It's safe now.
Even if you were disposed to travel to Manchaca, Tex., Jim's cafe is closed, gone two years, a friend reports. There's no chance of sudden notoriety sending novelty seekers to his door, spoiling the real-life place that comes closest to the place of my dreams.
I have a recurring dream. I am in a town in Texas, in a place that combines the best features of Mexican food and barbecue. It is across the tracks where the paving and street lighting become casual, down an unpaved alley. Almost unknown.
The roof is corrugated tin; the floor is hardpacked dirt. There are no walls. There are brick pits where barbecue is smoking. There is Mexican food. And there is beer.
Savory ribs and Elgin sausage, light flour tortillas, huge pots of beans seasoned with cumin and menudo (a stew made with tripe and hominy).
Raw onions. Jalapenos.
Almost all good food is there. Jim's came close.
It was called Jim's Catfish Cafe and Bait Shop. Jim sold catfish and bait, that's what he called his business. Jim, a reformed alcoholic and former Mormon, ran the small cafe with a dirt floor and no restrooms in Machacs, Tex. (The town, near Austin, is called "mazchack" - that's the way the cognoscenti pronounce it, but I'd rather not tell you how they pronounce cognoscenti.)
Jim fished four days a week and served catfish three days a week. He had lines on virtually every river in Texas and crisscrossed the state in a van picking the catfish off them. Then he skinned the fish, fried them and served them with hush puppies, jalapenos and raw onion. They were perfection.
Jim worked with his wife and some sisters or cousins or aunts. He also had a young son around. What Jim didn't work with, apparently, was any sort of official sanction.
Worse luck, Jim's cafe was on the corner of the land of a rich man. The rich man, with his fancy home, didn't fancy Jim's catfish cafe at the foot of his property, Jim said.
According to Jim, the health officials had started harassing him at his neighbor's behest.
Jim didn't have a floor just packed down dirt, but it was cleaner than the aged. unclean carpet in some Washington restaurants. And Jim didn't have proper restrooms, but that never proved a deterrent to his beer-drinking customers. Jim didn't have a liquor license, either. A reformed alcoholic, he no longer believed in selling the stuff. If it were around, he said, he might start drinking again. but he was happy to have customers bring their own.
His neighbor apparently kept sending out health officials, and the health officials kept closing him down. But with fresh fish prepared by members of his family, the cafe produced wholesome food.
The last time we went, the cafe was dark. There were fish fillets lying in frying pans of cold grease. We could see them through the windows.
That was the last I heard of Jim.