Introducing Czech Cuisine to Hollywood
Greater Los Angeles is comprised of roughly 70 cities, home to many different nationalities and some have formed substantial communities over the years. There is Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Little Manila, Koreatown, Little Saigon and so on. But there is no "Little Prague or "Bohemiatown" because the Czechs are too scattered and never formed a real ghetto here. Maybe this is the reason why there are no Czech restaurants today. The nearest Czech Restaurant today is in Davis, CA, some 445 miles (716 km) to the north near Sacramento. Rumor has it that Arnold Schwarzenegger, our current governor, goes there occasionally for Wiener Schnitzel mit Kartoffeln und Salat.
When I arrived in the early eighties there was a small Czech Restaurant in the seedy part of Hollywood Boulevard. The area was so unsafe that the owner, who looked a bit like Johnny Cash and also dressed only in black, sported a loaded revolver in the buckle of his belt to deter any desperate robbers.
For a time, there was another Czech Restaurant that belonged to a group of Czechs led by one wannabe restaurateur with the fruity name of Boruvka (Blueberry). An unsavory and congenitally lazy character, it remains a mystery as to how Boruvka got the restaurant off the ground in the first place, but somehow he did and initially all was well. Boruvka got the word out and the restaurant did a decent business the first few weeks.
The downside was that having real customers translated into actually having to - heaven forbid - work. So gradually, the owner and his freeloading companions started to hang out at one of the tables close to the kitchen and customers were viewed as a unwelcome interruption to their laid back routine of cards, beer and inane conversation.
One day an über respectable Czech family in their Sunday best arrived; the portly husband, his equally fluffy better half, their freshly scrubbed 9 and 12 years old girls and a pimply 15-year old boy. They took a prime table in the middle of the room and patiently waited for someone to acknowledge their presence. Unfortunately a high stakes game of "Mariash"* was in progress at the back table, headed by Boruvka and a vast quantity of beer had already been drunk. Eventually, Boruvka grudgingly distributed the menus hoping that no one would go as far as actually ordering something. But after a while, the orders were duly taken and Boruvka again returned to his companions.
Needless to say, the restaurant lasted only a few weeks more - the word about the enhanced service got out, money and beer ran out and Boruvka was left to look for other opportunities. Being a free spirit, looking for a job was beneath his dignity as he still fancied himself as an entrepreneur. So one morning he sauntered into the local Home Depot and splurged on a nifty cordless drill and a dozen door spy-holes costing $2 each. He then spent the rest of the day knocking on apartment doors, offering to install each spy hole for $20. By the end of the day, he had a couple hundred dollars in his pocket. It was gambling money, as that was his real passion. Horse racing. He quickly settled into a routine, spending his days hawking the spy holes and blowing his earnings on horses in Hollywood Park. Like any respectable businessman, he gradually refined his modus operandi. In an effort to minimize his overhead, he'd start the day by removing the spy holes he installed the day before and then re-selling them as new.
His scheme worked for a while, but Boruvka felt constrained. After all there are only so many spy-holes one can install in a single day. But Boruvka already had the solution. It was there all along. He decided to become a full-time professional gambler.
I met him a few months after that when he arrived in the Czech restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard and I happened to be there chatting with the owner. It was almost midnight and Boruvka came on foot. There is nothing more declasse in Los Angeles than not having wheels. But he was by now well used to hitchhiking - a risky proposition for anyone in LA - or taking the interminably slow buses or simply hoofing it. The gambling was not going well and he was broke and more or less homeless at that point. But, Boruvka earnestly explained, that was about to change as only a minor obstacle remained between his poverty and riches beyond belief. Horse racing was, at the time, the only legal gambling that one could indulge in California and Hollywood Park was the venue of choice for Boruvka. The key to the riches was in the daily printed program. He was convinced that if he could only decode the hints that were concealed in the program text he would hit a winning streak that would last years. The problem was that he was poor and only the rich understood THE CODE and were able to divine the winning combination from the program. That's why they were rich, he explained, and proceeded to show me how the name of the winning horse was concealed - a kind of a complex crossword puzzle/anagram system. The fact that his theory was discredited by his misspelling of one of the hints did not temper his enthusiasm. But his eyes shone brightly as he had the unshakable conviction that one day soon, he will be able to crack the code and become one of the rich, chosen ones.
I never saw him again.
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© 2007 Karel Kriz and Bouncing Czech Productions