Photo: Matt/CC.

Fenton, MI, Culinary Tour

A memoir in fast food


Golden Buffet
The first thing I noticed about Fenton, Michigan, was that there was a Chinese restaurant called Golden Buffet. I don’t know why this amazed me so much. I guess I had assumed that small town Michiganders wouldn’t have enough culture to like one of the most ubiquitous foods in America. I can be very ignorant.

My boyfriend Ian and I drove past Golden Buffet on our way into town, found the house we were invited to live in rent-free, unpacked our boxes into the big unfamiliar space, and then drove back to Golden Buffet for dinner. It was one of the most elaborate Chinese buffets I had ever been to. It had five kinds of noodles, at least thirty kinds of fried things, a bunch of seafood, a bunch of saucy stuff, rice options, soups, three kinds of sushi, pizza, mozzarella sticks, onion rings, and french fries. The next day on our way to Target we noticed that Golden Buffet was closed. Not just for the day. The sign said that Golden Buffet was gone. Golden Buffet didn’t exist anymore.

Ian got a job at Crust, a bakery that was pretty popular in the area. Our friends Elizabeth and Aaron told us that Crust unabashedly copied a lot of their bread recipes from a popular Ann Arbor bakery. But Crust sold their cinnamon buns to the national chain Williams and Sonoma, so it seemed like they had surpassed the other bakery in importance. I went to a Crust employee party with Ian, and one of Ian’s coworkers took a photo of me while I was making no facial expression. She showed Ian the photo at work, implied that I looked like a bitch, and said that she guessed she and I would never be best friends. It became a running gag for her to make sarcastic comments to Ian about what close friends she and I were. Ian said it began to make him feel awkward. One time I visited Ian at work and, as I was closing the door, I heard her loudly whisper, “best friends.” Really good almond croissants, too.

The Barn
The Barn was a surf-themed sports bar made from the lumber of an old barn hauled in from New York, with an outdoor sand volleyball court in the back. We would meet Elizabeth and Aaron at the Barn for drinks and endless fries. We always sat next to a saltwater fish tank and made comments about what it must be like to live in a saltwater fish tank in surf-themed sports bar. The Barn was, as far as I could tell, the hot spot for Fenton youth. And by youth I mean the under-60 after-work crowd. And by crowd I mean 3-8 people.

Halo Burger
My little brother, River, was having issues with his probation officer in California, so he decided to live with us in Fenton for a little while. He got a job at the local burger chain Halo Burger. River biked to work without a helmet and stored the bike, unlocked, in the Halo Burger play area. I yelled at him a bunch of times for not wearing a helmet, which made me feel like a naggy grandmother, but I couldn’t stop — I really wanted him to wear a helmet. Sometimes, River would bring home a paper bag full of meat patties and ask if Ian or I wanted one. I always said that I had just eaten, so that I would seem supportive and appreciative, but man, I really did not want one of those meat patties.

Buffalo Wild Wings
I got a “job” mystery shopping Buffalo Wild Wings. My job was to order some specific item and then fabricate a reason to talk to the manager and then fill out a ten-page survey about my experience. I got reimbursed for my meal plus $5-$15 extra. Buffalo Wild Wings became my favorite restaurant in town, because I love free food and I love filling out surveys and I love Asian Zing sauce, turns out.

I decided to take River to 8 Mile on his day off to see the house Eminem grew up in, since we are both fans. I thought he’d be excited to go but I had to convince him it would be cool. River finally agreed to go to 8 Mile with me, but wanted to get food first. He couldn’t decide where he wanted food. He finally settled on Halo Burger but when we got there he changed his mind and wanted Subway. He ordered a 12-inch Spicy Italian. Eminem’s house had been torn down, so we went to an outlet mall instead.

Sagebrush Cantina
Sagebrush Cantina is the best restaurant in town according to our neighbor, Bob. Bob’s house is being foreclosed and he supports Trump and he has his lawn mowed by two lawnmowers simultaneously. That’s all I know about Bob.

Rough Draught
Ian and I went here once with our laptops after we started doing freelance graphic design. We thought we could try being the kind of people who work in cafes. Rough Draught is half café and half bar, but unlike cafes and bars, a waitress kept coming over to us and asking if we needed more beverages. She came over to us probably fifteen times in the course of two hours. I got 3 hot water refills on my green tea, Ian got coffee then a beer then another coffee, then we felt awkward and left.

Side Door
This is just a smaller version of Crust bakery. We started going here after Ian quit his job at Crust, because he didn’t want to see his old coworkers.

Uncle Ray’s Dairyland
River had applied for a job at Uncle Ray’s Dairyland before he got the job at Halo Burger. Apparently, the owner was very blunt about River’s disposition not being bubbly enough for Uncle Ray’s Dairyland, and River vowed to never patronize the restaurant. I went there a couple times after River moved back to California. The servers were extremely bubbly and I felt proud of River for not having the correct disposition to work there.

Fenton’s Open Book
Very easily the worst bookstore I’ve ever been to in my life. Just the dumbest selection of books ever. I also found it really weird that they sold pasties, which are like bland hot-pockets that seem to be Michigan’s state food. 

The Catholic Church in Fenton hosts an annual Applefest, which is less like the fruit-themed festivals I had gone to in California and more like a country fair with an emphasis on rides and games. I’m not sure I even saw a single apple. I made pins for Elizabeth and I to wear to Applefest that said “Pro-Death” and “Anti-Life,” because I felt ashamed of supporting the Catholic Church and wanted to pull one over on them. Elizabeth said we got some weird looks but I don’t think a single person saw our pins.

The Laundry
I decided to become vegan nine months after moving to Fenton to deal with skin issues. That meant cooking at home pretty much all the time, as there are not many vegan-friendly restaurants in Fenton. A restaurant called The Laundry seemed to be the exception. Their menu had a little V icon next to certain items to indicate that they were vegan, and a little VG icon that indicated vegetarian options, but the icons seemed to be misplaced or something because V items usually contained cheese and so did VG items. I think there may have been a miscommunication with the menu designer. I recommend ordering the pretzels with bacon mustard fondue “for the table” and waiting for the fondue to coagulate and then eating it in chunks with your fingers. It’s cows milk cheese and pigs meat bacon but it’s still vegan because there is a little V icon next to it on the menu.

50 Sips
Never went to this wine bar because the name is so dumb.

Firehouse is a barbecue restaurant built in an old fire station. It’s the edgiest place in town, and I’m only saying that because once I saw a guy there with a shirt that said, “I JERK IT EVERY CHANCE I GET.” Ian told me that’s a fishing joke but I don’t get it. My favorite thing on the menu is the hot brussels salad, which I started ordering without goat cheese after I turned vegan. The waiters always made a big enthusiastic point to tell me how much better it was with the goat cheese, as if my decision was based on an unwillingness to try new things. Each time I would have to be like, “I know precisely how much better it is with goat cheese, everything is much, much better with goat cheese, I would put goat cheese in my fucking coffee if I wasn’t such an embarrassing vegan and if I happened to drink coffee, which I don’t because I have a lot of dietary restrictions I guess, I don’t know how this happened to me, I used to eat canned chili on French fries, leave the plate out unrefrigerated, then eat the leftovers the next night or even two nights later and my roommate would be like ‘wow, you are for sure gonna get food poisoning’ but I didn’t care, I still ate it, and now I’m ordering some prissy ass brussels salad and asking to omit the main redeeming ingredient, I did not want to grow up to be this way, but I also did not want to grow up and still be dealing with acne and I just want to see if being halfheartedly vegan helps my skin, I’m really not asking for that much, I just want my shitty salad and clear skin, thanks, and a water.”

Marjie’s Gluten Free Pantry
I bought fake cream cheese here on two occasions. I’m surprised I didn’t buy fake cream cheese more times. It’s really good.

Walden’s Lounge
Walden’s Lounge was a dive bar, apparently with a kitchen, though I was never brave enough to order any food. I only ever saw one bartender at Walden’s, and she was disgruntled if you ordered anything other than a can of beer. There was a jukebox and several scratch-off tickets machines, which sold what turned out to be something called pull-tab tickets, which are not fun and are actually total bullshit.

Golden Buffet
Golden Buffet was suddenly open for business again one day out of nowhere. We were in the process of painting the house in preparation for moving out of it, and I interpreted Golden Buffet’s reopening as an omen. We ordered some take-out and it was very unmemorable.

Big Boy
We had our last meal in Fenton at Big Boy with Aaron and Elizabeth the night before we left. I ordered endless spaghetti and drank a mini bottle of whiskey while I waited for my food. I felt like I was going to have an anxiety attack because I was so stressed about having to move. We were packed and ready to go, but the waitress offered to give me a second plate of endless spaghetti to-go, which I accepted. Ian and I ate it the next morning as we drove through Fenton for the last time.