Shoulda fixed that thermostat in the oven. Now Carla says she can’t cook no toikey for Thanksgiving and we’ve gotta go out.
“Take me to Cowwonado, pwease?” she says in the über-cute voice she knows I’ll do anything to plug. “We can have Thanksgiving there.”
I check the Hotel Del online. “Ha! Eighty-five dollars each. That suit you?”
“We can go to Clayton’s,” Carla says, calmly. “Mary runs it. Trust me.”
A trolley, a 901 bus, and a bridge later, we’re standing at Tenth and Orange in downtown Coronado. Thar she blows — Clayton’s, single-story white stucco place with red-hooped windows. Mexican-looking, pretty much as it has been for half a century, they say. Carla has kept up with Clayton’s because she comes to town to have her pal Diane do her hair. Guess Diane introduced her to the restaurant’s owner, Mary.
So we cross Orange and wander in to this red and white and cream room. There’s a long, U-shaped counter surrounded by counter stools and a row of red booths on the left. “One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock,” shouts Bill Haley from the ancient Seeburg jukebox. I see they still use an old Hamilton Beach milkshake-maker too, and an upright NCR manual cash register.
“Happy Days,” I mumble to Carla.
“What does that make you, the Fonz?” she says. “Let’s get a counter stool by one of the jukebox remotes.”
“Please Be Prepared to Slide the Counter,” says a sign.
“Meaning,” says Carla, “to move along so more people can fit in.”
Two people do sit down right next to us. “Hey, Mary,” Carla calls out — Mary’s down at the kitchen end. “How much for the jukebox?”
“A quarter gets you two songs,” Mary says. She comes up to see us. “It plays 45s. Little kids stare at them and say, ‘Why is this CD so big?’ ”
I slide a quarter into the machine. Carla nubbles the little square buttons. “Just not ‘My Way,’ ” I beg. She hits “Born to Be Wild.” I choose “Tijuana Jail,” since one of the Kingston Trio, Nick Reynolds, hails from this town.
The waitress, Chelsea, brings us menus. It’s early, around 11:00. I’m almost tempted to take the all-day breakfast (heck, pork chops and two eggs only runs $7.50), but no. This is all about next Thursday. Dry run. And yes, they have “Baked Turkey” on the menu, “with dressing, gravy, and cranberry sauce, $8.95.” It also comes with mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, and a soup or salad. And “Parker House” rolls.
I go for that, but Carla decides she’ll have a sliced turkey sandwich with coleslaw (she could have had fries) for $5.50.
Soup is a choice of tortilla or French onion. “Have the tortilla,” says Mary. “It’s delicious. Of course, on Thanksgiving, you’ll get butternut-squash soup.”
She’s right about the tortilla soup. It’s got chicken and cheese and the tang of the green cilantro floating in it, and those delicious, crunchy tortilla strips. But the real deal is the turkey. Chelsea brings it on a big oval china plate with four or five generous slices of breast covered in a light brown gravy, plus peas, carrots and corn, and a big fat wad of mash, also topped with gravy, and a pot of cranberry sauce. Love the dressing underneath — bread crumbs, butter, chicken stock, Mary says. And the gravy has a real tang.
“What’s in it?” I ask.
“A little vino,” Mary says, like it’s a state secret.
“This always on the menu?” I ask.
She nods. “We go through two turkeys a day. On Thanksgiving, we’ll cook a lot more. We’re inviting 50 Marines to have lunch here. My three kids and lots of others will be helping out.”
Wow. Turns out they did the same thing last year, only with Navy SEAL trainees.
“Boy, I bet that’s appreciated,” I say.
“It definitely is,” says the guy on my right. Rick. “I’m heading for Afghanistan in a few days,” he says, “and believe me, we appreciate these gestures.”
He’s a Navy commander, in intelligence. Actually a reservist. Works at IBM. He’s already spent a year in Iraq. “I had Thanksgiving 2007 in Baghdad. We ate the turkey, had a good time, and then the mortars started coming in. We hightailed it for the bunkers. And this was in the Green Zone.”
His wife LeAnn is getting ready to say goodbye, again. You can see it in her eyes. “What really helped me last time was I’d send out Halloween things, and Thanksgiving gourds and pumpkins, little Christmas trees, and ornaments. And wherever I was, I would have a card with a flag on it, and I’d pass it around to anybody, and people would write their sentiments, and then I would mail it, so he would feel connected and know how much people cared about him.”
“And I would get it through the mail,” Rick says. “I would wait all day, until I was in my hootch, and then I’d open it up and read it, with no distractions.”
So will this Thanksgiving dinner for Marines mean something to them? “Absolutely,” Rick says. “One time, when I was in Japan, a local American family invited a handful of us over to have Thanksgiving dinner. It’s just a beautiful thing. I’ll always remember that. So these guys, they’re going to love this.”
“Apple pies?” says Mary. “Chelsea and I made two. They’re just out of the oven. Anyone interested?”
Man. I’m starting to remember now. We’ve been here before. It’s a home away from home. Carla and I both order up a slice of pie, “à la mode,” with ice cream ($4.25 each). Oh, yes. It’s hot, with baked Granny Smith apples, and a flaky-and-moist crust that’s…well, I was going to say “to die for.”
“In a way,” says Carla, “that’s exactly what it is. ‘Mom and apple pie’ — why all those boys and girls are willing to go. Whatever the politics.”
“So we’ll come back Thursday?” she asks, as we walk out. “Or would you prefer the $170 Del?”
I wave the little receipt. It says $28.16.
“White flag,” I say.