November 29, 2023
Don’t Cross the Burger Man

Unless you’re ready for what might come next

By C. Noah Pelletier

We were walking down the main drag in Kata Beach in Phuket when a triumph of fish and lobsters and clams lured us in. Well, perhaps lure is too strong a word, but Takayo and I were hungry and this restaurant was close to our hotel.  The dining room was this open-air deal with white pillars, tea candles, and tablecloths starched stiffer than a wedding drink.  It almost seemed forbidding. All that week we’d eaten at the mom n’ pop joints. There’s just something about lawn furniture and the smell of sizzling meat that reminds me of the carnival.

But now, standing before that dripping sea-life display, Takayo had the look of a woman entranced. A little maitre d’ showed us to our table.

As a rule, we typically don’t eat out at touristy restaurants, especially not on the main drag. The food is rarely, if ever, on par with those back-alley joints. Plus, it’s hard to lose yourself in a place that regards ABBA as dining music. That said, as much as I wanted to hate this restaurant, I just couldn’t.  It was vaguely foreign and familiar at the same time, like an old sitcom dubbed into Thai. The waitress brought my entre: fried rice in a hollowed-out pineapple with a side of mummified baby prawns. Takayo pulled out the camera and took a picture.  Blinded by the flash, now we could eat.

Kata Beach is one of those hippie-era hideouts that matured into a popular, yet not-quite-overcommercialized tourist destination. The white palm tree-lined beach is an island hotspot for surfing.  A lot of middle-aged farang women feel compelled to go topless there as well.  Thank goodness there’s no correlation between the two.

I went back to the pineapple restaurant one day for lunch when Takayo was at scuba class.  They had a sign on the sidewalk that advertised a lunch special: burger, fries, and a Coke for 100 baht.  Main drag or not, the price — about three bucks — was right.  The waitress seated me. I flipped through the menu, read the sign on the sidewalk again, and closed the menu.

“Let me get the burger deal and a Singha,” I said, and thanked her. “Kap khun krap.”

The burger was decent. I didn’t even tell her that she forgot my Coke.  A breeze was kicking around the dining area and I was content just to watch the tourists and the mopeds buzzing past.

My troubles began when the waitress dropped off the check.  She had overcharged me.  For a pale white guy with a couple of beers in him, this is not uncommon.  It’s something I’ve come to terms with — Show it to the server, state my case, and move on.  I considered my wording, wondering if I had been unclear. A burger deal.  Maybe she punched it in wrong. When she came back, I mentioned the oversight.

“Sorry, I ordered the burger meal, the lunch special you have advertised.”  I pointed to the neon-lettered sign on the sidewalk.

“No,” she said flatly. “You order burger from menu. “You pay.”

“I don’t know if you remember, but I asked for the burger meal. The menu was closed when you took my order”

“You order menu burger, I bring you menu burger.”

“What’s the difference? The sign’s right there on the sidewalk.”

The conscientious traveler in me said to pay it.   Had it been a mom n’ pop joint, I would have done just that. But another voice said: this is about the principle, not the money.  In spite of feeling like a complete jackass, I politely asked to speak with a manager.

A young man came to the table with my waitress and another one in tow.  It was the little maitre d’. He had short, gelled hair and serious dark eyes. Though he weighed about a hundred and ten pounds, his face showed no sign of apprehension.

“Yes, she tells me you have problem?”  God, he had a high voice, like Mickey Mouse. I explained.  He brought over a menu, opened it to the burger and pointed. ” This. This is what you order.”  He set the menu down before me.

I could have just paid him. Most of the time I do. But once in awhile, like some crackpot vigilante, I get a sick thrill from avenging apathy.  All I want to hear is: ‘I see what you’re saying, but I’ve got a job to do.”‘ Then I’ll gracefully step aside.

“No,” said. “I ordered the lunch burger. It’s lunch. Why would you advertise it if you aren’t going to sell it?”

“That’s the small burger. He pointed to the sign. You order the big burger. You ate the big one.”

“How could I possibly know the difference?”

If the common dictum in the restaurant business is that the customer is always right, in this establishment, customers were not only wrong, but were taught a lesson. When I tried to close the menu, the maitre d’ slapped his hand down on top of it. I don’t know why, but at that point, I really wanted that menu closed. His arm quivered from pressing down. My fingertips turned white.

“I’m not weak!” the maitre d’ finally shouted.  “He reached back and slapped me across the shoulder.”  The two waitresses were dumbfounded.

“Hey, what the hell, man?”

“Yout pay!”

“All right, I’ll tell you what. I’m gonna pay for one lunch special and a beer. Then I’m gonna leave.”

The money was in my sweaty hand. I placed it on the table as if we were playing poker. I wasn’t exactly sure what he would do: Hit again, raise, or fold.

“Get out!”  It was shrill, and loud.  He snatched the money off the table and stormed off. The two girls followed. Of course, everyone in the dining room was staring. I had to hand it to him; the kid really had a pair.

Maybe it was the beer or the heat, but I headed toward the back to find a manager. She was sitting at a desk in a back office. Before I could walk in, the maitre d’ stepped out with a plate in his hand.

“Get out!”  It stopped me in my tracks. I was just outside the office, and then the manager’s phone rang. We locked eyes for an instant, and then she reached over and answered the phone. I had no idea what I was going to say to her.  Was it still about the principle, or was it damage control for my guilty conscience? And what was the principle now, anyway?

I slunk out, replaying the fiasco in my head.  Was I wrong?

An answer came to me in the sound of footfalls.  Every so often I looked over my shoulder, just to make sure no one was following me.

2 comments about “Don’t Cross the Burger Man”

  1. roadwarrior says:

    I feel for you, and have been in a similar scene, but I can also see their side of things. This is a clear case of misunderstanding, rather than greedy locals ripping off the gullible farangs. In fact, it may appear to the locals to be another case of tourists trying to rip off the locals. Unless you pointed to the special menu, or specified “the lunch special,” I can see how the waitress did not understand the phrase “burger deal” and thought you wanted the “menu burger” after you had perused the menu. She should have asked if you meant the lunch special or the menu burger. Sorry it happened! Be glad it wasn’t FAR WORSE (e.g., where people’s buns were at stake!– email me.). For the future, follow your own guidelines in avoiding touristy places! I’m glad you had the sense of humor to write this, and the sense to not let this get you down!

  2. Phill Danze says:

    I too can see both sides of the story. The bit that alarms me is the way the maitre d’ handled it; threats and then physical contact. I’ve experienced this threatening behaviour too in Thailand. It’s a shame that some places jump very quickly to this type of action.

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