Friday, 5 February 2016


Junior stays with his father on Thursday evenings, and Bess and myself usually dine out on that night so I can take a break from the cooking. Yesterday we opted for Bandera Jalisco seeing as we hadn't been there in a couple of weeks and it has become more or less my favourite place to eat. We came across it about a year ago following a visit to Comanche Lookout Park. It seemed more or less like any other Mexican eaterie you might happen to pass in San Antonio, a predominantly red and yellow exterior and usually with enthusiastically hand lettered advertising painted across the windows, a smiling anthropomorphic taco wearing a sombrero or something of the sort.

'Let's eat there,' I said, pointing and taking pleasure in this leap of faith, this pin stabbed into a map more or less at random.

It's difficult to eat bad Mexican food in San Antonio, but not impossible, and this itself has always been something of a mystery to me. Given how close we are to the border and the ubiquity of Mexican eateries, no-one has any reason to settle for the merely adequate. I would also say that in theory Mexican food should be difficult to get wrong, at least providing you know what it actually is. There's a new place at Sunset Ridge charging inflated Alamo Heights prices for Mexican street food, with waiters oozing sincerity-style patter as they describe what the chef has done, then asking if you've saved room for some num-nummy-numptious flan or a space on your calendar for Sunday which is when they'll have a DJ spinning some proper nang tunes as you dine; but actually their food is fine. It's just everything else about the place that's terrible, but I suppose that's what the airbrushed shareholders of Alamo Heights respond to.

Bandera Jalisco has cheap and cheerful formica table tops, hand lettered advertising painted across the windows, and two flat screen televisions tuned to different Mexican channels; but crucially it doesn't have a DJ, it's always full of Mexicans, and the food is incredible; so that's where we went.

The waitress brought me a beer, a Negra Modelo, for once without the bewildering frosting of salt around the rim of the glass, this being another of those local customs I've never understood. I gave the slice of lime to my wife for her iced tea and we waited for our food.

'Look! They're showing an episode of Amigos,' I observed in jocular fashion, feeling immediately resentful when Bess failed to laugh at my joke, or to congratulate me on my well developed sense of humour. I had been gazing idly at the flat screen above the counter, whilst Bess gazed idly at one immediately behind me as we sat in the booth facing each other.

'I said—,' and then the food arrived, truncating my attempt to salvage the joke.

'What was that?'

'It was nothing.' I got started on my mixed plate, which is steak and shrimp with rice, salsa and all the customary sides - number thirty-one on the Bandera Jalisco menu.  'It doesn't matter.'

'No - what did you say?'

They were showing an episode of Friends on the flat screen television above the counter, Friends dubbed into Spanish with English subtitles. For all I knew they may well have gone the whole way and broadcast the show as Amigos, and my joke may not actually have been a joke at all; and now I was trying to work out why I had thought any of this had been worth saying out loud. 'It was just a stupid thing. It doesn't matter.'

We ate, and the food was great, and I even enjoyed the beer - which is no longer a given. I had been hard at work during the day, digging six months worth of tough weeds from the allotment. It had been the kind of physical activity which tends to render that eventual beer all the more satisfying.

'You are el padrastro,' my wife told me.

'I beg your pardon.'

'You are el padrastro, the stepfather.' She gestured towards the screen behind my head with her fork. I turned my head and saw that it was tuned to a telenovela.

'Papa means father, and padrastro is stepfather.'

'I see.'

Because I'm a pig, I had also ordered a portion of fries which now occupied a basket at the centre of the table. Being thin cut, I tend to think of them as fries rather than chips. We picked at them as we ate our main meals.

'There's something about the burgers and fries you get in these Mexican places,' my wife observed with obvious pleasure.

'I know. They're like kebab shop chips in London,' and they were indeed wonderful, but my eyes had proven bigger than my tummy. Once we were done we called for a to go box.

The next stop was the McNay Art Museum. It's one of those tiny regional art galleries you've never heard of which somehow has a jaw-dropping collection of works by the big names of art history - not at all the well intentioned array of almost-rans plus a token note which Picasso once left out for the milkman, which so often tends to be the fare of galleries so far off the beaten artistic track.

The McNay was hosting an expedition of later work by Miro, the Spanish Surrealist. I've never been wild about Miro, but I'm glad of his having existed, and I find him interesting at least for his involvement with the Surrealist movement. Woman, Bird and Star (Homage To Picasso) was the only painting I recognised for sure, and most of the exhibits seemed to date from the 1960s or more recent. They were mostly of a certain type, childlike swirls and flourishes hinting at animal forms with some primary colour - although I suppose such a description might be applied to much of Miro's work. I'm no longer quite so well-disposed towards modernist art as was once the case, but I liked these. There's something cheery and friendly about Miro, a suggestion of some hope that you might take pleasure from the work. It's a massive cliché, but his paintings are playful.

Bess seemed to get the same thing from the exhibition, which probably counts for something given that she is generally less forgiving than I am where non-representational art is concerned.

Some of my enjoyment came from the work reminding me how exciting I once found this sort of thing, back when I was a teenager and Santa furnished me with a copy of Werner Haftmann's Painting in the Twentieth Century in anticipation of my signing up for an art foundation course once I was done with the 'O' levels. For a period of six months I was fascinated to the point of obsession, immersing myself in the history of Dada, Surrealism, Cubism, Futurism and the rest, and then I got to art college and had all the fun sucked out of it, piece by piece. Whatever I once understood to be art in the twentieth century had become a career option involving agents, managers, and rewards reaped mainly by those who are just plain trying too hard. The general worthlessness of the art establishment seems typified by my own degree award ceremony at which some bloke in a suit delivered a speech amounting to how fine art is important because the chairman of ICI will always need new, exciting works to be hung behind his receptionist at head office.

As I was thinking these thoughts I drifted into proximity of two droning women, one explaining Miro to the other in terms which made me shudder, probably something relating to the unnecessary and ultimately meaningless title which the exhibition had been given - The Experience of Seeing.

Miro requires no explanation, I told myself. What you see is what you get, and that's the beauty of it, surely? It was depressing to hear what the artist had been trying to say with a particular squiggle of paint when he almost certainly hadn't, and it reminded me of art college and all those words piled one on top of the other, not because the work might require justification, but because we need to hear that it does; because God forbid that anyone less elevated than ourselves should enjoy something for the wrong reasons and in doing so jeopardise our monopoly, the one thing which makes us special given how genuine insight has become an obsolete currency.

In any case, as Bess and myself were now at the end of the exhibition, we left. It was still fairly early, maybe eight in the evening, and we went home full of food and art. An hour later I was hungry again so I had the to go fries in a sandwich, and that was Thursday.

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