I5 is a long and ugly road. Takes you past tumbleweeds and dusty orchards and feedlots full of hot, sluggish cattle waiting to be processed. Processed is a euphemism. You will see signs saying things like “Congress Created Dust Bowls” attached to wire fencing running alongside. Not much resemblance to the California of our dreams. However, I5 also makes it possible to drive from the San Francisco Bay Area to parts of Los Angeles in under six hours. My youngest sister and her family live in Los Angeles. I live in the Bay Area. My sister had just moved houses, and she asked for a visit. Down we went. And, three days later, back we came.
Lunch on roadtrips is usually such a quandary. Do you steel yourself for yet another encounter with the corporate deep fryer? Or do you risk eating actual food made by actual humans when said actual humans might do a bad job? Usually we do fast food. Long tradition born of the horrors of small, bored children in a car. But this time we had my mother along. And it didn’t seem fair to make her eat Mc-Anything.
On the way down we had seen a sign saying, “Indian Food, Veg, Non-Veg.” I know that’s a clue the food will be real. That’s how they say it in India. That’s how they say it in Bay Area Indian restaurants, of which there are a good number. I was curious. We stopped.
“Taste of India”. It was in a rest area. Not even a town. Just a collection of gas stations and eating places in the sun. Did I mention it was 103 degrees? In we went. The Bollywood movie playing on the TV hanging from the ceiling gave me comfort. The young woman taking our order gave me comfort, as did the purple walls and foil decorations hanging from the ceiling. I had been ready for the food to be awful but it was not. It was wonderful. You could tell it was homemade from ingredients you can find in nature. Each dish we ordered tasted different from every other dish. No one was pulling out the can of Annie’s Asian Food Sauces and dousing the chicken with generic yellow.
I had chicken tandoori tikka. And mango lassi. The chicken was good to bite and to taste. The red sauce was tangy, maybe from tamarind. Onions and bell peppers had roasted and caramelized. We also had paneer palaak, creamed spinach with chunks of hard cheese. Spicy. Delicious.
It wasn’t cheap. It wasn’t fast. But I cannot tell you how much I love a random joy like this. Something unexpected. Unexpected and flirting with the absurd. Indian food and purple walls at a truck stop in inland California? Jolts you out of the let’s-just-get-this-over-with part of travel. Fills you with happiness for people who set up a family restaurant and post a large sign by the side of something as big and industrial as I5. Reassures you that some level of risk is usually worth taking. Especially once you no longer have small, bored children in the car. Those with small, bored children are exempt.
If you drive over Labor Day, and find yourself on I5, the exit is Buttonwillow. Adding a sort of early 20th century English children’s literature flavor to the entire experience.
Have a lovely weekend.