One Night in Aroostook (Makes a Hard Man Humble): Part II
We had no dinnertime agenda by the time we arrived in Presque Isle, Aroostook’s commercial center, located just 10 miles from the Canadian border to the East. We had received warning from a Facebook follower, advising us that Presque Isle wasn’t what she would consider a culinary mecca; that the best we could hope for was a series of chain restaurants and fast food places, which was confirmed as soon as we drove up Main Street, a section of Route 1 that shears Presque Isle neatly in half lengthwise. Exhausted from the nearly 300 mile drive, we asked the freckle-faced teenager that seemed to be the only person on staff at our hotel about possible suggestions for dinner. “I’m not sure,” she replied, “it depends on what you like.”
I’m not sure why she went through the motions, because dinner in Presque Isle does not, in any way, depend on what you like. Eliminate fast food options from the list, and there are five restaurants in town. There’s Governor’s, a Maine-based chain restaurant that has always given me the creeps. There are a few odd Chinese restaurants, strange, anachronistic relics from the 1950s, when ordering a mai tai made you feel like an international businessman on holiday. With memories of Southern Maine’s Chinese food planted firmly in our brains, these were struck from the list immediately. There’s a marble-fountain-in-the-lobby, red sauce Italian place that we couldn’t track down, a pseudo-Irish pub called, inevitably, The Irish Setter Pub, and a Bonanza Steakhouse.
Rrrrrt! Did the record in your brain just skip? Did I just say there was a Bonanza Steakhouse, a last, remaining holdover from that slowly collapsing chain of plastic tray, buffet-style steak restaurants?
As I have (for some reason) previously mentioned on this site, my only experience with a Bonanza Steakhouse was with the branch that once existed in the Wal-Mart parking lot, in Rockland, Maine, in the mid-1980s. I was six or seven years old, and I remember visiting with my parents, who had quickly exhausted Rockland’s then very limited dining options. It was a dark place, I remember, standing behind my dad as he ordered steak and fried shrimp from the big board above the register. Then, you would grab a brown textured plastic glass, and shuffle along a buffet line to a cash register. That night, we sat next to some subnormal kid with a chronic case of hiccups, who blew spit bubbles all over the back of our booth. I don’t remember, but I don’t imagine we lingered, since my dad’s patience for the idiosyncrasies of other people’s kids trended exactly in line with his tolerance of a place that didn’t serve alcohol, which many Bonanzas surprisingly don’t.
That particular branch of Bonanza has long-since closed, and the building has been slowly reclaimed by the Wal-Mart parking lot, with shuttered windows, and long weeds growing in the cracks in the asphalt. It was a fate I had assumed had befallen the entire restaurant chain, until I was confronted by the glowing visage of this particular outpost in Presque Isle. Counting on, if nothing else, being able to leave with a story, we ventured in for dinner.
Jillian: We should have known better. We should have run. We scooted inside the doors of Bonanza just ahead of the SUNY Purchase boys wrestling team, and I should have let them have all the nachos. The fact that there is a sort of cattle partition between the customer ordering and the rest of the patrons, grazing and hunching over dimly-lit plates, is telling. Not even Kafka would attempt this version of human hell.
Stepping into the Bonanza Steakhouse in Presque Isle is like stepping out of a time machine. Everything was exactly as I remembered it; the dim lighting that cast a yellowish hue on everything (the accompanying photos of the restaurant have not been re-touched…that’s just what it looks like in there), the big menu board above the cash registers, the miles of salad bar with its elevated sneeze guard, the wine-colored vinyl booths, the wall-to-wall, indoor/outdoor carpeting, the white acoustic drop-ceiling, the mottled beige trays. Unprepared and feeling pressured, I ordered the half rack of ribs, and Jillian selected the sirloin, cooked medium-rare. We took our number, laid our trays on the cafeteria-style chrome bars, and shuffled sideways past the army of uniformed waitstaff, to the waiting cash registers, where we paid and were left to wander off to find a booth.
Jillian: Mildly panicked and getting a distinct stink eye from the teenager working Bonanza’s front counter, I ordered a steak. I didn’t want their “steak” (my own quotation marks), but I felt I didn’t have a choice. The best thing to do here, if you must be here, is to stick with the salad bar and soft serve ice cream sundae station. It was the “steak” that began to really depress me.
While we waited the few moments for our meals to appear, we ventured to the salad bar to snap a few pictures. To its credit, the salad bar at Bonanza is impeccably clean, with fresh bowls of vanilla pudding and thousand island dressing being swiftly swapped in and out faster than you can say “congealing nacho cheese.” There is an accompanying hot bar, serving peas, carrots, scalloped potatoes, as well as thin, gruely versions of American Chop Suey and baked beans, a steam table full of mussels sulking terrifyingly in a cloudy bath, and a “taco bar” so anemic and sad that it made me want to call my mom. As I examined the croutons, one of the visiting members of some collegiate sports team that had been bussed in sneezed, full-force, all over the plastic guard that hangs at about eye level, before walking off without even the courtesy of a shrug.
Jillian: The salad stuff is totally up to code. Possibly. Fresh, filled, not filthy, this is the highest praise I can give the salad bar in retrospect. It still gives me a childhood thrill of pleasure to pile on the bacon bits, croutons, and all the dressing my heart desires. I hope I don’t get listeria for saying so, but the spinach was totally good. Douse it in creamy blue cheese and two scoops of black olives, and be satisfied. Sadly, dead-inside satisfied.
This is where the atmosphere changed, somewhat. The staff, who were already stunningly cheerful and outgoing, despite the grim ambiance of the restaurant, seemed to step their collective game up even more. I realized that it was entirely likely that in the farm country of Northern Maine, the luxury of a “food blog” is likely a pretty foreign idea, and that when someone is running around taking high resolution photos of your soft serve machines, they’re probably there on official Health Department business. Suddenly, soda cups were re-filled (normally a self-serve affair), plates were cleared, and fresh napkins were placed after every trip up from our table.
After our last trip back to the salad bar for more cottage cheese, our main courses miraculously appeared. Jillian’s steak was a perfect oval, a gray, oddly textured slab with cartoonish grill marks seared on top. It came served with brown rice; not “brown rice,” mind you, but instead, white rice that was turned brown by some sort of salty sauce, likely soy.
Jillian: My entrée landed in a haze of sneezes, coughs and other bodily functions most often encountered on overnight flights to Pittsburgh. It was gray. With grill marks. And a mound of burnt sienna colored rice. I hoped the rice would be flavored with soy sauce but it seemed more like Alpo. I know. Comparing bad food to dog food is so facile, and frankly, beneath me. But it really did smell worse than Detective Olivia Benson’s dinner. She came up on the hard streets of a Mexican port town; I once saw her eat what I’m pretty sure was another dog, and she still would not have been down with this rice.
I was relieved to find that my ribs weren’t baby backs, those insipid little slivers of bone and meat. Instead, each rib was thick, fatty, and meaty, and covered in a sweet barbecue sauce. Each bone pulled away easily, and I began to wonder just how they were cooked, exactly. This wasn’t the kind of place that was slow-smoking their meat in the alley out back. Somehow, I had unwittingly encountered a cooking method hereto unheard of to culinary science, that somehow rendered pork supple and tender, while simultaneously completely stripping it of flavor and giving it the chew of a rubber band. If I were to hazard a guess, it would be that these ribs had the life relentlessly beaten out of them in a pressure cooker, before being blackened on a hot grill and slathered with sauce. They were inedible, and the lingering smell of the barbecue sauce on my fingertips, which survived even a hot hotel shower, was enough to turn my stomach for the rest of the night.
Jillian: I applied the contents of my packet of Promise spread – 40% vegetable oil is the single divulged ingredient – and took tentative bites of Texas Toast while I contemplated my meat. Whatever human tendency compels us to seek out the source of a foul odor, I can only think acted on my brain to apply knife and fork to this unholy wad of gristle. It tasted nothing like a steak, nor any other meat I’ve ever had. It is a product unlike anything save itself. To clarify, it didn’t taste rancid or anything. Just odd: an over-processed distillation and contortion of matter that must have once come from the backside of a cow. Much like a Real Housewife, my dinner bore a resemblance to life, without actually containing any simple building blocks or blood.
It’s amazing to me that a place like the Bonanza Steakhouse can continue not just to exist, but to thrive, even in an area where “quantity” likely ranks as highly as “quality” as criteria for a restaurant recommendation. Both meals were not just bad, but somehow took familiar pieces of food and turned them into something else, entirely; barbecued ribs turned into Nerf balls, steaks turned into tendony, oddly-textured slabs of cheerless flesh, like the way you expect food synthesized in a futuristic laboratory to taste. While the staff is clearly working hard to put a happy face on the whole thing, the entire experience was stunningly discouraging and depressing.
The Irish Setter Pub
As the options at this point were to either go back to the Hampton Inn and hang ourselves in the toilet, or to see what other directions our evening could have taken us, we crossed busy Route 1 for a nightcap in The Irish Setter Pub. The parking lot was booming on a Saturday night in Presque Isle, with so many cars in the parking lot that we had to park in the neighboring driveway.
The inside of the restaurant is cheery, wrapped around a horseshoe-shaped bar, with as much Irish theming as “painting the walls green” and “hanging a few Guinness posters” will get you. The light is stunningly bright, illuminated by dozens of overhead lights and reflected off all of the hanging Jameson and Guinness bar mirrors on the walls, which I have to assume can only be a reaction to either the hopeless gloom of the eatery across the street, or to provide a safe haven of cheer during Aroostook’s long Winters.
Seated at the bar, I had two quick, bracing shots of Jim Beam to quiet my stomach and erase the memories of the previous hour. Every table in the restaurant was full, packed with old couples, young families with babies in high chairs, and single Happy Hour types, all laughing and carousing in a way that only seemed to magnify the sadness coursing its way through my stomach and bloodstream. A glance through the menu and at the passing service trays confirmed my suspicions: that when dining in Presque Isle, you’ll be much, much happier with The Irish Setter Pub’s collection of Irish pub food, including bangers and mash, Sheppard’s Pie, and a solid-looking roundup of burgers. We didn’t try the food at The Irish Setter, and we didn’t have to; the lightness and happiness the restaurant brought into our hearts following our soul-crushing dinner at Bonanza was enough, and for that, we owe them a debt of gratitude.