Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Dining Alone - A bite before class

It's been a very long time since I've lived the life of a college student. In my college days, I was a full-time student living in the dormitories - at least the first two years. I ate in the dining hall, but as I grew more used to the town, the lures of off-campus eateries and hash houses drew me and my friends away. Cheap, filling and fast food satisfies the cravings of caffeine-stoked and book-maddened students.

Gyros - photo from Wikipedia

In 1972, fresh from the burbs of Ohio, my tastes ran in favor of the delectable variety of hamburgers, hotdogs and rootbeer floats at a place called Lums on North High Street. But, frankly, those big platters piled up with fries and onion rings cost too much for my meager allowance.

One night my roommate and I stumbled out of our stately fake-Tudor style dorm, heading east of 12th Avenue for the donut shop on High Street. But before we got there, we noticed a small wood-frame bungalow with a sign in the window. It was this Ohio kid's first encounter with Middle-Eastern food - shwarma, gyros, and falafel, and what a wake-up it was.

In 1972 Ohio, Chinese Chop Suey joints were rare, and even pizza seemed "ethnic." The hunk of pressed lamb rotating on its vertical spindle before the glowing grill seemed very exotic, and we loved the garlicy tahini that dripped down our forearms from pita pockets full of lettuce, onions and tomatoes.

Now, in 2012, I drive from my office job to the campus of a community college with a half-hour to spare for dinner before class, and the food choices I find bring me right back to those days.

Falafel - photo from Yelp
 There's a little joint where I can get a falafel sandwich for $4.50. I pull up a battered wooden barstool to a tiled counter, and within minutes a plastic, paper-lined basket is placed before me. The pitas are small and there are only 2 patties of fried chickpeas inside, but it's enough to slake a between-classes appetite. They're tasty, too, with parsley and a touch of spice, and I can watch the cook drop scoops of batter into the hot fryer to make my order. The roar of traffic outside a flimsy swing door and the chill of the concrete-block shack bring back the feel of those cold Ohio nights, feeding a hunger born from late night in the stacks - or a long day in a cubicle.

If I don't want falafel, another cheap choice is a little Korean place in the same strip mall. always crowded with Asian students, this narrow diner with formica-topped tables displays a dozen photos over the counter as a menu. The proprietor doesn't speak much English, but you can order by number, and you'll still get a sweet smile from him.

Yoo Jae Kang - photo from Yelp

Here, one cold and foggy night, I had a giant bowl of Yoo Jae Kang, brick red broth with chile and full of transparent noodles, chopped cabbage and onions, and tender, shredded slow-cooked beef. Oily, almost sour-hot and strong enough to steam my glasses up, it was far too much to finish, and for only $6.50. it came on a stainless steel tray with a bowl of steamed rice and a little dish of kimchee.You can also get kimchee fried rice, or a sizzling hot stone pot of bibimbap.

If you have a hankering for American-style burgers, you can get that too, at Fosters Freeze. This old-fashioned ice-cream and hamburger stand has a great old neon sign with a cheerful ice cream man, and a no-frills dining area with plastic and metal seats bolted down on a concrete floor. You can get a cheeseburger wrapped in a paper sleeve, onion rings or chili-cheese fries - and a chocolate-dipped soft-serve ice cream cone for dessert. 

Photo from Yelp

During the evening before my class, the place fills up with parents and towel-wrapped, damp-haired kids - fresh out from swimming lessons at the campus pool across the street.

Because I'm rushing from work to class, with time only to park, eat, and run, I usually eat fast, sometimes scrambling to finish my homework assignment at the table.  I'm not sure my current metabolism can process this kind of food as my once 18-year-old body could. Perhaps I should explore more healthy options over the coming weeks of the semester - but it's nice to have a nostalgic experience.

What taste treats and comfort foods got you through college or school? What new foods were you introduced to when you left home?


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I lived in the dorm all 4 years, but I worked over the summer the last two.

Claire's Corner Copia was a great morning spot.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Coffee ice cream from Häagen-Dazs (we only had ice milk growing up), fresh pizzas from a local place that was just starting up, and a continued love for Avgolemono soup from Costa's Greek restaurant on The Ave.

You've now got me hankering for a fresh Gyro. Mmmmmm...

Littlemama said...

I ate mostly in the dining hall because I was broke and food was covered in the meal plan. However, on the rare occasion that I ventured off campus for food, Schmagels Bagels called my name. Garlic-Cheddar Cream Cheese....yum. It was either that, or Scarlett O'Hara's, but that helped quench my "thirst" more than my hunger.

Gary's third pottery blog said...

haha, well, peanut butter on bagels and ramen were what I lived off indeed :) It would be more fun to live off falafal sandwiches though!

Ellen Bloom said...

I work in SM and have been to Hungry Pocket...very good! Haven't tried the Asian place yet, but on your recommendation, will try it! Thanks!

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I bought a bunch of bags of shelled fava beans at the supermarket last week (they are not always available)- I prefer to make my falafel out of a 50/50 chickpea/fava mix. I'll probably make some falafel next week.