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This one time, I was on airport duty, a daytime pickup. I had woken up early, snoozed a half dozen times and then finally tumbled out of the house, pleased that despite the lazing around, I was more likely to be a few minutes early than otherwise.

Traffic was also on my side, and I sauntered with ease into the park & call lot at the airport, swung elegantly into a 30-min waiting spot and sent my friend a text that I was parked and comfy, see you when you land…

Turns out, the plane had not even boarded yet. I had mistaken the take-off time for the arrival time. I have this remarkable knack of surprising even myself at my gaffes sometimes. A little entertaining, in fact. Thankfully, it was only an hour flight, so I was only about an hour and a half early – at least I hadn’t arrived in the morning for an evening arrival.

I’m always thrilled at the unexpected gift of downtime! I decided to explore and kill the extra time at a nearby cafe. I turned to my trusty smart phone and Yelp, and serendipitously found a place within about 5 miles with complimentary wifi and great reviews for both coffee and cuteness factor! I zipped off – successfully avoiding getting lost on my way out of the airport.

Who knew that a stone’s throw away from the airport was an amazing swerving drive through some wetlands and waterways and regional parks? Before you had the chance to say “wow”, you were driving over a narrow draw bridge, straight into a charming and quaint residential neighborhood. The houses here were mostly single storied, with a  Spanish hacienda style look and feel about them. Interestingly enough, the neighborhood looked neat and well put together, but not necessarily affluent. I turned into the main street equivalent of this cute little neighborhood and kept an eye out for Julie’s.

Julie’s must look pretty amazing after dark, with the spotlight facing its front awning. I was tempted to sit outdoors, but the overcast skies and gloomy weather drove me inside.

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The overcast skies and the doom and gloom all cowered at the door to the cafe, and inside was a burst of joie de vivre. As you walk in, the air is palpably warmer (but of course, you say) and scented with an inviting aroma of home (that’s caffeine fumes, you say). You had to be there, is all I will say. There are three two-seaters along the left wall, and a few more two seaters and one four-seater table along the perimeter on the right, along the front glass wall. The center space is occupied by a few odds and ends of couches – all overstuffed and inviting. If you can resist the urge to plonk down and never leave, you will then glance up to look at the narrow end of the restaurant, where seemingly everyone is ordering the grilled cheese sandwich, despite the extensive array of available options posted on the many chalkboards along the far wall.

But more on the grilled cheese in a bit – for now, suffice it to say that I smartly walked up to the counter and ordered one too. But first, check out the nondescript green door to the right of the counter … that leads to the garden patio.

20120820-113323.jpgOrder number in hand, I stood in front of that green door for a few seconds, wondering whether to stay in the bright warmth of the inside, or venture out back. Worth at least a trip, I thought, and carefully peered around the doorjamb, trying to see beyond, almost Alice-in-Wonderland style. A very narrow and vividly green-walled (painted, not planted) alleyway led away towards the back, without so much as affording a hint as to the nature of what waited beyond. I stepped back, looked around at the empty tables and shrugged to myself and stepped beyond the door frame.

What greets you after a mere 3 steps is a very elegant little urban garden. I’m thinking of a cross between a german beer garden Astoria style, with Hansel and Gretel styled cottage vibe (if you can mentally extrapolate to the garden equivalent).

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There are some aromatic herb plants available for sale, displayed along the garden walls. Pretty charming. And of course, all along the walls are scrap metal inspired artwork.

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Tour over, I headed back indoors. The spot I wanted – along the left wall at the very entrance of the cafe, had already been filled, so I picked out my second choice – a table right by the counter. As I settled in and unpacked my laptop and latched onto the wifi, I noticed a whole wall of tea and mugs on the right hand side wall – I had completely missed it on the way in, by then distracted by thoughts of the grilled cheese sandwich. Wow, what a wide variety of tea choices!

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I sat down and made myself comfortable, looking around to see what else I had missed. Sure enough, I had completely missed how much iron/metal there is in the cafe, casually adorning walls, forming unique light fixtures and complementing the colorful paint on the cafe walls. I mulled over the sad lack of my observational skills, and then decided to let it go when my grilled cheese arrived.

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Have you ever really tried very very hard to like something? The cafe was so cute, the ambiance so inviting and homely, and the patronage so comfortingly local and casual, that I had convinced myself that this grilled cheese sandwich was going to be a gourmet experience. As soon as the dish was brought out, with some amazingly friendly service, may I add, I knew we were in culinary fiasco land.

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Oh and I so wanted to love the food at Julie’s! My platter of grilled cheese came with a side salad, and when it arrived, it looked just fine. The red flag went fluttering when I lifted up one half of the grilled cheese sandwich.

How was I going to bite into it without metal grinders for teeth? Fried to a crisp taken way too literally! As I put down the sandwich, wondering whether to ask for a knife or a hammer … I absentmindedly reached for the napkin, to brush off crumbs. That’s when I realized the crumbs were clinging for dear life, stuck in a bog of grease that had seeped off the sandwich and onto my fingers.

I suppressed a shudder and decided to at least break the sandwich into two, and bite into the softer inside part, avoiding the crust and the whole inch or so of border along with it, to prevent myself from ripping apart the inside of my mouth. Not at all a bad idea – the inside core was not quite as razor edged and dangerous.

But the cheese. Oh what sadness. Whatever happened to the ooey gooey cheesy innards of a comforting grilled cheese sandwich? Whatever happened to stringy cheese strands with each bite? Whatever happened to being able to taste the cheese? Replaced by plastic salinity and a rubbery slap in the face.

I gave up. I wasn’t going to risk my gum health and brave the spiky fried bread spears for a slithery plastic mouthfeel that I couldn’t wash away with even a full glass of water. I dug into the salad instead. The greens looked fresh – how wrong can you go with fresh greens?

Apparently wrong enough. Coated with pepper grenades and encased in an unidentifiable greasy dressing-wannabe, the leafy greens had been transformed into yet another angry fight with the bite. Disappointed, and unwilling, nay unable, to swallow the attack on my taste buds (literally), I toyed with the salad, briefly contemplated braving a carrot slice, and then chickened out. I glanced at my phone for the time, decided enough was enough, and scurried out of the cafe and into daylight.

Oh wow – Julie’s was such a great impression from an experience standpoint, so on point with the ambiance and “feel”, that the disappointing experience with the food was heartbreaking. Maybe it was a one time grilled cheese gone wild, but I’ll probably never find out.

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