Alter’s Oriental Restaurant was a low-brow dive on the West Side of Chicago an hour-and-a-half drive from East Chicago, Indiana where my family lived. My grandfather Ben began taking his brood there long before I was born. Alter’s was a big open room on a floor you reached by ascending what seemed like a hundred narrow, rickety steps in an old, decrepit building. The cuisine was Romanian with a Yiddish twist and heavily spiced. My father Max joked that if anyone came within a mile of Alter’s, they could find it blindfolded by following the smell of garlic.
Max loved calves’ brains, one of Alter’s specialties, and taught me to eat them raw with olive oil, onion, and black radish. Other favorites were chopped chicken liver, grilled calves’ liver, and veal sweetbreads. Alter’s served a version of sweetbreads unlike any I have had elsewhere. They were very thinly sliced, brushed with a heavy dose of garlic and herbs, and charcoal-grilled to a crisp. Another specialty was karanatzlach: basically a Romanian name, Karanatz, plus the Yiddish suffix, lach, which, taken together, means “cute little Karanatzes.” These were tubes of juicy ground beef grilled medium with what seemed like an equal quantity of garlic. There were carafes of cheap but tasty red and white wine on all the tables along with jars of dill pickles, sour green tomatoes, and several of those old-fashioned seltzer bottles that you spritz directly into your wine or drink plain.
“Alter” was the proprietor’s name but why it was called Alter’s Oriental restaurant, I’m not sure. Possibly because the food was eastern European. The atmosphere was incomparable: smoke in the air, loud talking and singing in a variety of languages—Romanian, Polish, Yiddish—a sense of eastern European ghetto gusto everywhere. An almost toothless, roving accordionist would sing “Happy Birdy” to anyone celebrating a birthday, or croon your favorite old-world classic in the original language. Sentimental favorites like “My Yiddishe Momme” almost always elicited a tear while upbeat Klezmer standards like “Romania, Romania” would occasion table-pounding and a tipsy sing-along.
The waiters wore white aprons, always stained with spots of the various dishes they were serving. My father joked that Alter’s had no menus. Instead, you ordered by pointing to the spots on your waiter’s apron, saying, “We’ll have two orders of the brown stuff over here”—jabbing the waiter’s belly at the right food spot so he’d know exactly what you meant and not deliver a platter of the wrong brown stuff—“three orders of the yellow stuff, and four of the red, the light red at the top of your apron over here, not the dark red at the bottom.”
When the restaurant was full and a crowd of hungry customers lined the rickety steps outside, Alter, a short, stocky, nervous man, would begin to sweat and become flustered by people who lingered too long over their demitasse cups of sugar-lump-laden Turkish coffee. At first, he’d glare and if that didn’t budge them, he’d simply throw them out, shouting half in Yiddish, half in absurd, broken English that they’d stayed too long and needed to go home: “Gey avek. Schnell! Go avay. Fast!” Alter would shout, beads of perspiration dripping from his brow and staining his apron. (You had to be careful not to order a platter of that particular stain.) “Get out von here, youse schlemiels and schlimazels,” he’d continue if the shocked customers didn’t budge immediately.
The first time I witnessed one of Alter’s efforts to get his dawdling diners to leave, I asked my mother what in the world schlemiels and schlimazels were. She replied with the classic explanation, plus some memorable examples: “A schlemiel,” she said, “is the awkward bumbler who does things like spilling his soup on the person sitting next to him. Think Charlie Chaplin. Or Nate Nussbaum, the kosher butcher in town. You remember the time at Passover when he dumped his entire bowl of chicken soup, matzo balls and all, into Morty Mandelbaum’s lap? A schlimazel is the guy the schlemiel spills his soup onto, the hapless fellow for whom things always go wrong. Morty is like that, a real schlimazel. But don’t ever say it, darling. It wouldn’t be polite.” Looking around at the waiters’ food-splattered aprons and the messy tabletops at Alter’s, I thought: There seem to be quite a few schlemiels and schlimazels here tonight.
To the few stubborn patrons who remained even after Alter’s initial harangue, he would scream: “Iss you goin to shtay forefer? Gey in drerd, youse momzers!” (“Go to hell, you bastards!”), and he’d begin to shove them out of their seats. With that assault, customers who had tarried would grab their belongings and hightail it out of Alter’s, squeezing their way down the narrow steps, trailing clouds of garlic rather than glory.
No matter how long the line on the steps or how long we lingered, however, Alter never rushed us out. Because, among all of his customers, Alter loved my father best. I suppose this was partly because Max had been coming to Alter’s since he was a boy and now Max was bringing me. Alter also knew how far East Chicago was from the culinary delights of Chicago’s West Side, which meant a long drive back to northern Indiana for us late at night. My dad would also typically bring a large crowd of family or friends and often pick up the tab himself, leaving a big tip for the waiters. Most of all, though, I think Alter favored my father because of how much Max loved to eat (and eat and eat) Alter’s wonderful, Romanian-style cooking. How I’d love to take a group of friends and pick up the tab, leaving a big tip like my dad used to do. But, alas, Alter’s is part of the long-disappeared past, irretrievable except in the pale version that is this story.
(aka Dean Flowerfield) is a retired philosophy professor and associate dean who writes nonfiction, humor, and children’s literature. In 2021, his work has appeared in Best New True Crime Stories: Well-Mannered Crooks, Rogues & Criminals (Mango, 2021); BALLOONS Lit. Journal; Beyond Words; The Caterpillar; Sport Literate; and the other side of hope (journeys in refugee and immigrant literature); and is forthcoming in Carmina Magazine and Drunk Monkeys in 2022.
Author’s website: https://www.davidcblumenfeld.com/