Mr. Weed's Point
I don’t eat at chain food restaurants.
It is a well publicized fact among the people who know me. I don’t see the point of it. Chain food is famous for making consistent facsimiles of American food. However, more often than not, the dishes you get at chain food restaurants are gargantuan portions of overly seasoned (read: insanely salty) foodstuff processed outside the restaurant at some factory of unknown provenance. What happens behind the swinging doors of the kitchen at a chain food restaurant is not cooking, it’s reheating.
Personally, I feel like there is not much more to say about chain food than that. There is generally a local equivalent of any chain food restaurant making the same style of food except it is fresher, tastier, and cheaper. Yes, I understand there are some bad local restaurants in this world, but sites like WacoFork are created for the sole purpose of shepherding you away from those and showing you an alternative to the chain restaurant dominated food scene. Which is why I was so intrigued when Chad Conine, co-creator of WacoFork, purposed we do a blog post chronicling a progressive chain restaurant dinner called “In Defense of Chains”.
My normal knee-jerk reaction to such an idea would be followed by laughter and ridicule, but, truth be told, I had not been to a chain restaurant in so long that I could not remember if maybe the Cheddar Bay Biscuits at Red Lobster were really as good as others make them out to be (spoiler alert: they are not). So only semi-reluctantly, I agreed to participate in the dinner. Mr. Conine set the schedule: Friday, May 13th we would go for appetizers at Chili’s, entrées at Red Lobster, and desserts at Cheddar’s.
Chili’s: Two Triple Dipper™ appetizer platters and a Skillet Queso were ordered. I sampled: the Skillet Queso (a sickly looking brown grainy cheese dip), “house-made” salsa (a bland, soupy excuse for salsa), Boneless Buffalo Wings (overly breaded and sauced), Southwestern Eggrolls (a what-exactly-am-I-eating-here dish that was lukewarm in the center), Chicken Crispers® (there was literally a layer of air between batter and chicken), and Hot Spinach & Artichoke Dip (more a Hot Cheese Dip with a pinch of spinach, hold the artichokes).
Basically, Chili’s started the night reminding me that chain food is exactly what I remembered: frozen, processed food thrown into a deep fat fryer and/or microwave to reheat. It was overly greasy and salty to the point that that was all you could taste. But just in case the appetizers were not already “flavorful” enough, there were three sugary dipping sauces included with each Triple Dipper™. My big takeaway from the appetizer portion of the progressive dinner was that I needed to start drinking copious amounts of water if I wanted to survive the night.
Red Lobster: Before discussing the Cheddar Bay Biscuits, let me state that whenever I discuss my derision for chain restaurants, nine times out of ten people will always retort, “But the [breadsticks, biscuits, salsa, etc.] are so good!” People, when did we start judging a restaurant’s worth on the free filler they set on your table? When did melting butter and basting it onto pre-made Sysco biscuits with garlic salt become a high-water mark for good cooking? All I tasted when I ate the Cheddar Bay Biscuits was exactly that: butter and garlic salt. There was nothing I tasted that justified the mouthwatering lust that people seem to have when discussing these things.
Anyway, for my entrée I ordered the “Create Your Own Feast” with the Wood-Grilled Fresh Salmon and Garlic Shrimp Scampi with a side Caesar salad due to the recommendation of others I was with. The salad was what you would expect from a chain restaurant: goopy dressing coating icy lettuce covered in a bounty of straight from the bag croutons. The Wood-Grilled Fresh Salmon was a competent piece of fish despite the fact that the word fresh is apparently synonymous with previously frozen. If nothing else, I appreciate the salmon didn’t blow my palate out with salt and I could actually kind of taste what I was eating. The same cannot be said about the Garlic Shrimp Scampi. The dish was basically a baking dish filled with small rubbery shrimp swimming in a sea of butter and garlic. Take note chain restaurants: seasoning is supposed to complement your main ingredient, not overpower it and become the main ingredient itself.
Cheddar’s: By the time we reached Cheddar’s for the dessert portion of the night, the mood of the group could only be described as sluggish and bloated. The prospect of more food was daunting. Regardless, we ordered one of each of Cheddar’s three desserts: Apple Pie A La Mode, Hot Fudge Cake Sundae, Cheddar's Legendary Monster Cookie. Despite initial reservations, the table consumed all three desserts swiftly and happily because all three were arguably decent albeit pedestrian.
As far as I can tell, the dessert portion of the progressive dinner faired better than the previous two progressions for two reasons: 1.) Everyone was grateful for the break from all the salt previously ingested, even if the break replaced excessive amounts of salt with excessive amounts of sugar. 2.) Desserts are predicated on a fundamental understanding of excess, so getting an overly sweet and processed dessert is kind of the norm. Even when a local restaurant makes homemade desserts (which is somewhat of a rarity), there will be no lack of sweetness. Sweetness is the center of dessert. The contrast being the Garlic Shrimp Scampi I had earlier, which seemed to believe the center of the dish was butter, garlic, and salt, not shrimp.
Ultimately, that is one of my biggest issues with chain restaurants: there is no integrity to the ingredients or dish. It is sustenance for sustenance sake. There is no skill or art behind what they do. They are basically a distributor reheating and selling an unknown factory’s creation. Conversely, we drove past numerous local restaurants cooking real food during the course of the progressive dinner. Some of them I knew, some of them that I didn’t. Good or bad, I know what is coming out of those kitchens was made in those kitchens. So do yourself a favor the next time you ask “Where do you want to eat?” and consult a website like WacoFork and try something new, something different, something real.
Mr. Conine's Counterpoint
A couple of weeks ago, when I introduced this whole chain restaurant fiasco that we participated in Friday night, I gave three specific examples of chain food items that most, if not all of us have eaten and enjoyed at some point.
Then I suggested that we love our local places so much that we go too far and unnecessarily hate chain restaurants.
I stlll believe that's true, sort of.
Let's say that I knew someone who had never before eaten a hamburger. I could take that person for a burger at Chili's and give him a great example of a hamburger. It might even be slightly better than I could cook on the grill in the backyard. We might also partake in some chips and quaso to get us started and drink a Dr Pepper with dinner. It would be satisfying and tasty.
And that's what I meant when I stated that we dis chain restaurants more than they deserve.
But the above example is not what we did on Friday night. On Friday night, we tackled a 3-course progressive dinner at Chili's, Red Lobster and Cheddar's. It was my idea and it was a fun time spent with good friends. But it was also a monster.
We ended up eating too much food and many of my dinner companions thought it was all very salty. I couldn't argue with them. It was the Frankenstein's monster of dinners.
Not that some of it wasn't pretty tasty. Dessert at Cheddar's was particularly scrumptious and I think everyone at the table found something that they loved. We ordered the chocolate cake sundae, apple pie and a cookie monster, which made for a sweet finish.
However, while none of the rest of the food we ate over the course of the evening was bad — even Mr. Weed's shrimp scampi didn't cause him to gag — none of it was excellent either.
I was with most of these same friends when we ate at Alamo Springs Cafe near Luchenbach a couple of months ago. That day we had a goat cheese-and-garlic appetizer that blew us away. We then ate burgers that pretty much everyone at the table agreed was as good as a cheeseburger could get.
Maybe that has become our standard. Or maybe we shoot for that and judge everything else accordingly.
Either way, I have to concede that Mr. Weed has won this argument.
Chain restaurants have their places, but they can't compete with home grown local.