The Lung Brothers

Hanging out at the extreme end of the long tail ...

Friday, November 20, 2009

Obits and Pieces Nº. 3: The Salam Sandwich Bar.

As mentioned previously, my intention with this series is to pay homage to all those wonderfully grungy dives that the Elder and I used to frequent during our first heady years in Barcelona and which tragically no longer exist.

Without overstretching a metaphor it could be said that cities often resemble cheeses, in that it’s usually the little bits of stinky mould that give them their real flavour. By removing these fetid little corners, the city runs the risk of converting itself from a pungent Stilton (say Naples) to a bland and processed Edam. (Stockholm for instance)

This analogy is particularly apt as today I shall be writing about none other than the long-deceased Salam sandwich bar, a gorgeous little eatery which plied its trade with a lot more emphasis on soul than sanitation.

The bar was located on the Gothic Quarter’s Carrer Ample, which literally translates to Broad Street. This either means that the Catalans have a very curious sense of irony or that streets in the middle ages were mind-buggeringly narrow. My vague knowledge of local history and my comprehensive knowledge of local Catalans leave me in no doubt of the latter. You could just about cross the street by drunkenly falling over, I know, I’ve tried.

Why the name ‘Salam’? I just assumed it had something to do with the ethnicity of the previous owners combined with the laziness of the current ones. The sign’s obvious age and gaping holes served to strengthen this theory. It stood on a corner with glass running all round and just enough room inside for a right-angled bar and a barrage of surrounding high stools. Viewing the scene at night, it resembled something Edward Hopper might have painted while suffering from salmonella poisoning.

Stepping inside, you were struck by the wonderful smells of all the wrong food groups. There were usually a few specimens of the local unwashed fauna perched on stools and serving as an appreciative audience to Jorge and Maria, the married couple who ran the joint.

Now lets be honest here, Jorge and Maria were nobody’s idea of Brangelina. I imagine that they would be about as welcome in a modelling agency as they would at a weightwatchers convention. Yet there they were, flirting shamelessly with each other and with the punters, cracking anecdotes and making the whole experience so much more than simply grabbing a sandwich and a beer. Lung the Elder once commented while watching the two of them playfully teasing each other, that he bet the two of them went home every night and fucked like bunnies. This mental image was perhaps the only thing in that bar (among many other worthy contenders) that ever came close to putting me off one of Jorge’s divine culinary creations.

The other contenders in question were the general lack of spotlessness (read: filth), the cat which was allowed to stroll along the bar to greet customers while stepping gingerly over their besandwiched plates and of course the cockroaches. Oh yes, there were indeed roaches and big feckers too. When you pointed one out scuttling across a shelf to Jorge, he would just shrug and say “He ain’t bothering me, is he bothering you?” To his credit, I never once saw Jorge whack a roach with his cooking spatula, although it wouldn’t have surprised me one bit.

And yet all of these peripheral distractions were overlooked by the regular clientele for one very good reason. To call Jorge a sandwich maker would be like calling Da Vinci a doodler. Jorge was a sandwich artiste. Almost all the bready treats scrawled on the bar’s blackboard menu were of his own invention and every customer had his or her favourite. Mine was the ‘Gótico’ and to this day I can still taste it on my age-hardened palette. If I close my eyes and let my taste buds wander back through the fog of time, I recall the fried onions, the escabeche beef and cheese, lots and lots of cheese. A veritable A-fucking-bundance of cheese.

Bringing one of these triple-deck cholesterol bombs to life was never a rushed process for Jorge. That sage artisan took his time, his hands moving so speedily and skilfully it would make a sushi chef weep, only pausing occasionally to point his massive chopping knife at you to drive home a punchline or to coquettishly pretend to stab Maria in the back while winking at us. You were usually on your second beer by the time the oozing piece of toasted paradise was served to you. If you were smart, at that moment you’d quit kidding yourself about your gorging threshold and order a second one immediately.

Maria was a whole different kettle of fish. In retrospect, it’s fairly obvious that she suffered from some sort of bipolar disorder and was ruled by whichever way the serotonin tide was flowing on any particular day. When she was up, there was nobody like her. The wicked eye twinkle, rapid fire wit and brazen playfulness would leave any professional television presenter in the shade. But sweet Jesus when she was down, she was scary. She’d slump behind the bar with an expression of pure malice on her mug, staring daggers at everyone, chain smoking and poisoning any attempt a jovial conversation with nasty, nasty throwaway remarks. Sometimes you didn’t know whether to order a beer or call an exorcist.

Sadly, the lease eventually ran out and Jorge and Maria set up shop in another part of town. Although the new place was bigger and probably brought in more income, it didn’t have a kitchen and Jorge never got around to setting up a work station. We visited a couple of times but in the end it was just another bar in a red light district with fluorescent lights, Formica and an echo so we eventually let it go.

I bumped into a dishevelled-looking Jorge in the street about a year and a half ago. He and Maria had just broken up and because it was her name on the bar contract, he’d lost everything. According to him, Maria had been hitting the bottle and getting more and more erratic in her behaviour. It was just one side of the story but having been acquainted with both of them for years, I was inclined to give Jorge the benefit of the doubt. He was living in his mother’s place and scouting around for a new place to set up his own snack bar. That was the last time I ever met him.

I often wonder if some time in the future, while strolling down some pokey street unawares, I’ll be ambushed by the familiar smell of grime and melted cheese issuing from a pokey café. And through the vapour and grot-clouded windows, I might even catch the glint of a huge chopping knife as the chubby proprietor, gesticulating wildly, regales his customers with his inexhaustible supply of corny anecdotes.

That would be nice.

So I salute you Salam sandwich bar, for your likes will not be seen again.

Next instalment: The Pilarica.