Monday, August 22, 2011

Sunday Night at the Frontier

Sunday night, warm and (relatively) humid for these parts (New Mexico's high desert), a smattering of high clouds illuminated by the lights of Albuquerque, far below. I'd finished running a last-minute family errand, across town, and was headed home; but first, a bite to eat.

Like many smaller cities, Albuquerque pretty much rolls up the sidewalks at sundown, especially on a Sunday night, a hold-over from a time of more traditional temperance, perhaps. I can remember the time, as a young lad, when liquor sales were first permitted on Sundays, back in the early 1970s. It was a shocking controversy at the time, reinforcing the notion that, along with race-riots and anti-war protests, the place had pretty much gone to hell in a hand basket.

But, this is 2011 and times, they are a bit more at ease, or so it would seem. Still, getting a good meal at ten at night on a Sunday, other than a drive-thru burger joint or a Denny's, is a bit of a challenge. Fortunately for me, I was driving up Central Avenue, toward the University District, and knew of just the spot: the Frontier Restaurant.

It stands as a landmark, perhaps the most legendary eatery in the entire state. Not due to its fine dining (the food, it's good but not gourmet good), or fancy atmosphere (you stand in line to order, then wait to pick up your tray at the counter when your number is flashed on the L.E.D. sign), or upper-crust clientele (a hodge-podge of students, street people, chess players, bohemians and assorted after-hours bar-crowd riff-raff), it's hard to pin down just exactly what sort of magical ingredients go into this extraordinarily unique eatery, disguised under a bright yellow, barn-shaped roof, across Central from the main entrance to U.N.M., but unique it is, uniquely ordinary.

I drove up Central, turned right onto Cornell, then made an immediate left into the narrow parking lot behind the building, adorned with painted decor, fresco-like, lending the place a sort of faux-European atmosphere. A miniature LPG-powered forklift was parked adjacent to the loading dock, next to a grease bin. In front of the rear entrance a cluster of young twenty-somethings mingled and chatted. Walking toward the entrance, I stopped momentarily, brought camera to face and snapped a pic, then strode through the motorized sliding glass entryway with a put-on attitude of the veteran street photographer that I'm not, secretly surprised that no one raised a stink. Perhaps a more enlightened crowd?

Inside, the Frontier can be a bit disorienting to the newcomer. The main room and kitchen occupy the west end of what was once a long strip of shops, which have now been joined by a long hallway along the front of the building into a series of dining rooms, each stuffed with booths and tables, and whose walls are cluttered with paintings of a mostly western motif, that can seem endless on a busy day.

I made my way down the hall to the main room, past a goth-like young lady seated at a table by the window, absorbed in a paperback, and stood for a minute or two in a short line. Even at ten at night on a Sunday there's a wait at the Frontier. I ordered the beef enchiladas smothered with green chile stew, and a fresh, just-made tortilla. I stood for several minutes, discretely snapping pics, while waiting for number 85 to be displayed. Years earlier, they would incessantly announce each order over an annoying loud-speaker until it was picked up. Tonite, the red numbers, they just silently flash on and off at the screen hanging from the ceiling above the pick-up counter like some abstract culinary mathematics. Finally, my order was ready and I sauntered up the ramp into one of the adjoining dining rooms, tray in hand, camera dangling from wrist via its Gordy strap.

I sat down at a booth in the John Wayne Room. At a table in the middle of the room, between the booths that line both side walls, sat several fellas playing chess with such intensity that they hardly noticed when I snapped several pics with an obvious lack of caution, nor did they even flinch when, a few moments later, the busboy dropped a metal dust pan onto the hard floor with a loud clang. Nor did they hesitate for even a second from their game to look up, across the room, to gaze with well-needed inspiration into the ruddy face of The Duke himself, silently overseeing the goings-on in this late-night eatery in the American southwest, like the Crucified Savior's visage silently gazing down upon a roomful of parishioners, celebrating Holy Mass.

Behind me, a booth-full of young 'uns was giving advice to a desperate young lady whose world was absolutely falling apart because "Josh, he knows that I know that he knows that I know. You know?"

Outside, through the rear sliding glass door, I could clearly see the flood-lit sign on the building opposite that proclaimed "One Way."

The Frontier, it's been featured in movies and on T.V. It's known for its legendary cinnamon rolls, fresh-squeezed orange juice and breakfast anytime, day or night. It used to be open 24-7, but now closes between 1 and 5 A.M. due to recent problems after the downtown bars close, their rowdy patrons on the prowl, hungry for a late-night meal. People, they come here to eat and talk, read or study, fellowship or play chess. Twenty-some years ago we'd meet here for Tuesday morning bible study.

My dinner, it was great, just like I knew it would be. The ground beef enchilada filling was tangy and spicy, the rice light and fluffy, the green chile stew marvelously hot and sweet, and the just-made flour tortilla a light, chewy, flour-dusted wonder that was everything I hoped it would be when, minutes earlier, I watched a cook line up fresh little dough balls, from a baker's tray, into the conveyor that fed them, through the rolling machine, directly into and through the glass-walled oven and out the other side, chrysalis-like in their transformation from doughy, larvae-like spheres to flat, hot, butterfly-like yumminess.

Minutes later I was driving the darkened streets toward home, windows down, the blues playing on the radio, a cool evening's breeze providing solace. I had just experienced Sunday night at the Frontier.

(Written via Lamy Safari fountain pen using Parker Quink blue/black ink into composition book. Photos via Lumix G1, 20mm-f/1.7 lens at ISO800)


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