By Barry Zander
“Where shouldn’t we eat in town?” I’ve asked the same question in a thousand towns around the country during our travels, far too many times for my wife, Monique, to endure.
That contrary question almost always gets the right reply. After a blank look, the store clerk proceeds to name a greasy spoon to avoid, and then adds, “… But while you’re in town, the best food is at [fill in the blank]. And, while you’re here, you don’t want to miss [such-and-such] Park, just up the hill from the old guitar factory.”
Remember, this is a clerk who gets the same questions from half the lookie-loo tourists: “Do you have a bathroom I can use?” or, “Is there a McDonald’s around here?” They are often bored to tears standing there all day with that fixed smile, trying to look busy. The contrary question brings them to life, and we get the information we want.
Join me for one very memorable episode. We were driving through El Ritos, New Mexico, a shabby town whose better days were when outlaw gangs were prowling the West. We were looking for Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch somewhere in the vicinity, so we stopped at an impressive U.S. National Forest office.
It was there that I asked the lady ranger, “Where shouldn’t we eat in town?” Without a second of hesitation she stated confidently, “You have to go to El Farolito,” as she pointed right across the street. Looking at it incredulously, we decided that although it was pretty funky looking, we were hungry.
We opened the door reluctantly. It was mid-afternoon, but most of the tables were filled with genuine ranch-hands in dusty sombreros, well-dressed families, a quiet couple …
Along the entire wall to our right was a mural showing what was probably El Ritos in its glory days. On the left wall and next to us in the entrance were plaques, prize ribbons, framed magazine and newspaper stories from publications including Fodor’s, Gourmet, Bon Appetit. This was THE place to eat!! It was probably the best Mexican food we had ever tasted.
Ask the wrong question; you’ll often get the right answer. Give it a try.