I shared a plate of flan with a stranger the other day.
It sounds a bit odd until I tell you that I was sitting at the counter at Carmen's Cafe in Troy. And this is one of those places where you may find yourself doing such things.
The morning didn't start out as the kind that leads naturally to two-spoon flan. In fact, I woke with a dark cloud of fog and, OK I will cop to it, a pretty bad case of the pissy grumps. There are times when the world feels full of sharp edges, and I want only to be alone and not bump into anyone.
By the time I limped into Carmen's, I was hoping only for caffeine and quiet.
Carmen's had been on my list of places to visit for a while. Three different friends had recommended it, and I'd gone looking for it once or twice, but never managed to find it. I'm still figuring out Troy's neighborhoods and all those one-way streets. This day I was determined, though. I stopped and asked directions of a woman who was kind enough to draw me a map.
I walked in the door and smiled in recognition. Not of the cafe, but the feeling. Comfort.
Carmen's is a place you have to embrace as is. It can be slow in an unpredictable way. Sometimes it isn't open, even when the sign says otherwise. And when Carmen is busy in the kitchen, you can find the coffee pot on the burner. In exchange, the café, and sometimes Carmen herself, embraces you back.
It's the kind of place I love. The kind that gives me hope that there's room in the world for the perfectly imperfect, for unpunctual warmth and zing, for full-flavored food -- and women.
I am sitting in Carmen's as I write this, my third visit in as many weeks. Now that I have found it, I can't seem to stay away. It is a little after noon and the tables are full of regulars who, judging from the ribbing and room-wide conversation, all seem to know each other.
On the other hand, maybe they are strangers and simply under Carmen's spell, you know, the kind that makes you want to eat flan with a stranger.
Carmen shouts out from the kitchen, "Hey, how do you want your hamburger?"
"On a plate," a man shouts back.
Ah yes, back to my story.
So I wandered in on my gloomy day and plopped down on one of the counter stools. (I love places with lunch counters. They appeal to my inner trucker. Maybe we should compile a list of the best counter eating in the Albany area.) Oh, yes, the story. Carmen's is a place that doesn't really move in linear form. And it is hard to write that way while sitting here. Carmen just came out and delivered the burger, and the man has now burst into a loud rendition of Hallelujah.
But I will try. Where were we, oh, gloom and doom, right.
So it was a Friday. And on Fridays Carmen makes a fish special: tilapia pan fried in garlic, cilantro and white wine. Sounded good. I'm never one to turn down a fish special, especially one that includes garlic and cilantro.
The food arrived three feet ahead of itself. The smell made me sit up straight and lean involuntarily over the counter. Garlic, lemon, garlic, olive oil, garlic, garlic, gagaggggarlic ...my nose woke up and started dancing to the beat.
I took out my camera and tried to take a few pictures, but my hands and mouth had other ideas. The first bite tasted as good as it smelled. Straightforward flavors, every one of them jumping. I tried everything separately and then mixed the whole lot together and squeezed a bunch of lemon juice on top. (I will spare you pictures of this delectable mess, mostly because I was so lost in it that I forgot all about pictures.)
Somewhere in there a woman came in and plunked down next to me. "I'll have that," she said, catching a whiff of my food.
I'm not sure how these things happen, but soon we were deep in conversation about India, her career as fine arts professor, love, neighborhoods, San Francisco, West Coast foodie attitudes, and our shared affection for under-$10 plates of unpretentious food.
The dark fog disappeared in a wave of tangy conversation and laughter.
Carmen came out and joined us.
"I love the movie Like Water for Chocolate," she said. "And the book. You have to feel a connection when you cook. It has to be real."
Carmen described herself as a "Latin from Manhattan." She wanted to leave the city after 9/11, but she wanted more than just an escape.
"I fell in love with Troy, the architecture" she said. "It is a soft city. It is very embracing. I didn't want to just move. I wanted to live somewhere that feels like home."
Home. There was the word that haunts me. Part of the reason I like being a Jew is that I feel like I can credit my blood for some of my sense of lost wandering, that deep ache for roots that refuses to be filled.
And yet, there are moments, like the one I spent sitting at a bright lunch counter in a dingy part of town, talking with women I didn't know well but liked very much, when for a brief time the emptiness goes away.
Unbidden, Carmen brought out two huge plates of flan. My companion and I looked at each other. Just one, we both said. Carmen gave us a plate and two spoons. We each dipped in.
I had only two small bites. The flan tasted good, but I was full.
"You know," the woman said. "It's my birthday."
It was that kind of day.
198 First St., Troy
The posted hours:
Friday, Saturday, Sunday 9-7
You should call ahead and make sure it is actually open. For example, Carmen is closing for the month of January.
I've had the Cuban eggs, the tilapia special and the picadillo. All come with rice, beans and fried plantains. I recommend all of them. I brought an order of the picadillo home, and my kids loved it.
My husband tried an omelet. The omelets come down to whether you are a thick-egg omelet person or a thin-egg omelet person. We are both thin eggers and these are thick.
Prices: Most everything is under $10.
Carmen's has free WiFi
Running a place like Carmen's is about community, Carmen said. Once a month, or when it comes together, Carmen opens her kitchen to a guest chef. Jackie Baldwin, executive chef at RPI, took over one month. Another night was a food and wine pairing. People pay enough to cover the costs. Prices range from $12 to $25 a person.
"That's what community is about," she said. "You open up your life. You open up your door and then you let the good things in."
(If you want to go, email Carmen at firstname.lastname@example.org and ask to be added to her invitation list. She sends out monthly emails with the schedule and prices.)
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