by Dan Johnson
By no fault of staff or management, the Farmer Boys restaurant on Alameda St south of 7th St feels vaguely satanic. The location lacks any discernable poltergeists, portals to hell or bargaining anti-christs hedging toward acquiring your soul. The demonic quality comes from a sinking feeling that this food service location is in no way, shape or form messed up.
Surely this chain restaurant caught in an identity crisis between Denny’s, Hardee’s (aka Carl’s Jr.) and Cracker Barrel harbors demonic undertones for it is entirely lacking in the hygienic, social and culinary ailments that plague restaurants in Downtown.
Here’s the secret: Farmer Boys isn’t actually in Downtown. Like United States embassies abroad are actually considered American soil, the Farmer Boys on Alameda St is actually a part of Riverside where the chain is headquartered. That would explain why a glut of inexplicably normal looking families and blue-collar professionals are haunting the joint at 11am on a Tuesday—they’re all from Riverside.
Ordinarily, if I were to patronize a restaurant in Downtown Los Angeles, I wouldn’t dare order the clam chowder bread bowl. Why? Because that clam chowder bowl would either be extremely good and thirty dollars or affordable and of absurdly poor quality. Pick your poison.
Out in Riverside, though, the rules are different and this $6.15 jar of carbs and envatted sea soup could actually be palatable.
“Savor the soup,” the ubiquitous signs scream at me. I forsake the highly-touted burger options and the hearty breakfast offerings and treat myself to some pre-cupped water to go with my shellfish smoothie. I take two cups due to my thirst and the woman at the counter doesn’t even shriek at me. I’m used to being treated like a criminal for lesser infractions, so you can imagine my confusion as I wander past walls festooned in kitsch that looks as if it were stolen from the fried chicken restaurant at Knott’s Berry Farm.
My meal comes with a number. This implies that someone is going to take my order from the kitchen and hand deliver it to my table. Not just shout my number through a microphone and wait three measly seconds before screaming it again, this time in a state of apoplectic frustration at my perceived non-cooperation. No, they’re going to put it in front of me with a smile.
A quick scan of the restaurant reveals a cross-section of America that looks like a casting call for an equal-opportunity oriented public service announcement about nutrition. The gamut of ethnicities, classes and creeds appears to be on display. More impressive still, there’s nary a fat person in sight. In fact, a good deal of people appear to be eating salads.
This is a fast food restaurant. I’m assured of this. Unfortunately for my sadistic sensibility, it is completely devoid of the one artery-clogged customer you typically find clenching their fists in gut-anguished anticipation at every fast food location across the world. What is going on here?
I’ve got plenty of time to do a demographic study of everyone in the restaurant (including the one guy who looks eerily similar to Ben Stiller). My food is taking forever. I’m mentally rehearsing the deuce I’m going to take on the metaphorical chest that is Farmer Boys’ reputation when I get in front of the keyboard. Then my clam chowder bread bowl arrives and all is forgiven.
This is the least fucked up meal I have gotten for under seven dollars. They cleared the first hurdle of the bread bowl racket. Most times when you go for the cup in a loaf, it’s abundantly obvious that some zit-faced jackass in the back cored out the bread two nights prior and left it out where it could get all dry and weird. Not Farmer Boys! No sir. This bread was freshly gutted. It’s innards practically sang the glorious harmony between yeast and water. Further, they sear the lid and the rim of the bowl in garlic and butter.
You sons of bitches. You reckless bastards. You bring a tear to my eye. When I think of all the horrors I’ve subjected my intestines to and here you are garlic grilling my humble bread bowl. You spoil me and I love you for it.
In my experience, all chowder is best handled like a pass/fail course in college. You could grade it on the bell curve against the stuff you get in New England, but that’s a standard that will flunk most everyone else. No, judge chowder against Campbell’s. Is it better than the curdled milk vomit you get in a can? Great. It’s a winner.
By that metric, Farmer Boys’ clam chowder achieves a pass in my book.
Maybe I’m being a bit lax on the soup component, but as I finish my meal, I’m more worried about the other shoe dropping and the inevitable Downtown karmic burn scorching myself and everyone in the restaurant with a crazy rant, roach parade, customer shit storm, et cetera.
I carefully packed up my garbage and walked to the trash where an employee was bogarting the waste hole. I stood there for a moment before she caught my glance, SMILED AT ME WITHOUT ANY SENSE OF BITTERNESS OR IRONY, then took my food and trashed it for me!
To review: this place is almost completely devoid of the horrors that make quick service chain dining such a sordid affair in Los Angeles, the food is decent (if not fantastic) for the price and the employees don’t look like they’re taking mental pictures of your face to revisit later when they’re masturbating/stabbing a rotten watermelon with a rusty screwdriver.
I award Farmer Boys a “1” on the binary and award further laurels for ample parking and a 24 hour drive thru!