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The Memory Chaser

Ruth just wanted to eat somewhere — anywhere — that wasn’t a chain

Their vibe had been great on the app, but for their first date, the girl suggested the Garden, and Ruth almost ghosted. It was the newest location, the one on York Boulevard that got spray-painted with anti-gentrification graffiti saying things like, “GO BACK 2 UR SUBURB” a couple weeks back; after cleaning it off, the Garden had made a big show of installing a community fridge. Honestly, Ruth wouldn’t have agreed to go if she couldn’t have walked there from her house. On a Saturday night, York was busy, the outdoor parklet tables overflowing at Torchy’s Tacos and Shake Shack and True Food Kitchen; people with laptops were still hunched in the Go Get ’Em Tiger, and tired-looking parents hauled growlers of beer from the Golden Road pub, maybe with a six-pack of Bud under their arm.

The Garden was the street’s newest addition, its glass exterior covered in long green vines, looking disconcertingly hip and inviting next to the local chain Thai Town, huddled in a former barbershop. The girl, Sierra, was waiting inside, perusing the menu projected on the wall in old-school Italian-joint cursive. She was shorter than Ruth had expected, and the ponytail peeking out from her trucker hat was bright pink. She greeted Ruth with a huge smile, and Ruth tried to act normal; meeting someone after messaging back and forth always felt so unbearable, even worse if they were actually cute. Sierra was cute. They bantered back and forth about whether the cauliflower parm would be good or a disaster, and agreed they could not not get mozzarella sticks. After ordering at the counter, they sat down and a runner immediately brought out a basket of warm breadsticks, the only reminder of the chain that had spawned the Garden.

The breadsticks were the best thing, soft and salty and comforting. Ruth’s cauliflower parm was soggy on the bottom, and Sierra’s vegan alfredo was like slurping nutritional yeast. Their messaging over the app had been playful and cheekily uninformative; now Sierra explained she was a storyboard artist on a kids cartoon about girl superheroes, airing on Prime. Ruth used to lead with her now-defunct Instagram ice cream business, or even her old restaurant in New York, the one that closed. But the endless grind of first dates had sanded down her pride, so she stuck to honesty: She was a corporate chef at Alexa’s.

“So we both work for Amazon,” Ruth said. “What are the odds?”

“Honestly, this isn’t the first time this happened on a date,” Sierra said. “Though you’re the first chef I’ve gone out with. And I brought you to a competitor!”

The Garden was not a competitor; Alexa’s did full table service, with good wines and produce pulled from the Whole Foods pipeline. Every dish was made by a person, at some point, from scratch. Ruth didn’t like how tightly she clung to this. “I appreciate Olive Garden’s way with breadsticks.”

“I was so pumped when this place opened in the neighborhood.”

“It’s not really my style?”

“Then on the next date, take me somewhere with better breadsticks.” She laughed, and Ruth decided she liked her.

Sierra came back to Ruth’s fixer-upper bungalow she’d run out of money to fixer-up, and they made out for a while. It was pleasantly awkward; neither quite knew why they liked the other yet, but what they stumbled onto was promising. Sierra said she’d be back for breakfast the next morning, a move Ruth honestly kind of appreciated because she’d worked a surprise double shift Friday and needed sleep. The next morning, Sierra let herself in with a bag of glossy chocolate Dunkin Donuts and sweet, milky coffee. Ruth asked if this was technically a second date, and Sierra slid her hands up Ruth’s loose T-shirt. The ice melted in the coffee by the time they got to it, but Ruth was glad for the doughnuts, even if they were a little stale.

Both she and Sierra worked 70-hour weeks — animating an empowering kids show was a real nightmare, it turned out — so they stole time together when they could. Mostly, they spent Sundays together, since Ruth was working Saturday nights again, the exact thing selling out was supposed to fix, but Alexa’s kept expanding and taking her chefs to open in Venice and Inglewood and Glassell Park and then she was stuck expediting again. Alexa’s was technically a New American restaurant, built around exclusive deals with farmers and Whole Foods’ zero-waste pledge (if a bunch of bruised peaches went from Whole Foods to Alexa’s house jam, everybody except the cooks who had to scramble to make jam was happy). The menu was shaped by algorithms that analyzed purchases and searches, or that’s what corporate claimed; Ruth would never have put Huli Huli chicken and a brown butter pasta on the same menu, but she had dutifully developed the recipes and watched them sell out night after night.

Ruth kept putting off taking Sierra out for old-school Italian all the way across town. Instead, on Sundays they’d spend most of the day in bed, ordering in Sweetgreen if they couldn’t remember the last time they had vegetables, or Domino’s if they didn’t need to feel virtuous (mostly, they didn’t). Occasionally, they’d walk down to York or head to Figueroa for brunch. At the Houston’s in a historic former hotel, they always split the spinach artichoke dip, and at the Taco Bell Cantina that opened in one of the many former Mexican restaurants that used to line the neighborhood, they drank shitty bright blue frozen cocktails under a local graffiti artist’s mural that was preserved alongside the Taco Bell logo. Ruth hadn’t gone out this much since moving to Los Angeles, and it felt gross, sometimes, eating nothing but chain food. They were all too salty, fat-laden and yet flat, so perfectly calibrated to please so that they slid into pandering. But it’s not like there was very much else, not anymore.

Late one Sunday morning while Sierra was listing off the usual brunch and delivery options, Ruth tried to express this to her, but all that came out was, “The thing is all these places kind of suck?”

Sierra stared at her phone. “I will not let you slander Domino’s in bed.” One of the characters on her show was obsessed with greasy pizza, and she had personally designed the cheese pull.

“Don’t you miss eating at mom and pops?”

“Taco Bell and the Garden are mom and pops. They’re all franchises.”

“We should make actual memories together.”

“Sharing breadsticks at the Garden is a real memory!”

Ruth took out her phone and started scrolling through Instagram. She found the image of pork belly drenched in a glossy red sauce she’d been thinking of and showed it to Sierra, saying they should try something authentic. So they put on pants and drove to Alhambra and went to this new Hunan restaurant every food person Ruth followed on Instagram was hyping up. When they opened their menus, Sierra let out a snort and pointed to the cute illustrated map of the restaurant’s 50 locations across China.

After that, Ruth’s thrashing about chain restaurants became a thing, mostly a cute joke. Sierra regaled her friends about her obsessive chef girlfriend dragging her to an old-school burger stand literally surrounded by a luxury apartment building (Shake Shack was taking over the lease) and a 7/11 secretly serving Sri Lankan food and a backyard barbacoa set-up, all of them requiring at least an hour in traffic, maybe more. Ironically, this kind of restaurant tourism wasn’t a thing Ruth had had time for when she had her own restaurant, but now that she had gone corporate, sometimes there was such a thing as a slow week, so she could check out other people’s restaurants. Actually, Sierra would continue, the barbacoa stand they’d spent all Sunday seeking out had been glorious, but it was also so sad — the city had raided it the next week. The cooks at Alexa’s told Ruth the city was raiding street vendors all over the city, not just on commercial strips, now that the big chains were lobbying the city to clean up “unsafe” competition.

For Sierra’s birthday, Ruth surprised her with tickets to a secret pop-up supper club high up in Montecito Heights, hosted on a terraced patio overlooking the hazy towers of downtown. It was run by two white, queer chefs, an impossibly attractive tattooed couple, who were maybe 10 or 15 years younger than Ruth; in New York she would have known them, but out here she was so disconnected. There was a land acknowledgment and prompt to send money to a local mutual aid fund, and then 15 small courses of pepino melons over glass noodles, blistered purple okra with popped buckwheat, and hot-smoked salmon collars with a yuzu-miso glaze, broken up by two “palate cleanser” courses: a Spam sando and tiny Magnum ice cream bars. The food wasn’t revolutionary, but it was seasonal and playful, and Ruth found only a few flaws: The house sourdough was overproofed, and the popped buckwheat did nothing for the okra.

“So what’d you think?” Ruth said on the ride home.

“Great view,” Sierra said. “That whole house was insane.”

“I really loved the corn pudding, but I’m not so sure about that buckwheat on okra.”

“There were a lot of really pretentious courses, and then, like, tiny ice cream? I wish there’d been more stuff like the bread and butter.”

“Oh, I thought it was overproofed,” Ruth said, but Sierra wasn’t even listening.

“Maybe you’d hate your job less if you did pop-ups like this, too,” Sierra said.

“Who says I hate my job?”

“Ruth, you work for the biggest corporation in the world and you hate chain food.”

“I hate chains because they swept in and took up everyone’s leases after COVID and now no one can open a restaurant.”

“I guess this means you don’t want to go to McDonald’s right now.”

“Why don’t we try to find a taco truck?” But even along Figueroa, which used to be lined with trucks, their bright signs scrolling BIRRIA MULITAS ASADA in the night, no one was out. The Garden was still open, though; Ruth sat in the car as Sierra ran in to get breadsticks.

That week at work, Ruth’s job was to find a use for this new buttermilk the company had sourced. It was genuinely fermented buttermilk, and good quality; it was perfect for biscuits, and if she could find a recipe that worked at scale, Alexa’s could change this dairy farmer’s life. By the end of the week, she had a biscuit she thought worked, and she gave it to the pastry cooks to test for the next night’s service. She even texted Sierra to tell her to swing by early for dinner, the first time she’d invited her to work. Ruth grifted some company time making a fresh batch of the biscuits herself to bring down for Sierra; when she got to the kitchen, she saw the cooks unwrapping a huge frozen pallet of premade biscuits to lob in the oven, next to the batch the pastry cooks had made.

“What the hell is this?”

“We’re A/B testing, apparently,” Alonzo, the new chef, said with a roll of his eyes. “Kyle said these really taste homemade.”

Kyle was the efficiency officer sent down from Seattle to oversee what he called Alexa’s “workflow.” He’d already been asking a lot of questions about why there were pastry chefs working here when most desserts could be bought frozen, as if the whole point of Alexa’s hadn’t been to offer a premium restaurant experience.

Ruth wasn’t sure what kind of masochism inspired her to bring Sierra a basket with one of the packaged biscuits and one she’d made herself. Sierra was sitting at the wine bar drinking ginger ale; Ruth tried not to watch her too intently as she munched on first the packaged biscuit, and then Ruth’s.

“Which do you like better?” Ruth said.

“Is this a test?”

“Either you can tell me or let the cameras assessing your expressions take a guess.”

“Wait, are you serious?”

“The cameras are a staff rumor.” But they all wore fitness trackers that monitored the tone of their voices as they spoke to each other and to guests, and produced a rating on “harmony” and “service” at the end of shift. No one shouted in the kitchen. But the servers had learned that only the most obsequious tone of voice got them good customer interaction ratings.

Sierra broke off a piece of both biscuits and chewed thoughtfully. “To be honest, I wish you guys had breadsticks.” She said it with a little flirty smile, trying to deploy it as an inside joke.

“Clearly biscuits aren’t worth the trouble,” Ruth said, and took the basket back.

“So this was a test.”

“One of these is a recipe I’ve spent all week on, from a batch I made myself, for you. The other came frozen out of a box. If my own girlfriend can’t tell that my version is better, then there’s probably not much hope for me here.”

“Babe, I don’t even like biscuits that much —”

“When you get your check, be sure to leave your feedback about breadsticks.”

Sierra asked her to sit down; Ruth made excuses about having to work back in the kitchen, and then hid, taking up space and messing up people’s flow. Kyle would not have approved; the step tracker was probably wondering who was standing stock still during a busy service. At one point, she tried scrolling Instagram to distract herself, and there was a message from one of the pop-up chefs, asking if Ruth could get them a job at Alexa’s until they finished rounding up all their investors, you know? They were sure they’d find a space soon.

“You’ve never cooked for me before,” Sierra said on the car ride home. “Maybe if I’d had your cooking, I would have recognized it.”

“You don’t seem to care much about food, so I don’t see the point.”

“What the fuck, Ruth. I care about you.”

“I mean, the cooking doesn’t make me who I am, right? We used to have to remind each other of that all the time. That we’re more than a job.”

“I work for this huge company and make something I care about. Why can’t you try to too?”

They had the conversation they always had, about how Ruth should start a secret pop-up, and Sierra would do all the branding and promotion, and then she’d get rich investors and live her dream again. The next week, Ruth got her pay docked for rudeness, probably from when she’d snapped at Sierra about the biscuits. On Sunday, they went out to the Garden, and Ruth ate breadsticks until her mouth tasted of nothing but salt.

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