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A menu from the defunct Enigma Cafe
A menu from the defunct Enigma Cafe


It’s 3 a.m. and I’m in the kitchen of a hostel in San Francisco.

“The milk looks steamed to me,” says Indipre, an exchange student from Sri-Lanka.

I peek into the pot. “A little longer,” I say.

Emma, in her thick, Hackney accent, suggests we use the microwave, but Sabine, a leggy blonde Australian who looks ready for a Vespa ad, notes that someone didn’t clean up after microwaving some vile cheddar cheese. “It’s like someone melted a Lego in there.”

“Damn,” says Indipre. “I don’t think I have Havarti for the sandwiches.”

We’re whipping up sandwiches and mochas from the menu of the Engima Cafe. Yes, yes, it’s true, I happen to travel with menus from defunct Vegas restaurants in my bags — the laminated or rope-bound artifacts of places like the Hilltop House, The Venetian, The Huntridge Coffee Shop (back when you could get pancakes and egg fu yung for $2). They’re good for kitchen inspiration in the hostels I often find myself in. Because it’s the middle of the night in San Fran, the curious and the hungry are being treated to recipes from the Enigma.

Nick and Paul, a pair of Aussies stumbles in. They’d left a while ago on a sightseeing tour that was to include “at least one pub per hour wherever we bloody go.”

“Oi!” Nick said. “Kitchen is closed!”

“Right, and you’re the kitchen Gestapo?” Sabine counters.

“Hey, it’s 3 in the morning,” I say. “Not so loud.” I sound like a chaperone.

Paul and Nick pick up the old laminated Enigma menus and look at Emma and Sabine at the counter.

“What is all this?” Paul wonders.

“It’s the … what is this bloody sandwich called again, Mike?” Emma asks

“The Tippy Elvis — peanut butter, honey and bananas on rye.”

“And what I’m making again?” Sabine aks.

“Let’s see, black pepper, turkey breast, tomato, sprouts, Dijon mustard, mayo and hopefully some havarti on rye — that’s the Stupak.”

“Odd names.”

“If you’re not from Vegas, yes.”

Paul and Nick start for the coffee pot, but Paul changes their minds.

“Nick and I can wait for the mochas.”

“You can have either the Hacienda, which is Mexican chocolate, vanilla, almond and coconut, or the Moulin Rouge, which is bittersweet chocolate, coconut and cherry syrup.”

As the ladies wrap up the sandwiches, Emma pipes up. “Sabine and I are going to Vegas in the next few days. Can’t wait to see this place.”

Clearly I forgot to mention something and that raucous hangout Fourth Street, where late-night literati, musicians and the wonderfully confused shot the shit.

“Um, the Enigma closed 12 years ago.”

Quizzical looks.

“Twelve years, why keep the menus?” Nick asks.

“I get hungry.”

“I found some havarti!” Indipre exclaims. “It was on the free shelf!”

“It was meant to be!” says Sabine.

As we’re about to sit, someone asks again why I still carry the menus, since it’s obvious I have memorized everything by now.

“I might,” I say, “but they haven’t.” I point to Sabine and Emma, who are taking Instagrams of the menus.

This has happened more than once over the years. These menus aren’t just moldy artifacts I keep just to stimulate old memories — they help create new ones with scenarios like this. Especially when there’s mocha to be made and the hostel kitchen is stocked with enough havarti.