Radouane Eljaouhari reaches over the bar at ‘Merica and hands me a bottle of beer in a brown paper bag. The lighting is a dim red and blue, and AK-47s and handguns hang from the walls next to political cartoons of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The smell of burgers wafts from the nearby kitchen, and the song “I’m an American” plays in the background.
There’s a time and a place for everything, but nothing has ever seemed more appropriate than drinking beer in a brown bag amidst state fair level Americana during this current state of our country.
“Last night, someone came in and said she was offended by the American flags,” Zach Neil, the restaurateur who opened ‘Merica with Eljaouhari, says. Neil’s fired up. He wasn’t working at ‘Merica that particular night, but just hearing about it second-hand from Eljaouhari was enough.
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‘Merica is far from your typical New York City or East Village restaurant. Everything is red, white and blue — including the duct tape on the booths. It’s so over the top American it’s almost a little disconcerting. Especially in this election season.
“I’ve been waiting to tell people you’re so stupid you don’t even get it,” Neil says. “That flag is for everyone.”
Neil and Eljaouhari opened ‘Merica in mid October. Inspiration struck Neil late one night after he got on Facebook and saw all his friends arguing about politics. Clearly, now is the year to open a political restaurant.
‘Merica opened late in the election cycle due to some trouble with the landlord, but that didn’t stop the fanfare and press. The country was in full political fervor and the media was desperate for any content with even a slight connection to the election. ‘Merica got local TV coverage on Fox and CBS, and the internet (predictably) repurposed the story in every way it could. Throughout it all, ‘Merica was sold with a straight face.
“The restaurant itself has polarized people,” Neil says. The breakdown is about 60 percent of people who think it’s funny, and 40 percent who react negatively or are just plain confused. “Some people get it, some people think it’s a Donald Trump rallying point.”
Walk inside and you quickly realize it’s definitely not a Trump rallying point. Like Neil says, the flag is for everyone, and everyone in this case means people who hate Trump and people who hate Clinton. Miss feeling the Bern? Have your table share some socialist-style bottomless Bernie fries for $6.
But as this election cycle has made it very, very clear, people don’t have to know facts or what they’re talking about to make a political judgment.
“The East Village has some of the most pretentious people in the world,” Neil says. “It’s a haven for a lot of good things, but there’s about five percent (of people in East Village) who have become a South Park parody of a human being.”
Those are the type of people who could use a little beer in a brown bag.
‘Merica itself is, after all, a parody. It’s Stephan Colbert’s character from “The Colbert Report” in restaurant form — and Neil fully intended it to be that way. He drew inspiration from shows like “The Daily Show” and “South Park.” The menu is just as over-the-top Americana as the atmosphere with candidate-inspired burgers, grilled cheese and 13 types of American craft beer, American wine and Miller High Life and Coors Banquet. No Budweiser “America” beer though. The beers were chosen just as much for their taste as for their full-on, eagles flying through the sky Americanness.
But just because it’s a parody doesn’t mean Neil or Eljaouhari keep their politics quiet.
Over the course of an hour, 37-year-old, Southern-raised Neil talked about his most passionate political topics with me. We went from his belief that Clinton is a chameleon (not her literally, but her stance on issues), to his statement that Donald Trump is human scum. He thinks Bernie Sanders is a good person, but socialism would never work in America, and taxing the rich at a higher rate doesn’t make sense.
“The only thing American about Donald Trump is that he can spew his bullshit all over TV and get away with it.”
Neil didn’t stop with the candidates, either. He’s not voting because he doesn’t believe in the lesser evil voting system and he doesn’t want to feel responsible for anything the next president does. Voting is like owning a gun (he’s pro Second Amendment): Not everyone should be able to do it.
Most importantly, America already is great — and always has been great — because of immigrants.
“America is Leonardo DiCaprio,” Neil says. “He was a great actor as a kid — think “Gilbert Grape” — and then he keeps getting better as he gets older. Yeah, America has fucked up, but then we fixed it and we’re still fixing things.”
And there’s a lot of things that still need to be fixed: Race relations, women’s rights, police brutality, immigration. Also just values in general.
“The singer who’s teaching your daughter to twerk has greater value in this country than the neurosurgeon who saves someone from death’s grip,” Neil says. He also says we should have seen our political situation coming.
“Enjoy your Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton,” Neil says. “It’s what you deserve. A bunch of mouth breathers who put value on things that have no value, so of course the guy from the ‘Apprentice’ is leading a major political party.”
It’s a lot to take in.
“This has been fun for a month,” Neil says, “but I can’t do this much longer. It was fun, but then it got sad. Last night I realized i don’t want to do this anymore.”
“We can’t get too deep on these issues. We’re a restaurant.”
In the end, it’s really about the food. Here are the food and drink pairings Neil suggests:
Bald Eagle Wings with Mother’s Milk Belgian Ale. No, it’s not real bald eagle, and yes, Neil has been asked multiple times if it is.
T-Rump Mexi-Can Burger with Magic Hat’s Low Key Session IPA or a Brooklyn American Ale. The burger is a little spicy and a blend of American and Mexican flavors, because those two things belong together.
The Hillary Burger (A 100-calorie lie) with Woodchuck Amber Ale. It’s super cheesy.
Better yet, just go for a Miller or a Coors. Both go with everything American. Do it soon though, because despite the fact that Neil and Eljaouhari have been telling everyone ‘Merica is the real deal, on November 8 at 11:59 p.m., it will cease to exist. ‘Merica was just a fun pop up to do while they got ready to open their real restaurant — ‘Merica doesn’t even have a bank account. For what’s next, Neil would only drop hints that it will be something popular in the winter, warm, and tropical. Perhaps a tiki bar? He wouldn’t say.
“Some saw through it,” Neil says. “For those people, hats off. One guy called it that we’re trolling East Village so hard and he was right, but I tried as hard as I could to convince him that it’s real.”
Whatever the new restaurant will be, it’ll be something for everyone — even the 5 percent of pretentious East Village dwellers — and the day couldn’t come fast enough for Neil.
“I’m over it now. I’ve seen what’s out there and I’m done with it,” Neil says. I saw on my trip to ‘Merica how easy it is to get sidetracked into political conversations. But in the end it’s a real restaurant (for now) run by real chefs and restaurateurs.
“Sorry I got on a tangent,” Neil says, very slightly less fired up than when he arrived. “This is the type of stuff that keeps me up at night. You want a burger?”