A Taste for Tweaking

I can't resist meddling with menu items all over town

At most of the places I frequent, the servers don't let on, but I know.

I'm a pain. I'm "that person," the one who never just orders the #1 combo, or the chef's special, or says, "Give me what he's having."

Oh, I might start out that way. And then I have to stylize, concoct, add and subtract. Make it better—not better than the cook's original version, but better for me. So it's minus barbecue sauce and plus raw onions on the BBQ brisket sub at Firehouse. Grilled portabello in place of steak or chicken when fajita potatoes are on special at the Downtown Grill and Brewery.

Sometimes it's just a simple but essential switch. No refried beans on the plate with my self-styled one tamale/one spinach enchilada at Cancun, just rice.

Or at Bayou Bay, I want their homemade tartar sauce, with its slivers of pimiento-stuffed green olives alongside my popcorn shrimp lunch plate (inevitably accompanied by sides of new potatoes and their green beans stewed in the perfect amount of salt and lots of black pepper).

Other alterations probably make me look a little, well, bossy. I am careful to stay within the letter of the law. You really can get a $5 "fish and fries" combo at Captain D's with fish and steamed broccoli, and a tender oblong roll in place of hush puppies. But I still feel pesky when the long-suffering worker has to repeat my order over the mic three times, then stride back to confer with the short-order cook.

I don't mean to be a pain—I just like my food the way I like it. And upon reflection, I realize the relative experience of the chef and myself regarding a certain cuisine doesn't give me pause. I'll still chime right in with demands for half heat on the shrimp curry at Szechuan Garden, or no tasso gravy on the fried green tomatoes and cheese grits at Puleo's. Even though the Greek gents at Vic and Bill's were probably whisking up Greek omelettes when I was still in diapers, I don't hesitate to ask for mine well done, and without chopped tomatoes.

Why this need to meddle? I think I just like to be in charge, to kind of work with exotic ingredients and advanced techniques without ever mastering them myself. For me, ordering food out is like being promoted to director without ever having to take a single acting lesson.

I wish I could say I'm expanding my creative horizons, honing my culinary abilities. But the truth is, I mostly eat out at places that offer foods I'd never trouble to cook at home. And when I am fixing meals, I don't hold myself to such precise or exacting standards. Should I remember to bring my own lunch to work, for example, it's likely to be the whole bag of sugar snap peas, a canister of potato chips, maybe a carton of Oikos caramel yogurt, and I'll forget the spoon and have to cadge one from our graphic designer, Corey.

Much more enjoyable, and more satisfying, to head to Lenny's for a thinly-sliced roast beef sandwich with light hot pepper relish, light mayo and lettuce, oregano, pickle on the side.

"A number 15 please," I tell the cheerful, aproned order taker. They've recently put in a computer that will note each of my requests; I'm always skeptical that without me there to nag the sandwich maker, the toppings won't be right, but they are.

The register attendant, one of the owners, hands me the sandwich. It's ham! "That's right, number 15, that's ham," he says pleasantly. "If you really want roast beef, that's number 16, we'll happily switch it out."

My bad. I swallow, then smile. "Oh, no, I'll take it," I say. "You know, it really doesn't make any difference to me."