The first is observing the choreography of a working family kitchen. Visible from the opposite side of a butcher's case, the open work space fits two cooks snugly. Sometimes owners Steve Gonzalez and Jose Guzman split the cooking, both men wearing button-down shirts and leather shoes as if dressed for Casual Friday at the office. Sometimes a wife with the dexterity of an octopus joins one of them, taking unnecessary instructions with a half-smile; the other wife mans the front register and the phone, visiting the kitchen every few minutes with another order scratched onto a cardboard scrap.
While the menu here is brief and straightforward, it demands craft; sandwich-making appliances and tools outfit the kitchen's every crook and counter. A silver meat slicer glints on one end, primed for salami or chopped ham; next to it a standing wooden butcher's block used for cleaning speckled trout and tenderizing steaks shows its age in its petrified-looking, hollowed surface. After rubbing shrimp in breading mixture, cooks reach up past eye level to drop them into a pail-size deep fryer that, set high on a shelf, would look perilous in a less organized kitchen.
Housemade Italian sausage patties and hand-formed hamburger patties sizzle in two plug-in frying pans. Shot through with fennel seed and other robust seasonings, the sausage's only fault is its well-done toughness. The burgers, on the other hand, are plainly seasoned with salt and pepper and juicy even when cooked through; they come three to a sandwich for $3.25, with catsup, mustard, mayonnaise and the standard po-boy dressings.
Top-notch Cuban sandwiches consist of thinly sliced marbled ham, creamy white cheese, mustard, pickles, and tender roasted pork that cooks fetch from an antique, bleach-white refrigerator built into one wall. The Cubans look just like po-boys -- until a metal sandwich press renders them no thicker than a single-subject spiral notebook. One afternoon, as Rush Limbaugh growled from a radio that's always playing, Gonzalez's mother-in-law stood on a wooden pallet around the corner in the back kitchen, spooning a fiery, light-bodied crawfish etouffee lunch special into take-out containers with rosemary-specked rice.
The lunch specials I didn't try included fried fish, jambalaya and Salisbury steak. Like the crawfish etouffee, some of them involved sides of unconventional yet delicious potato salad, which is yolk yellow, studded with pickle relish, and creamy as deviled-egg filling. I found chicken salad of the same consistency less appealing, though a woman waiting beside me interrupted a conversation in Spanish to declare it "the best chicken salad in the world."
Many customers arrive in cars and stand three-deep during the heavy noon-hour crush, waiting for chicken-fried steak, pork chop sandwiches and liver cheese sandwiches. It's a somewhat perplexing traffic jam given the grocery's low-profile location in a tranquil, residential neighborhood. The sandwiches are good, as is the etouffee. But an out-of-the-way sandwich counter must offer more than pretty good food in order to draw this much drive-up business. The Gonzalezes and the Guzmans have run the store for 15 of its roughly 60-year existence; their all-hands-on-deck working relationship and the familial environment it creates likely secure longtime customers. It held me rapt.
I witnessed only one man display impatience during a significant wait, and that's because he noticed po-boy bread going untoasted. There's no time for toasting when it's busy, answered one of the cooks. The ruffled customer snatched a newspaper from the counter and rustled it around but never opened it. Despite his frustration, he remained too mesmerized by the constant motion in the kitchen to look at anything else.
The second method of recommended diversion in this modest Broadmoor corner store is perusing the beverage selection. After passing through the front door, its dangling bell clashing its welcome, customers encounter no less than seven refrigerated beverage displays, including a section of the produce case dedicated to fruit juices. The remaining refrigerators contain a mind-bending array of colors and flavors that span the decades; it's as progressive as the X-Games and as nostalgic as Nick at Night. Stewart's cherry cream and key lime sodas chill alongside Dr. Pepper Red Fusion and Nestle Choglit. There's Barq's Floatz, Starbucks Frappuccino and Tab (Tab!). If it's not here, they probably don't make it anymore.
The same person must stock the unrefrigerated shelves, a large portion of which display drink mixes, tea bags, coffee and coffee accessories. I counted six kinds of non-dairy creamer. I recently asked Isabel Gonzalez if she and the other proprietors had intended to embarrass every other beverage selection in town. "No," she laughed. "We didn't know we were unusual."
Plenty of Rendon Supermarket's customers never even consider the sandwich counter. One man pulled his Buick onto the sidewalk in order to load eight plastic grocery bags. Others stop in for Hubig's fixes, and sticky-mouthed schoolchildren outside beg for coins to buy more penny candy. "They don't need it," a fellow customer told me when she saw me reach into my pocket. "They're just passing the time."