Civilization was invented because of dinner. The earliest civilizations emerged when prehistoric nomads got tired of rooting for berries and gnawing on raw cave-bear flesh. Instead of chasing their supper all over creation, they settled down into permanent cities, stockpiled surpluses and instigated divisions of labor. To the intense pleasure of generations of future gourmands, these conditions proved ideal for the evolution of the restaurant. Eventually a few visionaries learned to devote their lives to the mastery of the culinary arts, deploy their bounty in the realization of the craft and proffer the results in stationary buildings, some with sidewalk seating. When they began admitting female customers in the early 19th century, things really started looking up. Restaurants are one of the few reasons that I am a proponent of civilization, despite the fact that it has also engendered nasty things like HMOs, the NRA and MTV.
Restaurants are most effective when the food is edible. Of course, "edible" has different implications for different people. From a safe distance, I once watched a friend -- who will soon complete his long-awaited epic, Cooking with Cheetos -- fry in butter and subsequently devour with a shit-eating grin the contents of an entire can of Spam. Another of my confederates can live happily for months at a time on canned green beans and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Like my Spam friend, she is a person who divines a sustaining virtue in many a noxious foodstuff, so I took her down to Soulard with me on an expedition to Romo's Cantina and Grill (subtitled "Mexican International Cuisine"). What we encountered there was perhaps something less than "cuisine"; it should be noted that not even my accomplice's forgiving palate could wholly sanction calling it "fodder."
We prodded our redoubtable refried beans with tentative forks. In a far corner of the gloomy dining room an elderly couple were engaged in a shouting match. The woman had apparently excavated an ancient copy of Playboy from her husband's drawer and was remonstrating with some vehemence.
"Who keeps pornography for 29 years?" she demanded.
"Anyone married to you!" he hollered back.
Too bad they weren't real. If they had been, their exchange might have been amusing in a local-color sort of way. Instead, it was merely an uncouth harbinger of the decline of Western civilization; they were Hollywood constructs bellowing to a laugh track in a TV sitcom. That night at Romo's they were our commensal companions whether we liked it or not. Aside from the waitress and two eerily silent guys hunkered over glasses of draft at the bar, these strident, televised morons were the only entities in the place. Television characters have a vulgar propensity to dominate conversations, and it is never without regret that I break bread with misogynists from Everybody Loves Raymond.
At Romo's, however, there was no bread to break, only teeth. The bartender, after overcoming her initial surprise that my friend and I actually wanted dinner, duly confronted us with a basket of petrified tortilla chips that resembled some old Tostitos I'd recently flushed out from behind my fridge. This put me at a loss. Previously it had been my policy to base my first impression of Mexican holes-in-the-wall on the quality of their salsa. Because a salsa test requires tortilla chips, and because eating these chips was not a possibility if I valued my dental work, the true nature of Romo's sauce remains enshrouded in mystery.
Another of my longstanding procedures is to sample the guacamole. It takes a judicious and sensitive cook to produce good guac; avocados can go brown at the drop of a hat, and they fester grievously when subjected to incorrect dosages of garlic and lime. Romo's version, globbed without garnish or ceremony into a monkey dish, suffered freshness issues that were complicated by mushy tomatoes and an overabundance of bitter citrus juice. Even the waitress regarded it with a sigh; she ultimately eased her conscience by only charging us half-price. Mexican kitchens that cannot manage guacamole are not to be relied on. I was filled with foreboding.
At least I was filled with something, as it was extremely difficult to imagine filling up on the singularly ugly enchilada that appeared while the TV blared an ad for wrinkle cream. An exploratory incision into this oven-weary tortilla tube released a murky gush of burnt, granulated hamburger. One reluctant bite was enough to convince me never to darken the stoop of this establishment again. A plate of potato skins arrived after our server convinced us to substitute them for the chicken wings they were out of. They were cursed with the same inedible meat substance and appeared to have absorbed their weight in grease. Even my iron-willed companion shunned them after a single taste. There was no respite; the rice was crunchy, the beans were crusty, and everything was awash in a thin scarlet film.
A bottle of beer helped the chicken fajitas slide down. Though they arrived with the onions and green peppers that my friend had vociferously lobbied against when ordering, the chicken itself was offensive only insofar as it was rubbery. Curiously, there were no flour tortillas, but if I were threatened into recommending a dish, I suppose this would be it.
Dinner can take many forms and serve many agendas, but even after you filter out the trappings of theme and tradition and ritual and protocol and color-coordinated doilies, a single purpose, common to Cro-Magnons of ancient France and Wall Street alike, remains: sustenance. Sustenance may not occur unless the items to be ingested are edible; I would argue that in times of relative prosperity this condition may be upgraded to include "palatable." It is not asking too much in this day and age that people who operate restaurants and charge even modest tariffs for humble food should take care that it is able to be choked down. We are, after all, civilized.
ROMO'S CANTINA AND GRILL, 1551 S. Seventh St., 231-4624. Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-1:30 a.m.; kitchen closes 11 p.m. Mon.-Thurs. and midnight Fri.-Sat.; closed Sun. Entrees: $4.95-$6.95.