Yes, there was plentiful and free parking. Yes, the shops were distinctive and semi-reasonable. But it was exhausting keeping up that pace of constant delight.
I stopped into Hard Times Cafe at the corner of King and West Streets. You can tell you’re there because there is a life-size plastic horse in a trailer strewn with Christmas lights parked out front. In a place populated with beautiful people and vistas of the Masonic Temple, some well-placed kitsch is appreciated.
Once I was standing at the host stand, I knew I was in the right place. Inside, the restuarant is dark and wood paneled. The wooden booths run all the way to the back where rotund, jolly cooks rule the open kitchen.
How did the cooks get so rotund and jolly? There’s no way to know, but I would guess that they eat a lot of Chili Mac.
Chili Mac: chili spooned on top of pasta. A macaroni versus spaghetti debate rages on the Internet. People from the Midwest have strong feelings about what’s the real name for it, but with as amazing as this concoction is, who cares?
Hard Times takes its chili seriously, giving you a choice between four different kinds. If you ask for a sampler, you can try the Texas chili (too dry), Cincinnati (too sweet and mealy), the Veggie (why?), and the Terilingua (spicy, soupy and delicious–perfect!).
The Chili Mac Three Ways at Hard Times is just what I would like if I ever have a bad, awful, no good, very very bad day. The spaghetti steams in its coils and the chili seeps its spicy tomato juices down into it while cheese melts on top. Midwestern goodness to the max!
Eating this dish just makes you feel happy and safe, able to say things like to the max with abandon. The service at Hard Times is so quaint and adorable, I momentarily thought I was in Oklahoma. “Take your time,” “Be right back with some cornbread, dear,” and “Glad you liked it” seemed so natural there. But if I heard even one of these from someone at, say, Big Bear Cafe, I would be taken aback. And scared.
I’m marking my calendar now for National Wing Day on April 27. Not only is this a day to honor the consumption of chicken wings, but you get a free 1/2 order of wings with any purchase at Hard Times. Wings to the max, Midwestern goodness to the max, to the max to the max!