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[whitespace] Vahl's Sign
Photograph by Eric Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

Hors D'Oeuvres A la Vahl

By Eric A. Carlson

We accept no credit cards. --Vahl's menu

SITTING IN UN-REDEVELOPED VAHL'S, about 50 yards from the Alviso Slough, Mme. X and I basked in the ambience of semigloss pink walls, stuffed ducks in the corners, a black velvet painting of the Golden Gate Bridge lit by pin lights, and lots of parrot artwork--including the wallpaper. Amelia Vahl, somehow bubbly at 92 or so, had escorted us to our table. A perfect locale to discuss Elvis Presley zealots, long gone Frontier Village, and ways to infiltrate the secret chambers of the San Jose Redevelopment Agency--on the 11th floor of a building on San Fernando Street.

Living with a parrot, I am sensitized to parrot motifs. I asked Amelia about the large latch-hook embroidery of several larger-than-life parrots. "My husband's mother took 300 hours to do that parrot," Amelia told me. Eric and Amelia Vahl opened Vahl's in 1942. Prior to that, the establishment operated under the name of Newport Inn--a tavern with eight stools. In fact, Vahl's liquor license still indicates Newport Inn--not Vahl's. That is a fun fact.

Our meal debuted with Hors D'Oeuvres a la Vahl: Ritz crackers, liver pâte, little chunks of blue cheese, sliced salami, radishes cut in the shape of flowers, and a strange orange Jell-O studded with mandarin fruit and topped with coconut shredding. Superb, and it only got better. The menu offers up Martinis and Manhattans--available from the Spirit Room. Premium dishes are listed on the left inside of the menu, economy fare to the right. Mme. X informed that during holidays, the right side of the menu is stapled over with a sheet of paper--with holiday greetings. The picture on the cover of the menu appears to be a German village. Perfect. I will dream of Germany while sitting next to a slough in Alviso.

Mme. X described her work in the field of Elvismania. She had joined Elvis organizations in San Jose and environs to get a better understanding of the phenomenon, finding, among other things, that most believers refuse to believe Elvis took drugs or engaged in other mischievous acts. She spoke of a woman who had acquired an Elvis jumpsuit--which she kept behind bulletproof glass and worshipped. X's most harrowing Elvis moment was at The Bold Knight in Sunnyvale when the stage was stormed by drunken, and possibly hallucinating, middle-aged housewives, who savagely mauled an Elvis impersonator. Also disturbing were the annual Elvis Now events at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds where impersonators contested for best sounding Elvis and best look-alike Elvis. Mme. X recalls that the look-alikes resembled old fat debauched Elvis, while the sound-alikes took after the young innocent one. Another notable event was The Traveling Elvis Museum. X stumbled into this event by accident, when visiting the San Antonio Shopping Center in Mountain View. Serendipity.

On a truly eccentric tangent, the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds has been home to an annual Gun-Cat show, an event I have actually seen signs for--on telephone poles in Milpitas--but couldn't quite believe. X said it was true, one-half of a convention hall displaying guns, the other half cats. Is this possible?

I admired Mme. X's full-throttled approach to "getting the story"--though joining Elvis fan clubs does seem a bit extreme. A more dangerous variant of Hunter S. Thompson's ploy of hooking up with the Hell's Angels? And could I embrace the technique and infiltrate myself into the San Jose Redevelopment Agency? Probably not. Although "preservationists" are invited to the meetings, gadflies and deconstructionists are discouraged. I would have to disguise myself as a heartless developer to gain access. And bruit about tearing down the St. Claire Club to put up high-rise apartments that only members of the St. Claire Club could afford. Among other atrocities.

Final note: Mme. X maintains that Vahl's serves the best garlic bread in town.

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From the March 1-7, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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