Day 76: Czech Republic
Is it possible to sell out when you aren’t making any money and the biggest payout you’ve been offered is a hundred dollar gift card to Amazon.com? With both my finances and the number of remaining countries dwindling into perilously low territory, I’ve been lucky enough to stumble my way into a free meal and some free publicity today. Christina McLarty from the KCBS/KCAL evening news contacted me about coming along for one of my meals and featuring it on their “Dinner on a Dime” segment. So I sent her a list of upcoming places, she vetted the venues, then we agreed on a Czech bar and restaurant in Torrance, called Zina’s.
I arrive a few minutes early, but find Christina there, so we start chatting with the owners (and husband and wife team), Mark and Zina. Mark was actually looking for houses when he stumbled upon a large property that used to be a Jamaican restaurant. They had always talked about opening a mom and pop restaurant, “…but nothing this big,” he says. The restaurant is pretty large, with a full bar, dance floor and a restaurant section. Mark is a first generation U.S. citizen from the Czech Republic and Zina was actually born there. The two of them do all the cooking in the restaurant, bartenders handle drinks and they even get a little serving help from their two still-in-school children. The menu is a mix of typical bar food, like nachos, burgers and fries— as well as some really traditional Czech fare. Now the camera operator arrives, seemingly a little worn out from covering the fires, as Mark gets me a beer and Christina hooks up my microphone. I’m shown to a booth, the camera is set up and we start the initial interview process. I answer a few familiar questions (“Why aren’t you dying of obesity?”), then we head into the kitchen to watch Zina finish making some of the food. After that, it’s back into the dining room where they stage things like “Noah Ordering Dinner” and “People Bringing Him His Food”. It sounds like they’re going to be bringing me three whole entrées today, so I’ve really got to pace myself.
The first dish is svíčková (sveechkova), a slow cooked beef dish topped with a vegetable cream sauce, cranberry sauce and served with dumplings. The dumplings come with most (or possibly all) of the Czech entrées, and are similar to a thick and dense, but very soft piece of bread. It comes as a necessary starch component, taking their meat dishes and transforming them into a full meal. The svíčková, like the restaurant, is extremely homey and comforting, tasting like exactly the kind of thing you’d be happy to eat on a cold winter day, and bringing up ideas of what a Czech Thanksgiving dinner might taste like— that is, if they had Thanksgiving in the Czech Republic. Christina happily takes a bite (proving that you can be skinny, on television and eat slow cooked red meat) and asks what I think of it, while I try to “act natural” and answer her questions honestly. Then she steps back while the camera films me eating all by myself, which is a somewhat awkward and uncomfortable thing to do. I’m also still miked, so I start wondering if I’m supposed to grunt and say “mmm” a lot. I’m not totally sure.
The second dish, hovězí guláš (hovyezee goulash), is brought out by their young, adorable son, who sets it on the table and says “This is beef goulash. It’s my favorite.” I almost nod and wink, then say “Me too, kid,” but decide that I’m not actually Indiana Jones and probably shouldn’t. It’s a really nice, thick goulash with good sized chunks of beef in a dark red sauce. The big KCBS camera comes closer as I take out my own camera, trying to get good pictures of the food. But the shadows and lighting keep changing, I’m being filmed and there is a reporter sitting across from me, so I do my hurried best, then set it down and start digging in. I’ve always been a sucker for goulash and this stuff hits the spot admirably. The dumplings do a good job of soaking up the sauce and I’d happily eat more, but realize that I should push this plate to the side and leave room for yet more food. I offer Christina another bite, and as she leans over, accidentally moves the table cloth, sending both the lit candle and my beer toppling over. I manage to prevent the camera operator from having to cover yet another fire incident, but not before beer winds up in my lap. Ah, the hazards of television.
Mark and Zina’s daughter brings out the next dish, pronouncing “vepřo knedlo zelo” (veprzho knedlo zelo) with a perfect Czech accent. I’ve heard that this dish, roast pork with sweet sauerkraut and dumplings, is the most popular one in the Czech Republic. I take a bite and get asked “So is this your favorite dish you had tonight?” I say yes, even though it’s a little difficult to tell after one bite, though it may very well be anyway. Then I start talking, once again, about how much I like tart flavors mixed with savory ones. A minute later, the camera turns off and Christina gets up, saying “Great! We’re done with you here. Just go ahead and enjoy your meal. We’re going to interview Mark now. Oh, and you are really good on camera. You should get a TV show.” And just like that, they’re off, and I’m sitting by myself in the corner of the restaurant with three entrées in front of me.
I take a few more bites of the roast pork with cabbage, then talk to Zina for a couple of minutes as she brings me take-out boxes. “We also have an apple strudel for you,” she says, and wraps that up for me as well. Mark finishes his interview, the KCBS/KCAL crew leave, and I mill around with Mark and Zina for a moment, thanking them for a comforting, tasty meal and talking about websites that have contacted them about future publicity engagements. With four take out boxes under my arms, I head back to the car, happy from a satisfying meal, but still in a slight state of bewilderment over what exactly just happened. It is, after all, a far cry from day one, with GFB, Bosque and I standing around a Mexican food stand at 9:45 in the morning, shoveling ceviche tostadas in our mouths while I try to figure out how exactly my camera works— proving yet again that life, as always, has a boat load of ways to confound the living crap out of me.
“Dinner on a Dime” airs Thursday nights during the CBS and KCAL evening news, with repeats the following day.
4525 Calle Mayor
Torrance, CA 90505
Food Breakdown: 3 entrées, 1 beer
Distance From My House: 17.7 miles