the idea that if truckers stopped at a restaurant, it is good food.
So for a lot of my childhood, we surveyed the highway for parked big rigs. They were the neon arrows pointing to good restaurants.
The problem with that theory is the food may be palatable, but the ambiance will not match the flavor.
The one I remember the most was Tony’s Steakhouse.
Tony’s was out of Santa Fe, on the highway to Albuquerque. It wasn’t out of town, it was in the middle of nowhere. The only site for miles around was the New Mexico State Penitentiary.
But Tony’s had great steaks at cheap prices. I suspect the cost was low due to little overhead. The restaurant was a structure of less than 1000 square feet. When you opened the door, on the left, you saw a cash register in front of a smoking grill. Standing watch on both was Tony.
Tony was a small man with a massive determination. He did not trust anyone with the money. That’s why he placed the grill behind the cash register. The waitress never handled the money. Instead, you got a slip that you took to the cash register. There, Tony would take the money and make the change.
It was an efficient operation. Tony was a cook, cashier, and owner. He employed no more than a single waitress, decked out in her white apron. It was quite a sight. The waitress took the order, gave it to Tony, who cooked and plated it, and the waitress bought it to the table.
Tony did not have a big menu. He did not serve pasta or chicken or fish. He did not serve mashed potatoes or green beans. Salads were nothing more than a handful of lettuce with a tomato wedge. The dressing was oil and vinegar.
Tony specialized in steaks. He had three cuts of steak, but the one we ate was the New York Strip. Tony took the steak (each about 10 oz or more) and seared them on the grill. Each was served with a baked potato.
Simple. Basic. And delicious.
I doubt Tony knew much about seasoning, but he could coax the flavor out of the cold slab of flesh. It was juicy. He knew how to get the marbled fat at just the right temperature to make the mouth water.
We ate at Tony’s about once a week, usually Friday nights. It was one of the special treats. The four of us packed into the car and drove out of town to Tony’s. We ate well. We left stuffed.
And because the overhead was low, so was the cost.
Then, one day we stopped going to Tony’s. I did not know why. When we drove to Albuquerque, I noticed the little restaurant vacant and locked.
I finally asked my father what happened to Tony’s.
He said that Tony had lost his sight. He could not cook any longer. Finally, in his despair, he took his own life.
That little restaurant packed with smoke was his purpose for living. Without it, he decided he would rather die.
For the last few years of our sojourn in Santa Fe, we would make the trip to Albuquerque. Every time we passed that little building. Each trip showed more wear and tear. It became dilapidated and turned to ruin.
One day, it just disappeared. It had become a victim of time and despair.
It’s been over half-a-century since we pulled the Chrysler onto the caliche parking lot and took the two steps up and opened the door to the savory smell of a well-cooked steak. Since that time I have eaten a lot of steaks. We have dined at restaurants, and all come and go.
But none of them stick in my mind like Tony’s. Was it childhood memories or tasty food?
Many times they blend together and fuse into a single unit.
It was from Tony’s I learned one of life’s great lessons. Be careful what you wind your life around. For Tony, it was that steakhouse. Without it, he had no life.
I have known many Tonys in life. They build a sandcastle in time. Then, the tide of circumstances comes and sweeps it away. They are left with nothing.
Jesus warned both the wealthy and impoverished. Both had the same problem. He reminds both…including you and me…
“Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”” (Luke 12:15)
While we agree, more is implied. Not only does a man’s life not consist of his possessions, neither does it consist of his profession. If life is not more than your job, title, or responsibility, what do you have when it withers?
I want to think I have built my life on something more sturdy than a single passion. Who knows? We all may more like Tony than we would like to admit.
But I never cut into a steak without thinking of a little cook with one hand on the cash register and the other on the turning fork.