Big Denny, as usual, was in a foul mood. “Look at dis joint,” he grumbled, waving his hand at a nearly deserted Barstow Card Casino. “It’s as empty as … as …”

“As empty as the pan section on a Jewish holiday,” I said, helpfully completing his thought.

“Yeah, dat’s right,” Big Denny replied, not really understanding the witticism. “Boy, you sure got a way wit’ words, Maxey. Too bad da best ya kin do wit’ all dat talent is ta write fer peanuts fer dat cheapskate poker magazine.”

“Oh, it’s not all that bad,” I said defensively. “Sometimes we get nice bonuses and stuff.”

“Yeah, like what?” Big Denny asked.

“Well, I once got a swell tee shirt for Christmas.”

Oh, yeah, da one dat said, ‘Advertise in Card Sbobet88 Player.’ Dat Barry Shulman is a real philantropolis. Anyway, dat’s your problem. Mine’s gettin’ more customers into da casino. Kin ya figger out anyt’ing dat might stand improvement here?”

What wouldn’t? I thought to myself. The place hadn’t been thoroughly cleaned, much less redecorated, since the War of 1812. It was a snatch joint, with dealers paid a percentage of whatever they grabbed out of the pots. The cards were marked, the staff were all thuggish ex-cons, and any player who miraculously made a big score was lucky to make it alive to his car.

“Well,” I offered hesitantly, “you might try to improve the buffet a bit.”

Big Denny bristled. “Our Four-Star Buffet? What’s wrong wit’ it?”

“Well, for one thing, admissions to the emergency room went up 50 percent after it opened. For another, the only items I’ve ever seen you offer were meatloaf and mashed potatoes.”

“Oh, yeah? Well, it so happens dat our executive chef, Fingers, was da head cook at San Quentin fer five years, until his parole. Took me a while ta break him of da habit of addin’ saltpeter to da food, though,” Denny grinned. “Hey, lemme introduce ya ta him an’ maybe ya could give him some ideas.”

I was not terribly anxious to meet chef Fingers, but Denny grabbed my arm and hustled me into the kitchen. I staggered back as the aroma of rotting meat, rancid cooking oil, and garbage from an overflowing can washed over me. Rat droppings spattered the floor, and a cockroach the size of a small hamster insolently trotted away from us. On the wall, The Barstow Department of Health had posted a list of about 50 sanitation violations, which, it was obvious, nobody had bothered to read.

“Maxey, shake hands with Fingers Finnegan, our executive chef,” Big Denny told me.

Fingers was even more ape-like than Big Denny, if such a thing were possible. His long hairy arms were covered with tattoos, and his apron was covered with stains. Shaking hands with him was no easy task, either, since he had only two digits on each hand, the result of his ineptitude with a carving knife.

“Maxey says dat yer chow stinks,” Denny announced diplomatically.

Fingers’ eyes narrowed, and I saw his hand inching toward a butcher knife. How do I keep getting into these situations? I asked myself in panic.

“My grub stinks, huh?” Fingers growled menacingly. “Would it be askin’ too much to be a little more specific, punk?”

“I never said any such thing, Mr. Finnegan,” I protested. “I only suggested a bit more variety, to perhaps make the buffet a little less, well, a little less boring.”

“BORING!?” Fingers screamed, as my life flashed before my eyes. “You … you … brute! Oh, my heavens, I’ve never been so humiliated in my entire life,” he sobbed, dabbing at his eyes with his two fingers. “And as for you, Mr. Big Denny, you can just go and find yourself another executive chef!”

With that, Fingers tossed his filthy apron into the soup kettle and stormed out the door.

Big Denny glared at me. “Now ya really done it, Maxey. Ya better find me a new chef by the weekend or else I’m gonna sit on yer head till it hatches.”

Frantically thinking, I remembered that my friend Pierre le Tutu, the French fashion designer, was an avid amateur cook. He had some free time until his next line came out, so I decided to phone him to see if he could fill in for a while.

“Barstow?” le Tutu said suspiciously. “Where is zat?”

“Oh, it’s a very cosmopolitan town,” I assured him. “The folks here would just adore your French cuisine.”

Le Tutu drove up in the morning and spent the next few days assembling exotic ingredients and bustling furiously in the kitchen. “Dis better work,” Denny told me threateningly. “In two days, dat guy spent more on food den I spend in two months.”

Posters had been put up all over Barstow to announce the grand re-opening of Big Denny’s Four-Star Buffet, presided over by the world-famous French chef, Pierre le Tutu. At 6 p.m. the buffet opened, and a crowd of curious, overall-clad farmers shuffled in. At the entrance, le Tutu stood beaming alongside the opening menu he had proudly posted:

“Caramelized breast of guinea hen, stuffed with baby Brussels sprouts, pine nuts, and Belgian truffles, served with a light cream of asparagus dressing and garnished with wild arugula.”

The farmers stared blankly at the menu and gaped at the food as if it had just come from Mars.

“Sorta looks like fried chicken they forgot to bread,” one commented, scratching his head.

“Wouldn’t eat that dang stuff if they paid me,” another declared.

“Where the hell’s the meatloaf?” a third farmer demanded.

As the customers shook their heads and streamed out, an angry Pierre le Tutu began walking toward me from one direction while an even angrier Big Denny came at me from another. I bolted out the door and ran into the parking lot, where Fingers Finnegan, who had been staking me out, joined the chase. Dodging curses, meatloaf, and carmelized breast of guinea hen, I barely made it to my car and took off for the freeway at high speed.

And that, dear readers, marked the end of my stint as a restaurant critic.