A Ratatouille Moment: Keki’s Cafe (Fremont, OH)

In the Disney/Pixar movie “Ratatouille”, a pivotal moment to the movie’s conclusion plays out when the jaded food critic, Anton Ego, is served what is considered a peasant dish (ratatouille, the movie title) in ostensibly a fine-dining restaurant. Upon his first bite, Ego is transported back to childhood when times weren’t so jaded and a home-cooked meal brought comfort very few other things can.

Well, my brain is most definitely NOT a Disney/Pixar movie, so my recent “Ratatouille” moment, which took place at a newly-opened, small town breakfast joint, proved quite different. My moment came before my food actually arrived and brought back memories of…David Geffen?

For over a decade, I’ve gotten acquainted with the town of Fremont in Northwest Ohio, where my spouse grew up for most of her life and where many of her relatives still reside. Perhaps best known for being the longtime residence of 19th President of the United States, Rutherford B. Hayes, Fremont hangs in there as the largest town in and county seat of Sandusky County.

The Rutherford B. Hayes Museum and Home at Speigel Grove, Fremont, OH

Several employers, including Heinz Ketchup, Crown Battery, Frank’s Kraut, and nearby Whirlpool have kept the town from shrinking too much from its modest peak population of close to 18,000 people in the 1970s. But as I’ve found out from my chance-meeting people from that area here in Columbus, there isn’t much beyond those options there, meaning there’s not much chance for going back home for many who grew up here depending on your chosen career.

With the nearby agricultural-oriented businesses, Fremont has a fair chunk of Hispanics in its population and has several Mexican eateries scattered throughout town. My spouse and I have had favorable encounters with a few of those places; in fact, it was my spouse who said I needed to try Keki’s Cafe, which opened up June this year. Scrunched in the 601 W. State Building (a space that dates back to the late 1880s), the space’s unusual shape leads to a highly choreographed dance between wait- and food prep-staff, one they have seemingly mastered with no problem, based on our barside view.

Keki’s menu splits a concise selection of Mexican and American breakfast and lunch favorites; of course for us, we were there for the Mexican side of things. Unlike many other places, the eggs on some dishes are an add-on, which is a bonus for people like my wife and others who have egg allergies. While we were sitting at the bar waiting for our orders, I realized I hadn’t had such a close up view of a cook working a flattop griddle since COVID came around, so I watched with extreme interest.

I grew mesmerized as time progressed: pancakes flipped at just right level of golden brown. The greasy bubbling of Mexican chorizo alongside fried eggs cooked over easy. And then, the combo of the two – several eggs, cracked into and nestled within a pile of already sizzling chorizo, and shortly after, a whirling dervish of activity as two spatulas whirred the two into one, click-clacking in a catchy rhythm…

(Cue the Anton Ego moment…)

…and yes, David Geffen, the media music mogul, popped into my head right then. Or rather, a social media post which Geffen shared at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 bemoaning the self-isolation the multimillionaire was forced into aboard his Riding Sun mega-yacht, along with its crew of 40 or so, off the Grenadines.

David Geffen’s COVID-19 “Dilemma” on a Yacht, as covered by MarketWatch

As tone deaf as Geffen’s post sounded at the time, I certainly did not wish him or anyone at that time any harm. But for the average Joe and Jane, Geffen’s “travails” on his yacht meant absolutely zilch to our individual and sometimes dire COVID-related realities. For most people, the simple things we couldn’t engage in anymore, such as eating out and watching a cook work his magic, as I was doing that very moment, were a million times more relevant.

It’s become weird (though not surprising, perhaps) to me how much we pay mind to the upper 0.1%, which has as much wealth as the bottom 90%, according to many reports such as this Business Insider article from 2017. Some would argue this is mere jealousy, but it’s much more my personal realization of this simple fact: it’s practically impossible for that meager fraction of the population to relate to reality of the average Joe and Jane, despite their claims to the contrary. I personally don’t crave what most rich people have in spades. Elon Musk, the new owner of the social media site Twitter, has $44B to do whatever mysterious thing he’s trying to do with Twitter; meanwhile, a meager $44 might mean a nice breakfast out with the family at their favorite local eatery.

Referencing that $44, most people have little idea how much of a bargain that really is. For the really rich, $44 might be a miserly tip on a four-digit bar tab, but for an average Joe or Jane, $44 gives them the opportunity to be treated like an elite for an hour or two, without worrying about doing dishes, cleaning up the kitchen, and so forth. Heck, you might even luck into free WiFi and a charging center for that phone of yours, or maybe some free musical entertainment or today’s big sports event on a TV screen.

I don’t think a Chipotle CEO is going to get off his couch to make you a burrito bowl

Yet, much of society screams when service workers get bumped up a minuscule amount on their hourly wages, but give a collective shrug to the slap on the wrist this 0.1%-er got for dealing in plundered artifacts. With very, very rare exception, it wasn’t the Geffens or Musks of the world that people were missing when they were all cooped up inside their houses, but rather the service worker who was willing to crisp up your tortilla chips just right in the fryer for that hot plate of chilaquiles, or come by every now and again to ask if you’d like more coffee.

Speaking of those coffee and chilaquiles, Keki’s Cafe do both of those quite well and quite deliciously. That dish, plus my Chorizo Omelet, are as good as any Mexican breakfast I’ve had in the Columbus area. Throw in excellent service and a salsa that is a step up from the typical vinegary renditions (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and that just sealed another visit next time we’re in town.

Is Keki’s the best Mexican breakfast I’ve had? It’s up there. The best around? Who knows, but that’s more a nod to the thousands of places I haven’t tried versus the ones I have. Perhaps the best thing about this experience was that sprinkle of perspective – you’re far better off with the crisp click-clacks of spatulas from working class folks cooking up a storm at places like Keki’s, than you are the rich slick hacks cooking up ways to get you to buy their empty-calorie notions of the moment.

Keki’s Cafe | Address: 601 W State St, Fremont, OH 43420 | Website: https://m.facebook.com/people/Kekis-Cafe/100077092445412/ | Yelp: https://yelp.to/sJkiNQT2pvb

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