We found ourselves back at the Mall of America, this time to embark on a jungle safari to the heart of darkness that is the Rainforest Cafe (ranked #27 on our list). This is one of the only themed restaurants on our list (unless you count “depressing mediocrity” as a theme) alongside Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood (which isn’t anywhere near us and thank god for that).
Our safari began right outside host stand #1, next to the alligator misted with fog (this coming right after that kid was killed by a gator at Disneyworld. Too soon, RC).
Once our name had been called, we were directed over to host stand #2, in the shape of an elephant. From there, we were finally led to our table under a twinkling “night sky.”
Food: Some pretty cute nicknames for the food, including Chimi-Cha-Chas. But beyond that, we realized that the food was airport-restaurant level in terms of both price and deliciousness.
John says: Tons of options. Tons of dumb options. Everything was overpriced. This place is clearly for tourists coming in from Brainerd. Or people from suburbs who think this is a great place to have a birthday party. I had a chicken sandwich with rice. The sandwich was fairly blah. But it was better than the catastrophe at Hard Rock Cafe.
Aaron says: I ordered a chicken sandwich, I don’t know why I was expecting something earth shattering, but it was mediocre. I had the “seasonal veggies” as my side, and I guess frozen green beans are in season now.
Sarah says: At a first glance, the menu seemed to offer a nice selection. Upon closer inspection, most menu items seemed unappetizing or overpriced. Usually both. Sandwiches started at about $15. I ordered the Awesome Appetizer Adventure (AAA). The highlight was the chicken strips, which were tasty and had the perfect ratio of crispy breading and tender chicken. Unfortunately, the mozzarella sticks lacked that crucial gooey quality, the chips and guac were so-so, and the artichoke dip and chimi-chachas looked so unappealing to me that I left them to my co-explorers. Still a lot better than the Hard Rock Cafe appetizer sampler (Ed. note: New Rainforest Cafe slogan “It’s not as bad as Hard Rock Cafe!”).
Jenna says: Food was average and overpriced. I ordered the the Jungle Safari Soup – the most notable thing about the soup was that it had the prefect amount of heat. I also participated in the AWESOME APPETIZER ADVENTURE. Nearly identical food items as the disastrous app platter from HRC, however the chicken strips were notably better. The CHIMI-CHA-CHAS tasted like something you’d find in the frozen food section of your local Cub.
Rachel says: Like so many of our other Casual Encounters, my unrefined palate worked in my favor. I ordered the fish tacos (blackened, not fried, at the insistance of our server) and they were fine. I’m trying to be healthier, and fish tacos are a step towards that without me having to be the girl who orders plain oil and vinegar on her garden salad.
Ambience: Boy howdy, does this place have ambience. Mostly in the form of fake rainforest animals (parrots, butterflies) blown up to ridiculous proportions, as if this particular rainforest were located on Three Mile Island. Every 20 minutes, the lights would darken and there would be a “thunderstorm.” We get it, the rainforest is rainy. But this is also a cafe. Find a balance, RC.
John says: Let me tell you a story. A story about 5 friends who chose to take a journey. A journey through the rainforest. Their were dangers afoot everywhere. Tigers, leopards, gorillas, overpriced drinks, and deer sized parrots. Plus, thunderstorms. Timed thunderstorms.
Aaron says: Sh** yeah there was ambiance. We were in a freaking rain forest! 20 minute cycles of thunderstorms and robot animals doing their thing. I especially liked the projector system for the sky. It rotated sunrises and sunsets and had shooting stars zooming around. The only detractor on the ambiance was that it was so loud! Every 20 minutes we’d have to pause our conversations so that the gorillas could do their mating calls.
Jenna says: There was a ton of ambience, I’m just not sure it was the right ambience for someone who gets easily overwhelmed by loud noises/ screeching monkeys and gorillas. Just. Too. Much. However, I’m sure it’s heaven for a 9 year old. Side note: my dad and I got into an argument about whether or not he took us to Rainforest Cafe when we were younger. I said “NO RICK, you DIDN’T. The wait was too long so you to us to HOOTERS instead.” True story, Rick, you can’t hide from your poor choices anymore. I’m throwing in an extra 0.5 points because I not-so-secretly love hearing One Direction playing while I eat (which is probably why I’m single).
Sarah says: My only other visit to the Rainforest Cafe occurred in the mid-90s. I recall the most notable parts of the ambience were the rainforest decor and some light sound effects. My, how things have changed. Welcome to Rainforest cafe 2.0 – which is like that iPhone iOS upgrade that turns out to be more trouble than it’s worth. We were seated near two loud animatronic gorillas who were PISSED and hard to talk over at times. Every so often, the restaurant would grow dark and a “storm” would descend upon us, complete with booming thunder and flashing lightning. It was not the laid back experience I am typically looking for when I choose casual dining.
Rachel says: As expected, a total sh**show. The anamatronic gorillas who insinuated themselves into our conversation reminded me of the Country Bear Jamboree, only less whimsical. The “rainstorm” would be cute for a little kid, but it was just another thing we had to yell over in order to talk with each other. And a big falldown with the fact that the restrooms were NOT on theme. No fake animals on the walls, no jungle sounds, not even a soap dispenser shaped like a frog or something. A massive oversight.
Beverages: It’s important to note a few things when we talk about the chaos that was our beverage order. 1) The Rainforest Cafe has ICEEs served in souvenir cups 2) The Rainforest Cafe has a full bar 3) The Rainforest Cafe does not allow you to put alcohol in one of their souvenir cups. CONUNDRUM. But that didn’t stop our table from laboriously hashing out exactly how we could get some booze into a Coke ICEE. After 10 minutes of decisions, questions, backtracking, and shouting over gorillas, we arrived at a solution: Get the ICEE in a regular glass and get a shot of Jack Daniel’s on the side. Perfection.
John says: Tons of options. Lots of specialty drinks. The server even brought shots for Jenna/Aaron to put in their Icees. AWWWWWWW! Just like mom used to make’em.
Aaron says: Easily the highlight of the trip. Icee machine! I barely have to say more. But I will, because the server offered to bring me a shot of whisky to go with the coke flavored icee. I couldn’t get it in the gorilla sippy cup, that’s crossing the line apparently, but I got it in a glass and poured the shot of whisky into it. Well played RC!
Jenna says: Three words: Jack. Daniel’s. ICEES.
Sarah says: There were ICEEs. In character cups. Need I say more? (Ed. note: Apparently, brevity is the soul of beverage descriptions at the RC). The price (around $9, if I recall correctly), kept this from getting a perfect score.
Rachel says: I ordered a Diet Coke, and then I watched everyone else at the table solve the ICEE+booze problem like it was the final third of “Apollo 13.” It was great.
Service: We seem to be in the middle of a lucky streak, here. Our server was named Earth. At first we thought her name was fake, and that the restaurant had their servers pick rainforest-y names to stick with the theme. Then we saw another server named Katie, and we realized that Earth was our server’s real name. Thankfully, we were all cool enough to not comment on it. Anywho, Earth was an outstanding server who put up with a considerable amount of BS from us at the outset, only to be charmed by us through out the rest of the meal.
John says: Absolutely top-notch service. Our drink orders were complicated. Mostly because of Aaron and Jenna. But to be fair, they always weigh us down. Our server was attentive, quick, funny, and eager to please. Can’t say enough good things.
Aaron says: Can’t complain here. We were worried we’d have spit in our food, but I’m pretty sure the server had more fun with us that the screaming kids that she has to deal with on a daily basis, I’d bet.
Jenna says: Earth was the best server I’ve had in a very long while. Good humored? Check. Able to split checks with ease? Check. Zero flinching when I dropped the F-bomb? Check. Able to handle a fairly complicated drink order and support our (mine and Aaron’s) alcohol habits? CHECK CHECK CHECK. She brought me a birthday dessert AND sang to me even though she clearly knew my birthday was 6 weeks away.
Sarah says: Quick, attentive, and fun! Our server seemed eager to go out of her way to indulge our every whim – whether this was a hankering for a boozey ICEE, a child-like fascination with the Rainforest Cafe characters, or a pretend birthday. When we got high maintenance with some drink orders, she did not appear even a little annoyed. When she noticed how amused I was by my gorilla character cup and the accompanying plastic figurine, she brought me a child menu and crayons so that I could see what the other characters were! How do we keep getting such great servers at such mediocre dining establishments? What if we wind up finding that the lower ranked restaurants actually have the best service? Maybe they have to make up for the mediocrity in other categories by trying extra hard?
Casualosity: This one was a little trickier than most restaurants on the list, because there’s no real rule of thumb about how you’re supposed to dress at a rainforest-themed family eatery. That being said, we can’t imagine there are any overly formal rainforest-themed eateries (maybe in Dubai?), so we can assume a casual nature.
John says: Off the charts casual. I wish I had worn my robe.
Aaron says: Pretty solid on the casualosity side of things. I’d say maybe a little higher class because it’s in the mall? I tried to embrace the title “casual restaurant” by wearing my velvet flip flops. I think it worked.
Jenna says: Anything goes, because there are butterflies the size of monkeys on the walls. Plus it’s the MOA.
Sarah says: A) at the mall, b) gimmicky, c) popular kid destination. In other words, very casual. Only slightly less casual than Chuck E. Cheese’s. However, in my opinion, the intense ambience detracts from the feeling of casualosity.
Cheesecake/dessert: The signature dessert at the Rainforest Cafe is something called a Sparkling Volcano. It’s theoretically only served when it’s your birthday, but since Earth was the sh**, she decided that it was Jenna’s birthday, and Jenna needed a dessert volcano.
John says: Only had one bite of the dessert volcano. Coincidentally, The Dessert Volcano was also my nickname in college.
Aaron says: I didn’t know it was Jenna’s birthday (Ed. note: It wasn’t), but the flaming volcano doesn’t lie (Ed. note: It does). That was tasty along with not-too-terrible cheese cake.
Jenna says: I don’t remember the cheesecake, so that’s saying something (that I went a little too hard on the Jack D ICEE). The chocolate lava cake was pretty good, mostly because it involved sparkers and people singing happy birthday to me.
Sarah says: I ordered the Lava Mud dessert off the kids menu. This was your classic chocolate pudding-oreos-gummy worms concoction. It was a fun throwback to childhood.
Rachel says: The cheesecake was fine, and the presentation was actually pretty impressive. The lava dessert cake stole the show though, despite it being some from-a-mix chocolate cake with plain vanilla ice cream. With the volcano theme, I was hoping for an ooey-gooey molten center of chocolate magma. This was not that.
Best part of the Rainforest Cafe:
John says: The service. Absolutely top notch.
Jenna says: The delightful Earth, our server.
Sarah says: Celebrating with Jenna on her birthday!
Jenna says: The MOA, and seeing so many children in public. I prefer to see children at school, and nowhere else.
Sarah says: Wishing there was something, anything I could do to appease the gorillas so we could converse in relative peace.
Rachel says: Listening to John and Aaron complain about their chicken sandwiches. And the wall gorillas.
Which Rainforest Cafe “Wild Bunch” animal are you?
John says: Ozzie the orangutan. I am just such a wild card
Jenna says: Definitely Tracy the Tree, in the gift shop. Tracy doesn’t give a sh**.
Sarah says: In reality, probably Ozzie the orangutan. But I aspire to be more like Maya the jaguar. While the rest of the RC animals lost their sh** on the regular, Maya appeared to be calm, collected, and amused. I’ll have what Maya’s having.
Rachel says: Probably Nile, the crocodile with a “large appetite for fun.” And by “fun,” I usually mean “nachos.”
Next up, Casual Encounters takes a road trip to Milwaukee for two restaurants no longer in the Twin Cities metro: California Pizza Kitchen and Carraba’s. Road trip, woooooooo!