At Western Washington University, in Bellingham Washington, there is a section of sidewalk outside the Student Union building that the community calls ‘Vendor’s Row’. Local food vendors from around Bellingham –generally four per day and often the same folks –come and sell their food to hungry staff and students. The stand furthest on the left is an Indian vendor. They make an excellent Tikka Masala. Buttery, full of flavor, perfectly paired with seasonal veggies, and all of that for just $5. I remember their food fondly.
I find that many times in life the advice “don’t judge a book by its cover” is just bad advice. From an exterior one can often see strong indications of what lay within, for good or bad. A fresh, shiny, and new appearance can convey strong feelings of modern elegance and class. Of being on the cutting edge. While a historic building, refit to be usable, can instill a sense of heritage, history, and charm. Using a historic building as the location for a restaurant is a decision that should be weighed heavily, and the proprietor should be willing to bend to the will of the beams, boards, and windowpanes amongst which they seek to find a home. Fashion experts may tout the benefits of ‘power clashing’, foodies do not. To enjoy a meal, one needs to be in the proper setting in which to enjoy it. It is the same reason why people don’t serve five course tasting menus out of a food truck.
Before the Meal
Orcas Hotel Cafe is located, somewhat fittingly, in the historic Orcas Hotel. The café is an establishment humble in size but made significantly larger by the presence of a sizable patio for outdoor dining. It provides a fairly standard cafe menu with a couple twists featuring a Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup, Chicken Tinga Burrito, Cheeseburger, Fish and Chips, and Thai rice Noodle Bowl. Additionally, Orcas Hotel Café publishes rotating daily specials a week in advance, and available for online pre-order and scheduled pickup.
Following instructions that we saw on both the website as well as in the local newspaper, where we had seen the daily specials, we decided to pre-order online. We did this one day in advance and even processed our payment online at the time. While unconventional, the process was easy and uneventful.
A little more than 24 hours passed.
Upon arriving at Orcas Hotel Café, we found the pickup window, which, unattended, had our packaged food ready to go. However, we had also ordered drinks. Seeing that other orders had beverages waiting alongside their food, we were confused that our drinks were not present. I went inside to inquire about getting our beverages, and, with only one staff member running the counter, waited in line behind some people placing an order.
This is where the first transgression occurred. Of course, I understand that some may see this offense as significantly less critical than myself, but those people would be wrong. While approaching the counter as the next person in line to be helped, the staff member proceeded to take a phone call, read to the caller the items on the menu in totality as well as what was in and/or on each dish, take their order with modifications, and process their payment over the phone. Egregious. For a phone customer to be given priority over an in-person customer, for the cashier not to communicate before taking the call, and for going through the entire process of taking the person’s order without first attending to the people who were already in line are all issues of service that have very few equals, and a personal aggravation.
When the call finally ended, I explained our situation. I was asked to grab them out of the coolers and that was that. I went to get the food that we had left in the window. No cutlery. Back Inside. This time I opted to brush past the robust line of people that had formed behind me, approach the counter, and eventually interjected to another staff member who was walking food from the kitchen to the window that they were out of utensils. They were restocked. Back outside.
By this time my companion had found a table on the front porch, and I joined him there.
Obviously, and I don’t mark this against the restaurant (though some among you might), my food was quite cold after having sat outside awaiting our arrival, and some time beyond that as the previously explained saga unfolded. The remainder of my review will ignore this fact.
We chose to dine on this particular night because of the daily special, the Burmese Chicken Curry ($22.95) which I had. My companion opted for the Orcas Burger ($16.95).
If I’m honest, of the reviews that we’ve done, the Burmese Chicken Curry has been my most anticipated meal. Sadly, it was, perhaps as a punishment for past wrongs, my biggest disappointment. The reason for this disappointment is twofold. The meal consisted of a portion of rice, combined with no more than a few tablespoons of ‘substance’ (chicken, sweet potato, etc.) and, proportionally more than the other components, curry sauce. Size is this first issue.
The second issue was flavor. The substance of the meal was fine. The chicken was tender, and the potato was soft. However, the sauce was a different story. Alongside hints of curry, the overwhelming flavor present was salt. It was the kind of meal I’d expect to be served in a cafeteria, and not at the historic Orcas Hotel. While each other component was fine, as a dish, curry is reliant on the sauce to act as a unifying agent. Covering the plate with the sauce effectively drowned everything served, regardless of quality, in mediocrity.
We ended our meal with the fresh Beignets. Which missed the mark for me, again. While the outside of the pastry was warm and pillowy, as it should be, the inside was under-done and thus created a dense and doughy center. The real problem came, again, with the flavor. The enriched dough lacked any sort of flavor, including sweetness. The outside was dusted in powdered sugar as expected, and they were served, warm and fresh, in a brown paper bag.
In reviewing the incidents of the evening I find no situation where either food or service was lacking that could be attributed to anything other than a lack of ability, knowledge, or both. They had, on this evening, plenty of staff roaming the kitchen, relatively few diners, and takeaway orders seemed to be rare. I even hesitate to attribute any of the issues to unfamiliar protocols caused by Covid-19.
When I compare the chicken curry to the Tikka Masala I used to get at Western (the two dishes were remarkably similar though marketed drastically different) I am left with two certainties. The first is that the humble outdoor Indian stand is markedly better, and the second is that the better dish is less than ¼ the price.
Based on all of this, I must conclude that both food and service, based on what I had and experienced, are just lacking. Though my companion enjoyed his Main, I would hesitate to return to Orcas Hotel Café without some circumstance demanding it, or by becoming afflicted by a severe case of amnesia.