Insulted at Tom's Texas Bbq
Cantankerous restaurateur Tom Sandilands, 74, has completed a rare gastronomic circle. Years ago, he was in the barbecue business. He switched to pizza and became a far-out legend -- far out at the city limits of Jocotepec, Jalisco, Mexico. For more than three decades, he served up good food and caustic sarcasm to the point of creating a question: Which attracted the crowd?
And the crowd did come, from all along Lake Chapala and Guadalajara and Canada and even Maynardville, Tennessee. Really good pizza, crisp salad, superb raspberry cobbler. On the best of days, he threw in country music on tape.
Always, Tom did it his way, much better than Frank Sinatra. It was Tom's menu, Tom's choice of ingredients, his choice of days and hours to take your money. Like it or leave it.
Ask for iced tea and you'd get a sermon.
"We don't do tea or coffee or lemonade. This ain't no donut shop."
Ask, too late in the day, for pecan pie and he'd say, "Sold out" as if delighted to disappoint.
So, why don't you bake two?
"Just got one pan."
Now, in old age, Tom has returned to barbecue. Easier. Fire the mesquite in the outside cooker, sprinkle a little seasoning on brisket, pork shoulder and five chickens, and sit and smell the smoke. No more drives to Guad for pepperoni. More time to lean back and be an executive chef. Dear Manuela, patient, long-suffering wife and waitress, slices bread and cantaloupe, mixes slaw and takes care of most other plate-to-plate details.
Unsuspecting customers get the shock treatment for even mentioning pizza.
"Fresh out," says Tom. "Don't make it any more."
What, no pizza!
"Turn up your hearing aid. We quit making pizza back in March."
But I drove all the way from Chapala for pizza.
"Drive back, and stop at Domino's," says Tom.
This is just a guess, but Tom Sandilands probably entered this world with a crusty disposition, the sort of brat who would throw his baby bottle as a hand grenade. He was born in Philadelphia, and not the Main Line.
Again, just guessing, he might have been an early sergeant with the Teamsters or, heaven forbid, an enforcer with some other underworld group. Reasonably confident he was tough enough.
Tom migrated to the West Bank and cooked on a ship charting oil deposits off the coast of Alaska. He says that was a long time ago. Nobody ever challenged his spaghetti or bean soup. Good thing, too.
He remembers his first little restaurant in Texas and a trip to Mexico when he discovered Manuela. It's a little out of character but sometimes he smiles at memories.
Tom looks younger as a barbecue pusher. No more flour and tomato sauce on the front of his shirt. He admits it is a great relief to be out of that tiny kitchen, a safe distance from a very hot oven. He much prefers his seat out front and extended interaction with his clientele.
Without even getting up, he can be mad as hell about the price of onions.
Visiting with Tom is an adventure. If you are lucky, you might get a history lesson or tour suggestions or a lecture on American politics. He spreads out of an old chair and begins without announcing the subject. He loves to bait Canadians about their weather and economy, national and personal. He also insults Americans. He only teases Mexicans.
Does Tom's offer ambience? Well, the restaurant has card tables and white plastic chairs, compliments of a beer company. Wildlife is an attraction out on the terrace, two birds in one cage, one in another. A rustic fountain is for looks. Off-stage sound effects are big trucks and buses gearing down to make a turn.
Tom Sandilands doesn't do much advertising. He is selling golf shirts with a logo which says "I was insulted at Tom's." He knows word-of-mouth is working. He says that for a man his age, there is such a thing as too much business.
"To tell you the truth, I don't especially need the money. I just love to cook."
To tell you the truth, he took our money -- but not much.