This little restaurant is hard to find. Google Maps is not always your friend. Can’t it just say, ‘turn into this faceless downtown building and go up the escalator to the left?’. Inside, it looks like the regional offices for Merkun Layfe Insurers, the kind of open-plan workplace where disappointed call-centre managers come to find out they’re retiring. Not that all of Spokane has this vibe. It’s small, certainly, but has a wilful glint in its eye.
I walk up to find 2 counters: Tio’s and “Spokanewich” with two guys behind an aluminium bench seemingly startled by my arrival. There’s one other customer in the grey seating area, or else he’s taking a rest. His back is arched impressively into a protective phone-viewing hunch, from which he un-rolls at my arrival, as if to say ‘it’s just a skill’. There’s a lunch special: two tacos, a side and a fountain drink for $13.95.
The proprietor steps into the opening for Tio’s Taqueria. He is shorter than me and works out. Tio Muscles is not wearing a mask. I’ve just arrived from Seattle where the streets are empty and mask wearers are waving their ‘See, Vaccinated!’ QR Codes in every doorway. I check with Tio Muscles if he needs to see my QR code. He sucks his teeth. ‘You’re in Spokane here, only 40 miles from Idaho, and we don’t do that here’. I didn’t know we were so close to Idaho. But I don’t know what that has to do with the price of fish. Nor, indeed, tacos.
I order the special: a carne asado and a pulled pork taco with chips. I ask if I can take a picture. He agrees. I ask him if he’s offended by my mask. I’ve been trying to find a Republican in Washington state and have so far failed. ‘Not at all’, he says, very reasonably, ‘you’re in America now and we believe in freedom’. I guess that includes my freedom to be masked and ask daft questions.
I get my picture and a snatch of video before my batteries give up again. While I’m waiting, I notice that a few people are walking past. A woman approaches Tio Muscles but I can’t see him from where I’m sitting. ‘I didn’t know you were here’, she said, as her opening gambit. I imagine he smiled calmly. ‘Did you want to order some tacos?’. She’s cagey, ‘I might. Do you have bagels?’ I imagine he shakes his head. ‘Hmmm. I walk around the Skywalk’, she says. ‘It’s great for that’ he says, ‘you could wander for miles’.
‘Lunch Special’, declares Tio Muscles, after Skywalk Woman has left. The food looks good. Before he hands over the goods, he offers me two plastic pots of salsa and then asks me, ‘What about special sauce?’. On the countertop are pre-measured globs of sauce in even smaller plastic pots. There aren’t many left of the mild and medium ones but lots of an angry-looking yellow paste. ‘That’s the superhot one’, Tio Muscles says with pride, ‘you’d love that one’. It appears we have become friends. He pushes the food forward across the counter. The tacos are sitting directly on a piece of checkerboard paper which sits on a small aluminium tray. I imagine him correcting me ‘ah-LOO-min-umm’, he would say, shaking his head with a smile. ‘That’s what we say 40 miles from Idaho’.