They hadn’t spoken for years. Maybe three. For both, it seemed longer to the point that enough time had passed and neither could fathom any sort of reconciliation. Yet the draw of Shandy’s chicken tortilla soup was too irresistable. Its southwestern flare, the fresh onion, avocado, cilantro, lime zest and crisp tortilla strips floating in rich chicken broth and cooked to absolute perfection wafted pure heaven into the nostrils. The spicy consommé was a palette magnet for anyone who experienced this culinary delight, especially these two now polar opposites.
As an added wrinkle in the rift between them, this soup was only served on Wednesday nights and only at one place – Shandy’s Soup Shack. As a traditional, family bistro this little shack believed in neither takeout orders nor delivery. Patrons, therefore, had to eat in.
So the two would eat, sitting across from each other at the bar in the step-down soup shop, sipping this brothy goodness and shifting their looks to avoid eye contact. Often they’d bury their faces in the steam subliming from their bowls to avoid awkwardness.
One was called Jimmy. He had adopted thick-rimmed, black glasses and a bushy, tie-on beard that looked fake in its synthetic fibers because he couldn’t afford the real human hair kind. Despite the obvious falsehood of his disguise, Jimmy thought it adequate to avoid his estranged friend. Plus the fibers were a nice soup flavor-savor for later when he returned to his quaint one-bedroom.
The other ex-compatriot was called Kenny. Sunglasses and a baseball cap were enough for him, evidently, to keep up the incognito. Although, in a subterranean bistro that was dark even at high noon and lights kept dim into the evening, the shades drew more attention to him than they deflected.
Every Wednesday, these two characters would sip their soup in silence, not talking, not acknowledging the other, addicted to this dish and shameless in their persistence to not make amends. That was the power of the soup.
This phenomenon that occurred every seven days, in Shandy’s downstairs, turned to urban legend. Word of mouth spread. And foreign patrons, new to the place, would venture there to not only enjoy this local delicacy of the chicken tortilla soup, but to witness this ineptitude in social graces, between a bearded hipster and his Unabomber enemy.
Some would even say that the mystery of their falling out was more of a draw than the delicous, southwestern Wednesday special. In fact, the soup itself was more the MacGuffin that perpetuated these weekly theatrics like clockwork. And questions of their friendship or lack thereof abounded.
What could have caused such a rift? And how good a soup could this be that drew them, reluctantly and addicted to the bistro barstools weekly? That they’d go to such great lengths to shroud their true identities from each other, though it was so obvious to everyone else on the outside looking into this real life comedy of conflict.
I was one such foreign patron and my curiosity got the best of me one night, when I became wise to the depths of Jimmy and Kenny’s burnt bridge. I had to know what came between these once great friends.
One Tuesday night, I approached the Shandy’s owner who tended bar. I asked him about these two who’d be in this very establishment a mere night from then. Cooperation with me the inquisitor was not his M.O., however.
“The one with the beard is called Jimmy,” he said. That was all I could get out of him about that guy. “And the other is Ken.”
I couldn’t do much with first names in terms of a background check. And due to the tightlipped nature of the reluctant owner, I didn’t want to approach either of these two on that fated Wednesday night. The tension was palpable and a powder keg that could blow away any future chance at enjoying the chicken tortilla soup.
I had to approach this mystery with caution, therefore, if I wanted to satisfy both my unquenchable curiosity and thirst for scrumptious southwestern delight.
The soup was just that good.
After the falling out with Ken, I had tried to make my own version of Shandy’s chicken tortilla soup in my kitchen. And by a kitchen, I mean the hotplate that sat on the counter by my sink in a studio apartment the size of most people’s living rooms. There was no space to dice the onions and jalapeños. I couldn’t afford the quality chicken breasts the soup shack used either and the gaminess of the Star Market store brand were present in every bite. I’m also pretty sure old man Shandy included a secret ingredient in that rich broth. No matter how many times I took home a to-go cup and tried to disect its ingredients to isolate the mystery flavor, I failed.
Every Wednesday, then, the beard would go on and so would those clunky glasses that I didn’t even need. After a few months of donning the costume, I could sort of tell people were wise to the disguise, but I was in too deep at that point. Despite its obviousness, the costume was my only security blanket protecting me from confronting that awful Ken.
To tell you the truth, I didn’t even really like the soup. I hate spicy food. And I’m mildly allergic to cilantro. Luckily, as a glorified garnish that sat atop the broth, I was able to pick it off often before diving in.
It was stubbornness really that brought me back every Wednesday night. I liked to make Jimmy squirm. And that beard was so ridiculous. That stupid thing was always good for a chuckle to break up my week.
I knew how much he loved that soup. I also was not going to let him forget what he did. That was his punishment.
I sat in the corner of the bistro the following Wednesday. In a dark booth, I awaited the two, Ken and Jim, to arrive.
The confrontation could not occur inside the restaurant. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t follow one of them home. Contact would have to be made, if I were ever to get to the bottom of this caldron of conflict and chicken tortilla soup.