02 July 2007
Is Bowling Alley Fare Always a Gutterball?
Linda was nervous.
She glanced back and forth between the two of us: Aaron with his scraggly beard and baseball cap, and I with my scraggly beard and, um, baseball cap.
“Are you guys locals?”
It was obvious something was afoot.
“And you just want lunch?”
The mechanisms in her mind were clicking away, the turning wheels and sprockets. I had to act fast.
“Um, we were just down the road at the guitar store,” I felt a burp coming in from deep down inside where the pizza and fried zucchini sticks I’d eaten fifteen minutes ago at the other place were waging battle in the current of my churning gastric fluids.
She leveled a stare on me that shook the rest of my fib from me like a chestnut from an old tree in late summer.
“And we were just looking for some lunch.”
And that sealed it. I could only imagine what words of incredulity splashed between the synapses of her mind. But I bet it was something like this: 'You came to the bowling alley… for lunch?!'
I should explain.
My father put me in my first pair of bowling shoes when I was two years old. By the time I was in first grade I was on a league. I was raised on a steady diet of nacho cheese and soft pretzels, the crunch of a crisp pizza crust suddenly overcome by the violence of a ten-pin strike. I was born to bowl.
Aaron is likeminded. A thin thrust of alleyrat, Aaron Henkin wears a brass belt buckle bearing his bowling name: AWOL. Today he is wearing a Thrasher trucker cap bearing an inverted pentacle and sporting a particularly ragged beard.
“Do you have fried zucchini sticks?”
I size up the menu on the board, settling instead on a big plate of garlic fries. That’ll do the job.
Aaron and I were on a mission. We had come to Glen Burnie for the express purpose of comparing the dining experiences offered by two rival bowling alleys: the old-school Bowl America Restaurant and Lounge and the upstart AMF Ritchie Lanes. Both alleys are located along the Ritchie Highway corridor only about a mile apart. That’s where the similarities end. Whereas Ritchie Lanes boasts neon graphics and gleaming lanes and a sound system designed for midnight rock-n-bowl (on the afternoon we were there only three lanes were in use and Natalie Cole cooed over the speakers), Bowl America is housed in an older Modern concrete building -- the exterior is one great swoop, the interior all angles of black and beige – and there is no afternoon music, only the sound of balls rushing towards pins.
Both of us being bowlers, we had no illusions as to the type of food we would find at each establishment. There is a reason most folks don’t go out to dinner at the local bowling alley. That said, I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to bowling and I must admit that I’m not a fan of the yuppification going on in many modern lanes. I don’t go to the bowling alley to eat calamari and drink microbrews. I go to the bowling alley to bowl. And when I’m bowling, I don’t want to be bothered with having to decide what to order. Give me a pizza and a pitcher of beer. That’s bowling food.
So when we arrived at Bowl America, I was pleased to see that the menu writ up on the board behind the counter was simple and pure to the ideals of bowling alley fare: pizza, cheeseburgers, nachos, and a variety of deep fried potatoes and vegetables.
It should be noted that I took Aaron along not just for comradeship, but because he is a meat eater. I’ve been a strict vegetarian for going on three years and I haven’t eaten red meat in fifteen years. I needed someone who could toss down a few burgers. Aaron was happy to take the job.
Sitting at the diner-style burgundy stools, Aaron and I gave our order to one of three women working the small kitchen. I ordered a small cheese pizza with a side of fried zucchini sticks; Aaron chose a double cheeseburger with fries and a side of onion rings. Beer and soda topped off the meal.
The first thing to notice when our order arrived was the quality of the cheeseburger. This was no fast-food burger. This thing came packed as two thick quarter-pound patties separated by slices of American cheese and topped with lettuce, onion, and tomato. The bun itself was a thing of beauty, a thick sesame encrusted roll full of air and hubris. This was no dinky burger. This thing was meant for a hungry bowler.
The pizza left little to be desired, however. Obviously a toaster-over job, the tomato sauce overpowered the thin skim of cheese and cracker-like crust. It must be said, however, that this pizza was not at all greasy and I would definitely rate it above the average high-school cafeteria style pizza I’d expected.
I was happy to see the deep fried zucchini on the menu – that’s old school. And while our deep fried items may have been the cause of suffering later that afternoon, in the moment they were perfect illustrations of quick unpretentious bowling fare.
All in all, I’d say we left with a pretty good impression of Bowl America. The staff was friendly and helpful, the food was passable, and the beer was cold. All in all, a good bowling-food dining experience.
Our next stop was Ritchie Lanes. Pulling into the parking lot, I bet Aaron there would be no more than one person working the kitchen. Sure enough, the aforementioned Linda was the sole employee. We tried to order as nearly identical a meal to what we had just eaten at Bowl America. Ritchie Lanes didn’t have the zucchini, and Aaron had to settle for only a single patty on his cheeseburger, but otherwise we were pretty even.
Let’s start with the pizza. Where Bowl America’s pie was a mediocre toaster-oven thing, the pizza at Ritchie Lanes was nothing less than an unmitigated disaster. A small round pie burnt and scarred, it could have easily passed as a soiled Frisbee. The garlic fries were not much better. Wet and gooey with some kind of garlic sauce, the shoestring fries reeked of grease.
On Aaron’s end, things looked a little better. The burger was reasonable and came with fresh onions and a tomato on the side. Having just eaten a double cheeseburger ten minutes prior, Aaron really wasn’t complaining about having to go single this time around.
The real shining glory of Ritchie Lanes was the onion rings. These were among the largest, thickest, fried onions I’d every seen. The largest of them were a good two inches across and in circumference were wider than my hand. These were the onion rings of the gods.
Midway through our meal, Linda stopped by our table to check on us. The alley was quiet with only two lanes currently in use. We sat at a table on the far side of the alley near the darkened lounge.
“I know who you are,” she called to us with a big smile on her face.
Aaron and I looked at one another.
“You’re my Secret Shoppers!”
I flipped through the card catalog of my mind to the ‘S’ section. ‘Secret Shoppers’ (n.): Folks who get paid by customer service firms to shop and eat food at chain retailers and restaurants and then rate them.
I think I smiled, “No, no, we’re just having lunch.”
Linda would have none of it. “You are my Secret Shoppers. We’ll my name is Linda; I’m not wearing my name tag, but my name is Linda. I had heard of this happening before. They told me: look out for Secret Shoppers.”
Aaron tried to not let on that he was choking on the last bite of his burger.
Linda straightened a chair and then sauntered back up to the kitchen, taking a seat at the counter unable to conceal her pride.
We didn’t want to let her down, so on our way out – in his best radio voice (and he is a radio professional, so he knows a thing or two about radio voices) – Aaron signaled to Linda saying: “Linda, thank you very much for lunch. It was ex-cellent.”
As we left, I overheard her saying to a customer as she was pouring a fountain drink: “They are Secret Shoppers.”
So, what did this little episode prove?
On the ride home, Aaron and I barely talked. My sole priority was on ignoring the oncoming indigestion and keeping my eyes on the road. What we did decide, however, was that there was something magical about the bowling alley. [Go with me here…] See, if we would have been in a fast food restaurant eating equally greasy food or if we had just ordered the exact same food from the alleys as carry-out (a shuddering thought) we would have likely never even been able to munch it all down let alone find any enjoyment in it. But something about eating that food in the bowling alley – among the clatter and crash of the ball returns and the whirl of a fifteen pound ball sliding over oiled wood planks – gave a special resonance to the meal. Perhaps it led my mind directly to my childhood; in which case I can only imagine all the fried slop I must have eaten in those years.
Next time you are bowling, take the time to order something from the kitchen. And thank your server. For all you know, she may be serving memories.
-- Thanks to Aaron Henkin for his assistance on this report. Check out his radio program 'The Signal' on 88.1 WYPR in Baltimore and podcast online.