Dining Well in the Surrounding Community

Our March Casual Encounter was at the most stereotypical of casual dining establishments, Applebee’s. If Olive Garden is the sanitized version of Italian food, Applebee’s is the sanitized version of already-sanitized food. Despite their recent to commitment to sophisiticaed tastes (like “wood-fired grill” menu items), Applebee’s is still the most convenient shorthand for the restaurant we, as overly-self-aware hipsters, love to disdain. Though the restaurant cracks the top 10 on our list (#10, to be precise), we were prepared for disappointment. And we were not disappointed in…being disappointed. We were disappointed, is what we’re saying.

[Ed. note: Jenna and Sarah dined with us as well, but they couldn’t be bothered to send in their comments or ratings in a timely fashion. They are henceforth considered “on notice” though no real consequences exist.]

Food: 

The hot deal at hand was the 2 for $20 promotion, where you choose an appetizer and two entrees off of a limited menu for, you guessed it, $20. Many of us had the brilliant, if less-than-classy, idea of ordering that promotion with the intention of eating one entree at the restaurant and bringing the other home for a future meal. [In fact, Olive Garden does something similar to this on occasion but calls a spade a spade, explicitly saying that one entree is for now and one is for later. Another in the Win column for OG.] Others of us ordered a la carte, like regular people. All of us experience similar levels of mediocrity.

John says: 3/5 of the table went for the 2 for $20 meal. That’s just prudent planning. I ordered a caprese burger with fries as well as the three cheese chicken cavatappi. I ate the burger as my dinner. IT WAS TERRIBLE. It came absolutely loaded with onions which  was disgusting. The cavatappi the next day was really good. 

John, right before the burger in front of him brought untold disappointment

Aaron says: Several of us thought that it was a good idea to get the 2-for-$20 deal.  It turned out to be a GREAT idea.  Except that the food was pretty sh***y.  For the appetizer, I got the boneless wings.  They were pretty good, but I have to think they are not that hard to f*** up, so I’m not going to give them too much credit on that one.  I got the rib tips for my dine-in option.  They were bad.  Real bad.  I couldn’t tell if they were super charred or just mostly bones.  For my second entrée, I got chicken tenders, figuring that they’d be good to reheat for lunch the next day.  I toasted them up in my little toaster oven and they were great.

Rachel says: As per usual, I married value with flavor and got the 2 for $20 special, just like John and Aaron. I went with the hard-to-mess-up chicken fingers for my dine-in entree, and the Fiesta Lime Chicken for my to-go entree. My chicken fingers were very tasty, and the fries weren’t bad either. I do think they skimped on portion sizes, even though the menu specifically states that the promo comes with “full-sized entree.” I didn’t get to try the Fiesta Chicken because my husband was hungry later that night and I offered it to him, because I love him/I’m a sucker. Anyway, he said it was good.

Keep it simple, stupid.

Food rating:

Beverages:

John says: I tried to order a hurricane. Apparently I request extremely difficult drinks because their bartender couldn’t make it. [Ed. note: Bartenders know that Google exists, right?] It was the Sevyron situation at Ruby Tuesday all over again. I amended and got a boring ol whiskey ginger after that.

Aaron says: Limited selection of tap beers.  Mostly national big brands.  But, beer is beer?

Rachel says: They have Pepsi products, so I stuck with water. The water tasted a little funny, maybe Roseville’s water treatment plant is a little more lax or something. I did think it was BS that John’s ginger ale refills weren’t free.

Beverages rating:

Service: 

This casual encounter brought us a level of service more in line with general expectations surrounding casual dining. Our server was polite and somewhat attentive, but dead behind the eyes. Either the Roseville Applebee’s was her first career stop, or her last…

John says: I am struggling to remember our server’s name which should say something. She didn’t do a good job of checking in often enough. Also, she recommended the Caprese burger which is a major flaw. I miss Earth.

Aaron: Our service was a little lackluster.  The server seemed to avoid us for long periods.  On the plus side, they did keep our to-go orders in back for us until we were ready to leave.

Rachel says: Sophia was very nice, but bland; there wasn’t much going on behind her eyes. My guess is she was tired, or an android. She also had perfectly smooth skin, which puts one in the “android” column as well. In any case,  she was patient with us during our 2 for $20 ordering frenzy, was pretty on the ball about refills and checking in, and ran our checks herself instead of making us do it on the Ziosk knockoff that was at our table.

Service rating:

Ambiance:

Four words: Stuff on the walls.

John says: Again, Applebee’s is known for stuff on their walls and they didn’t disappoint. The most prominent things were the various high schools nearby and all the accolades they’ve won. Congrats Timmy! You won your JV baseball game, let’s go to Applebee’s to celebrate. Terrible parenting.

Rachel says: It was oddly dark where we were sitting. It kind of felt like I was reading the menu by candlelight. The “stuff-on-the-walls” aesthetic had a Minnesota bent to it (e.g. a photo of the State Fair Grandstand) which was a nice, if basic, touch. Our table had 6 seats, but felt pretty squished. There were plenty of TVs so Aaron could watch hockey players beat the crap out of each other.

Ambiance rating: cheesecakes

Casulosity:

Despite their pathetic attempt at being more gourmet (see: Wood-fired grill explanation above), Applebee’s remains staunchly casual.

John says: We were seated in the bar area which is not ideal for me. Also, the table was entirely too cramped for 5 people. The stuff on the Rosedale Applebee’s walls was as great as ever.

Aaron says: Still being early in the spring, I opted not to wear my velvet flip flops.  I did however wear my crocs

Rachel says: Quite casual. Aaron wore Crocs instead of velvet flip flops, so our methodology is skewed this time, but I’d argue that Crocs are even more casual than VFFs.

Casulosity rating: cheesecakes

Dessert:

Our group had to call an audible and order something else when we learned that no cheesecake (in regular or shooter form) was available. We went with that age-old axiom: When in doubt, order something with “molten” in the title.

John says: No cheesecake available. I was already so full from my shitty burger that I barely wanted to have dessert anyway. But I (we) soldiered on. We ordered the Triple Chocolate Meltdown which is engorged with sugar. And it was great.

Aaron says: Truly saving the best for last. Not only did the triple chocolate cake not have cinnamon, but it was also delicious.

Rachel says: The highlight of the meal. We shared the molten chocolate cake, and it was fantastic. Molten-y, chocolatey perfection. I wish we’d ordered two (maybe that was the pregnancy talking, but probably not).

  Dessert – before
Dessert – after

Dessert rating:

Favorite part:

John says: Celebrating Rachel’s last casual dining encounter before the baby is born.

Aaron says: Being savvy diners and getting the 2-for-$20 for ourselves.

Rachel says: That dessert, and feeling like I made out better than my dining companions by sticking to the basics. 

Least favorite part:

John says: Onions.

Aaron says: Generally not good food.

Rachel says: The disappointment of everyone else at their entrees. I could feel their pain.

Overall rating:

Next up: Red Lobster!

Inna Garden Olive-A, Baby

For our February Encounter, we eschewed lower-ranking restaurants for #12 on our list, one of the most quintessential casual dining options available: The Olive Garden.

Many of us remember the OG as the “nice” restaurant growing up, mostly because it has cloth napkins instead of paper. When you’re a kid, that just screams luxury. Also, unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks [Ed. note: Doesn’t scream luxury, but still very important].

We had not one but two special guest appearances at this encounter: Helen (Rachel’s mom) joining us for her second encounter, and Rick and Cathy (Jenna’s parents). And, like everyone else who is related to/friends with the members of our group, they viewed our choice of dining establishment with a mix of amusement and resignation. “Your little club is going to where? Well, ok. It’s up to you.”

The Olive Garden is one of the ur-casual dining restaurants. It’s often used as a stand-in for anything pedestrian/country bumpkin-y, right alongside Applebee’s. Does Olive Garden care? No. Olive Garden is ok with being your punchline, because it’s too busy serving unlimited breadsticks to your Aunt Carol to pay any mind. “Joke all you want,” Olive Garden says. “You know you secretly love us.”

Serious faces, serious dining.

Food:

Everyone is familiar with the OG’s brand of “Italian.” Even if you’ve never eaten there, you can take a guess at the general flavor profile and you’d be about 90% correct. Salt+sugar+fat+starch=Mangia! Olive Garden is basic in the best way. 

Rachel says: Just like my visit to Ruby Tuesday, I came in with a strategy: Fill up on the included salad and breadsticks, and save most of my entrée for lunch the next day. This worked swimmingly, and y’all were suckers if you didn’t do the same. The breadsticks could have used more buttery topping, but that didn’t stop me from eating like four, and bringing home another four to accompany said leftovers. I had the Tour of Italy, which is lasagna plus fettucine alfredo plus chicken parmesan. My leftovers reheated beautifully and were the envy of everyone within smelling distance of my cubicle. Helen also commented on how fresh the lettuce for the salad was.

A tour of Italy. a very fattening tour.

Aaron says: I had the Giro d’Italia, aka the Tour of Italy. The Giro d’Italia is also the name of a bike race in Italy, so now I sound fancy. It was good. I made two full meals out of the leftovers by borrowing Rachel’s strategy of filling up on the salad and breadsticks.

Aaron taking his tour of Italy (with his mouth)

John says: I had the Chianti braised beef with gnocchi. My steak was cooked perfectly. The grilled zucchini that came with it was super odd.

Jenna says: Spaghetti and meatball flavor explosion! I went basic and it tasted as good as Cathy’s. And Cathy is a damn good cook. Also their salad is like a familiar hug. In your mouth.

Food rating: 

Beverages:

Nothing too exceptional here. They do try to class up the joint with a wine list, but that wine list definitely includes a cheap white zinfandel, so it ends up being a zero-sum situation.

Rachel says: I treated myself to a club soda with a lime. #lifestylesoftherichandfamous

John says: The white zin was zintastic!

Jenna says: Can’t go wrong with red wine.

Beverages rating:

Service:

Our normal casual encounters occur on off nights, like Tuesdays. This trip, however, was during prime time aka 7:30pm on a Saturday, in St Louis Park aka one of the Twin Cities’ hottest suburbs. Also, our night started off being taken care of some kind of server-in-training, who was quickly elbowed to the side by a seasoned pro who handled our table seemingly effortlessly.

Rachel says: The trainee was named Helen, which is also my mom’s name! At least one full minute of our experience was spent with the two of them talking about how their names were both Helen. Olive Garden, where surprises abound. Carmen, our main waiter, was efficient and pleasant, but not super friendly. Given the circumstances (large group, busy night) I don’t blame her, though.

John says: Very good service! We got double-teamed by two servers: Helen (not Levitt) and Carmen. And it was spectacular.

Aaron says: Attentive water refills. Sort of long waits for other things. There were two servers, but they didn’t coordinate or communicate very well.

Jenna says: Double the pleasure, double the fun! Both of our servers were highly attentive and friendly (even more impressive since we were a rowdy, slightly annoying crew).

Service rating:

Ambiance:

Since ours was a relatively large group, we were seated in our own private alcove. Very VIP.

Private dining!

Rachel: It’s both weird and comforting that the late 80s/early 90s color palate of cream, dusty rose and green lives on admirably inside each and every Olive Garden. When faux greenery hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s casual dining.

John says: I have always liked the atmosphere at the OG. Faux Italian bistro vibes are my jam.

Jenna says: Every OG looks the same. By the same, I mean like the dining room of a villa in Tuscany.

Ambiance rating:

Casualosity:

For most of us dining that night, and for many people outside of the Casual Encounters team, the Olive Garden was the “classy” restaurant you went to for special occasions. Probably because of the cloth napkins and “frescoes” adorning the walls. As with any childhood association, it’s hard to shake, and the casualosity rating suffered as a consequence.

Rachel says: Still the vibe of a place that’s a little nicer than your average restaurant. I think their strategy is great; they’ve differentiated themselves from other casual dining establishments by making themselves seem just a tad more formal. I don’t know about a date night here, but a birthday dinner would feel right at home.

John says: The classiest joint we’ve been to so far. I need to dine here more often.

Aaron says: A little too fancy. Might need to visit again in warmer weather so I can wear my velvet flip flops and put the casualosity to the test.

Jenna says: I’ve spent many a family birthday celebration at the OG and we’ve “dressed up,” so, not so casual.

Casualosity rating:

Dessert/cheesecake:

Usually, by the end of an OG experience, you’re too full from the salad and breadsticks to venture into dessert territory. But we soldiered on, honoring the commitment we made at the outset of this adventure. Some of us even got things that weren’t tiramisu, because we’re adventurous like that.

Rachel: I went for the black tie mousse cake, aka the only cheesecake on the menu, because I take this s**t seriously. Also, it’s like three desserts in one: Cake, cheesecake, and mousse. Delicious! I was even in a good enough mood to share, which is saying something.

John says: I had three mini-desserts, obviously the best way to do dessert.

Aaron says: Truly saving the best for last. Not only did the tiramisu not have cinnamon, but it was also delicious.

Jenna says: I’m such an a**hole, I can’t even remember.

So….full…

Dessert rating:

Favorite part:

Aaron says: Sarah flipping out over her love for hollow pasta. And getting to dine with the Weisser clan and Helen!

Rachel says: That the food was exactly how I remember it. And getting lunch out of it for the next day.

John says: So many guests! Cathy, Rick, and Helen. Fargo was crazy repped.

Jenna says: We got to dine in our own private room! And our parents were there!

Least favorite part:

Rachel says: The temp in our alcove got a little high, and I was uncomfortably warm for most of our meal. Not the best environment for eating a bunch of carbs.

John says: Ziosk. F the Ziosk hard, right in the A.

Aaron says: Another Ziosk, that little bastard. Quit it with the gimmicks!

Jenna says: Honestly, I can’t think of anything. This was a super fantastic casual dining experience. Two very enthusiastic thumbs up; fine holiday fun!

Overall rating: 

It Was the Breast of Times

Ed. note: More than one person threatened to leave the group if the post did not have this exact title. 

Often in our noble pursuit of casual dining excellence, we are called upon to visit an establishment that is, in principle, distasteful and unfortunate (see: Old Country Buffet). But almost as often, we are pleasantly surprised by said establishment in one way or another. You know what they say about assumptions, and ours were proven right and also wrong when we visited that most notorious casual (b)re(a)staurant, Hooters.

Like a few others on our list, the last remaining MN location of this chain is at the Mall of America. We wouldn’t say that it’s getting less annoying to go to the MOA for these types of visits, but the griping by our group has gotten considerably quieter. Duty calls.

Food:

Hooters’s brand is divided cleanly between two key identifiers: Boobies and chicken wings. We’ll get to the first one later. The second one showed up early and often on the menu in various forms. (Come to think of it, the first one also showed up early and often…)

John says: The loaded tots were fine. My bone(r)less wings were excellent, spicy but flavorful.

Sarah says: The Lotsa Totes were perfectly fried – crispy on the outside, nice consistency on the inside. Just the right amount of toppings. my Chicken strips were a little bland and dry [Ed. note: She ordered the sauce on the side, so take her opinion with a grain of chicken] but the buffalo and ranch sauces were good.

Lotsa Tots(a)s.

Jenna says: The evening began with a Lots-A-Tots appetizer. Warm, bacon-topped, crispy, creamy. These tots were REAL good. I went into this Casual Encounter with the lowest of expectations, like on par with OCB, and with this appetizer we were off to a delicious start! I ordered a chicken taco salad, and it was….fine. And that’s okay! Because tots.

Rachel says: I, too, was pleasantly surprised by the freshness and deliciousness of the food. Things came out quickly, but not suspiciously quickly. I had the fried chicken tacos for my entree, which were exactly what you’d expect and there’s nothing wrong with that. They were good! The chicken was somehow missing the coating of buffalo sauce I’d ordered. I didn’t feel like sending it back, so I availed myself of both Sarah’s side-sauce and the bottle of hot sauce on the table, and it worked out. Their fries are unseasoned curly fries, which rank as a Top 5 fry form (say that five times fast) for yours truly.

Hooters tacos. Not pictured, or served: Wing sauce.

Food rating:

Beverages:

No suggested pairings a la Red Robin, but a decent selection, as well as Coke products.

John says: I got the “Pink Passion.” It was sufficiently flavorless but full of booze. Everybody wins!

Sarah says: Coors Light on special – just what I want at an establishment such as this. Super casual!

Jenna says: My Summit was ICE cold.

Beverages rating:

Service:

If there’s one thing people know about Hooters, it’s the servers. Our table had a lively discussion about hiring practices (legality, etc) as well as uniform requirements (e.g. servers are required to wear pantyhose no matter what), when we weren’t making purposeful eye contact with our server Naomi. She’s a human being who deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, folks. Eyes up here.

John says: Naomi was attentive and nice. Didn’t check in often enough, though. Mild disappointment.

Sarah says: Naomi was friendly and was very accommodating when I asked for two dipping sauces. Her recommendations for dessert were clutch.

Jenna says: Naomi was super casual. Like sit-down-at-the-table-while-she-took-our-orders casual. And also one of the friendlier servers we’ve had. Gave a nice intro, and was quick to make recommendations on the menu. 

Rachel says: Naomi was very friendly and helpful with our ordering, especially when it came to dessert. It’s a tricky thing to be as woke as we are when visiting a restaurant known for scantily clad servers, but we navigated the “where do we look?” admirably. 

Service rating:

Ambiance:

This Hooters was nestled in a recently renovated part of the MOA, so everything seemed shiny and new. The setting is a typical sports bar, jazzed up with lots of orange and sometimes camouflage(?) accents.

John says: So many TVs with sports! For it being th eMOA, it was surprisingly quiet. 

Sarah says: I kind of like the TVs here. None of them had the sound on and they’re just enough to keep your attention without being distracting. #thatssohooters

Jenna says: Very dude heavy clientele means posters of Hooters girls on the walls. And SO many TVs. The TVs sucked me in man, I couldn’t stop watching. I don’t even know what was on, probably SPORTS. 

Rachel says: Even as a non-sports person, I appreciated the placement and abundance of TVs. I thought to myself that my husband might enjoy watching basketball games here, before I realized that proposing a date night at a Hooters might not be advisable. [Ed. note: Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it.]

Ambiance rating:

Aaron surveys our bounty, mouth full of wonder and also food.

Casualosity:

John says: Most casual restaurant we’ve been to yet. And it wasn’t because of the lax clothing policy.

Sarah says: I wore my “nice” sweatpants and Naomi complimented me on them!

Jenna: A revelation was made at Hooters by the Casual Encounters team: This might be the most casual experience thus far. You might be thinking, wait, isn’t Old Country Buffet peak causualosity? I mean, I could have easily got away with not paying at OCB, that’s pretty causal. But at OCB I saw people wearing nice church clothes. Naomi literally commented on how awesome Sarah’s sweat pants were. Sweat pants. At dinner. Also they used carts to clear plates, c’monnnnn. 

Casualosity rating:

Dessert:

Our dessert course was Naomi’s time to shine. First, she told us that there were mini “shooters” to be had. Then, she steered us towards the good ones and away from the bad ones (for the most part). The desserts themselves had their ups and downs. We got three kinds of shooters: Chocolate mousse, strawberry cheesecake, and cinnamon apple (sorry Aaron).

John says: We ordered several dessert shooters, which sounds so sexy, but it wasn’t. The chocolate mousse was really good! I went home happy. 

Sarah says: OMG the chocolate shooter was my favorite dessert we’ve had so far! Apple was the worst.

Her enthusiasm is genuine.

Jenna says: Chocolate mousse shooters???? YES YES YES. The cheesecake shooters, not so much. The berries tasted like cough syrup.

Rachel says: My god do I love some mini desserts, but these were tragically hit-or-miss for me. The cinnamon apple one was literally Mott’s applesauce layered with graham cracker crumbs. The cheesecake and its accompanying strawberry sauce clearly came from a can. Edible, but generic to the point of insulting. The chocolate mousse one was good, but I moved too slowly on ordering and only got to try someone else’s instead of having one all to myself. Big mistake, according to the rest of the table. 

Dessert rating:

Favorite part:

John says: The server complimenting Sarah’s sweatpants.

Sarah says: Naomi’s dessert recommendation!

Jenna says: Having a very lovely Thursday evening at Hooters in the MOA, of all places! Also discovering the “right” kind of casual. 

Rachel says: The surprise of the evening’s overall pleasantness. I was truly dreading this encounter, but my expectations were flipped upside down by the food and service.

Least favorite part:

John says: Being in the MOA.

Sarah says: John Ward trying ot waste my flava when I got excited about something. Not cool, John. 

Jenna says: The water in the bathroom was scaldingly hot. Rachel will probably say I was just too lazy to turn on the cold water. Whatevs.

Rachel says: The desserts, or maybe just my choice of desserts. Also, learning that a close friend of mine doesn’t understand how mixing cold water with hot water makes the water less hot. 

Overall rating: 

Next up: Olive Garden!

Going Up On A Ruby Tuesday

This post is going to be brief for two reasons: 1) This casual encounter was right before the holidays kicked into high gear so people were less motivated to report their comments and 2) Our entire dining experience was relatively unremarkable. There were some high points, a few low points, but overall things hewed pretty close to normal. Hey, they can’t all be a wild and crazy ride, right?

For this Casual Encounter with #14 on our list, we ventured to one of the remaining Ruby Tuesday locations in Minnesota, in Roseville (arguably the best suburb, though some debate that accolade (Jenna)).

Food:

Ruby Tuesday’s signature feature is their Garden Bar, a small but relatively well-curated salad bar that is available as an add-on with most entrees. Jenna bemoaned the lack of chickpeas, for some reason. She may be in the pocket of some kind of legume cartel, for all we know. But what we know for sure is that the journalistic integrity of Casual Encounters will never be compromised by any individual member’s relationship to Big Garbanzo.

Aaron says: Despite the several chicken sandwich options, I went with a similarly boring and probably disappointing pasta dish.  The California primavera, with grilled vegetables and a basil/olive oil sauce.  Shockingly, nothing to write home about, but I did leave full and reasonably satisfied.

John says: I went back to the old staple: Chicken. Specifically the Smoky Mountain Chicken. The chicken was cooked perfectly and the sauce that accompanied it was great. Had a bit of cheese in it too. Which is always nice.

Rachel says: Two words: Garden Bar. Because of this, I am a ride-or-die fan of Ruby Tuesday. There were some mild shortcomings in my experience this time around (some of the fixings were running low when I was there; the cucumbers were inexplicably diced instead of sliced into coins), but overall it’s a highlight to get both an entree (chicken) and a few trips to the salad bar. I barely touched my entree and instead made several trips to the G-Bar, leaving my entree to take home for lunch the next day. That’s called value. 

Rachel’s chicken. Not pictured: Several plates of salad, smug satisfaction.

Food rating: 

Beverages:

We were seated at a table near the bar, which means we were left in the capable 19-year-old(?) hands of a man-bun named Sevyron (pronunciation: man-bun). Sevyron knew how to pour giant beers. Sevyron did not know what a hot toddy was.

John says:  Ordered a hot toddy. They server (also the bartender) didn’t know how to make it. We all found this to be odd since he’s, ya know, a bartender. And a hot toddy is just about the easiest drink to make. We told him how to make it and he did. It was fine.

Aaron says: Sort of like “Supersize Me,” I had (didn’t really have to) to order the mega beer after the server asked if I wanted the regular or large sized beer.  Maybe I should make a documentary about our casual encounters (of the food kind) and always get the biggest beer [Ed. note: Sure, why not, you sad lush.]? Regardless, the 32oz pilsner sufficiently numbed any inhibitions I had about Ruby Tuesday.  I was disappointed I couldn’t peer pressure Jenna into also getting a mega-beer. 

Rachel says: My Diet Coke was served in a mug. Maybe they didn’t want me feeling left out from all the large beers. That’s nice.

Beverages rating:

Service:

John says: Started out a bit rough but Sevyron (yes that was his name) eventually upped his game. He was attentive but not overly so. Only slip up was the hot toddy issue.

Aaron says: Todd the server, who’s real name was something with an S, was good, not great.  Minus points for not knowing what a hot toddy was, but bonus points for figuring it out and making one! [Ed. note: Great attitude, Aaron. This is like reading a high five.]

Rachel says: I agree with John. Sevyrude started out weak but grew on me. He asked if my entree was ok (since I’d barely touched it), but when I explained to him my strategy of filling up on the Garden Bar and taking it home, he seemed confused but not annoyed. Many other servers would be annoyed, but not Stuyvusant.

Service rating:

Casualosity: 
John says: Totally casual. The Roseville Ruby Tuesday is tucked into the mall. You could shop to your heart’s delight and then eat. If you want. Or whatever, it’s your shopping trip. Stop hassling me.

Aaron says: Pretty high on the casualosity scale.  I didn’t break out the flip flops on account of the December-in-Minnesota tundra that had settled in for the holidays.  I wonder if there wasn’t the influx of tired shoppers if it would have given off a classier vibe?  My sources point to no. 

Rachel says: I don’t think any restaurant with a salad bar can rank below, like, a 3 on the casualosity scale.

Aaron tries his hardest to emote over a plate of average pasta.

Casualosity rating:

Ambiance:Some mall restaurants transport the diner away from the hustle and bustle of the shopping experience (see: Our #1 ranking, The Cheesecake Factory). Some don’t. This falls into the latter category.

John says: Fairly bland. Not much in the way of cool stuff on the wall. However, it’s clear that Ruby Tuesday is probably on its way out of business. They’ve already closed a bunch of locations nationwide. The mats on the table clearly hadn’t been cleaned in a while. There was chipped drywall and paint. So, not that awesome. 1.5 cheesecakes.

Aaron says: If you like run-down, family restaurants at the mall, with peeling, grungy wall paper, this place is for you.  Just don’t look under the table cloth.  There’s no way they clean or sanitize under there.

Rachel says: I didn’t really notice the ambiance one way or another. That’s on me. But that doesn’t reflect well on it, does it? 

Ambiance rating:

Dessert/cheesecake:

John says: we ordered 2 desserts to share between 5 people. Which is good because I was feeling bloated AF. The cheesecake was good but not up to the standards of the OCB cheesecake. We tried their featured dessert, a blueberry lemon cake, which was exceptional. I am usually not a huge lemon person, unless it’s a lemon party (I dare the editor to link lemon party [Ed. note: No way, our coworkers read this.]). 

Aaron says: Lemon confectioneries are my favorite (see discussion on lemon pledge flavored frozen custard).  I made sure to order the Blueberry Lemon Cake, and Rachel let me because when I actually get excited about something, it must be a big deal.  If warm lemon cake with ice cream on top covered in blueberries is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

Rachel says: Aaron rarely displays emotion beyond a shrug, so when he voiced his strong preference for this lemon bundt cake, I knew we had to make his dream come true. Luckily for the rest of us, it was a warm and delicious treat. I would have never ordered it myself, but the beauty of our group is trying new things. The cheesecake was fine, but didn’t stand out.

Baked by angels, eaten by humans.

Dessert rating:

Favorite part:
John says: teaching a bartender to make a hot toddy.

Aaron says: Holiday cheer with friends! And the lemon cake, obvi.

Rachel says: Multiple trips to the salad bar. And the exchange during which John ordered a hot toddy and confusion ensued. Our group learned a lesson about assumptions (i.e. assuming a bartender knew how to make a drink), and Sevyron learned how to make a hot toddy. Everyone won.

Least favorite part:
John says: Not singing the Rolling Stones song together.

Aaron says: Gross table cloths, grandma’s old wall paper reincarnated at a mall restaurant.

Rachel says: Parking in the wrong part of the mall and having to sprint through the JC Penney to get to the restaurant. I was still late.

Overall rating:

Our next outing: We’re heading to (gulp) the Mall of America to eat at (double gulp) Hooter’s. Yep.

Red Robin: Meh!

This year, before we gave thanks at Thanksgiving, we gave thanks at Red Robin (#2 on our list). Why such a high-ranked restaurant when we have so many others (e.g. Hooters, Golden Corral) to go? Because it was John’s birthday, and no one puts Birthday John in a corner.

Red Robin’s slogan for years has been simply “Yum!” That’s a lot of eggs to put in one specific basket. It’s not folksy like “Eatin’ good in the neighborhood” or even “When you’re here, you’re family,” which leaves some room for interpretation. It essentially translates to “Our food is unequivocally delicious, don’t @ me.” Unfortunately, our high hopes were dashed by the overall mediocrity of the experience. Red Robin, we’ll see you in court for false advertising. The court of public opinion, that is.

Food:

Red Robin is known for their burgers. Their menu features a dizzying variety of options for ground beef on white bread, including steakhouse-y options (portobello mushrooms, blue/bleu cheese) and food-that’s-a-dare options like the “Buzz Mac n Cheese Tavern Double.” There are also fish entrees and salads, because sure. Their other signature is the inclusion of bottomless fries with all burgers. But because everyone in our group is an adult with an awareness that actions have consequences, we didn’t push ourselves to really give this privilege the workout it deserves.

Jenna says: This was my second visit to Red Robin. My first was in Colorado (the birth place of RR) and I have zero recollection of the food. And now I know why! I went with the mushroom and swiss burger, and they broke the #1 rule of cooking, which is season your meat. I’m pretty sure it was a frozen patty they just threw on the grill without even thinking of sprinkling a little salt and pepper. So disappointing. While enjoying a burger this past weekend at JL Beers (shoutout to this Fargo-based gem), I was reminded of what a burger should taste like: salty, gooey warm cheese (also John Ward’s nickname in college), a perfectly toasted bun. Maybe I’m being a bit critical, but no I’m not.

John says: Two words: not good. I got the A1 peppercorn burger. Overcooked and flavorless. The fries were perfectly mediocre.

Rachel says: I had high hopes for my first visit to RR because of John’s initial ranking, and also because the people who photograph burgers for menus seriously deserve Pulitzers for how good they end up looking. But my burger was just ok. I added some equivalent of McDonald’s special sauce on the side, which was good. But like Jenna said, SALT AND PEPPER YOUR BURGER. It’s not hard, people. I was, however, genuinely impressed by the number of “bottomless” options available*. Not just fries, oh no; you could get bottomless salad or bottomless slaw. Not that I did. But I could have if I’d wanted to.

*[Ed. note: Bend over and I’ll give you a number of bottomless options…]

Jenny says: I grew up with Red Robin in Colorado and have always loved their food. Maybe it’s the nostalgia that I loved ’cause now I can see the food ain’t so good. The Blue Ribbon burger I had was unappealing. The only thing I enjoyed were the mozzarella sticks but I might be the only one. The were crisp and cheesy. 

Aaron says: I was excited by the fried appetizers that Jenny took the liberty of ordering. Mozz sticks and onion rings ftw. The crispy fried onions on my burger were nice, too. 

Food rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake

Beverages:

The most notable thing about the beverage selection was that RR went out of its way to suggest beer pairings for several of their burgers. A nice idea in theory, but really, who gives a s***.

Jenna says: Here’s where Red Robin redeems itself! Decent beer selection (which if you bill yourself as a gourmet brew spot, should be a given ).

John says: I went out on a limb and tried a new beer. AND…I can’t remember what it was. I know that I barely finished it. Disappointing. [Ed note: That’s hardly the restaurant’s fault, but I’ll allow it.]

Jenny says: I went with the suggestion beer pairing of Guinness. It was fine. I remember their shakes to be delicious but I didn’t want to overindulge.

Aaron says: In case you were wondering, Coors Light pairs nicely with the Crispy Arctic Cod.

It does.
It does.

Beverages rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake

Ambience:

The decor and vibe left us confused. An odd mix of burger-themed art and also framed comic book covers? Our guess is that the franchise owner was given some, but not a ton, of free reign over the decor, and went with “Low Budget Fuddrucker’s on Steroids.”

Jenna says: Decor was a mishmash of food art meets sports art. Weird.

Jenny says: I liked the framed “art”. It was amusing trying to figure out a theme (burgers? hunger? introspection?).

John says: Food themed art: Check. Random sports stuff: Check. Odd table arrangements: Check. Everything was in its place. EXCEPT that it was dirty everywhere. The serving area had stuff everywhere. The bathroom was messy. Not cool Double R.

Rachel says: Not quite retro, not quite modern, not quite whimsical. Poke fun of Fuddruckers’ faux-50s aesthetic, but at least they’re consistent. I did appreciate the cute ladyburger (aka a burger with a headbow on it a la Ms PacMan) denoting which was the women’s restroom.

Ambience rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake

Service:

As mentioned in previous reviews, our group has been continually surprised by the caliber of Casual Dining servers. Not this time. Not only was our server not up to snuff, but we also saw the return of our dreaded enemy, the Ziosk.

You go straight to hell.
You go straight to hell.

Jenna says: While our server was super cheerful, she might have been the worst service-wise thus far in the Casual Encounters challenge. I asked her for water. She forgot. Asked for mustard. She forgot. ALSO IT’S A BURGER RESTAURANT AND THEY DON’T KEEP MUSTARD ON THE TABLE. And the Ziosk f-ed up my bill. 

John says: Meh, I think our winning streak has ended. Our server was below average. She was personable enough but didn’t stop often. FFS, they had a Ziosk station to pay with. SO DUMB. 

Jenny says: Yikes. Our server started out attentive but we must have not entertained her enough. We never received refills. She missed some requests. Then she was nowhere to be found near the end. 

Aaron says: ZIOSK DOES NOT MEAN YOU DON’T HAVE TO WAIT ON US! F***that thing. Not enough refills, no mustard, didn’t ask if I wanted another beer.  Got our orders right, for the most part. 

Rachel says: This server’s fall from grace was swift and complete. Inattentive and forgetful. I had to actively flag her down to get another Diet Coke, and she didn’t bother to ask anyone else at the table if other refills were required. You could chalk it up to youthful inexperience (she reminded me of several camp counselors I had in my childhood), but I don’t want to. 

Service rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Casualosity: 

Usually, burger places are a bastion of casualosity. But our group got mixed signals from Red Robin. Some classic elements, like games for kids, were present. Other elements spoke to a desire to make things more “adult” and classy. Is anyone headed to a Shoreview, MN, for a classy burger experience? Maybe those who were staying in the adjacent Hilton Garden Inn? Overall, though, it couldn’t escape its true nature: A slightly grubby burger place with football on TV.

Jenna says: Food art meets sports are means high marks for casualosity. 

Jenny says: It was a lot more casual when  was growing up. Now Red Robin has tried to upscale for the 30 somethings. No more baskets of food. Now we get large, metal napkin holders that contain a nest of fries. There were kid games on chalkboards and trivia to play, so that upped the casual points. 

John says: Red Robin really shines there. I would have felt comfortable coming wearing just a robe. But, alas I don’t own one. 

Rachel says: The vertical serving of the fries in a stainless steel cup spoke to less casualosity. The vertical serving of the onion rings like one of these things spoke to more casualosity. An uneven performance.

Pictured: Metal cup of fries, because elegance.
Pictured: Metal cup of fries, because elegance.

Casualosity rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake

Desserts/cheesecake:

This is one of the only times in our Casual Encounter career where cheesecake was an option but we didn’t get it. Maybe it was the fatigue that came after a mediocre meal that led us astray from our mission. Maybe it was John’s frantic insistence that we get the “Towering Doh Rings!” aka a tower of donuts (again with the vertical presentation!). Whatever the case may be, we didn’t get cheesecake. Our assumption is that we didn’t miss anything by doing so.

John says: They had a tower of donuts that one can order. I made that happen. Even God didn’t want me to continue to eat. But I showed her. 

Jenna says: While they did have cheesecake on the menu, it was John’s birthday celebration and he insisted on the donut tower. I think they were good, but I honestly cannot remember how good, so they were probably not that good. However, Aaron and I shared a Bailey’s-Guinness-chocolate shake that brought the house down.

Jenny says: By dessert time, I wasn’t in the mood to eat any more. Not because I was full; I just didn’t want to eat any more Red Robin food. And John kept pushing for a pile of donuts which sounded so gross to me. I tried one dipped in some kind of fake fruit sauce and wasn’t too impressed. I think John was happy though.

Rachel says: These weren’t so much donuts as they were fried dough nuggets. Now, I know that donuts are all technically just fried dough, but through the powers of science, they are often able to transcend these humble beginnings to become so much more. Not at Red Robin. These donuts were chewy, which isn’t really something you look for in a donut. They were also served with warm Hershey’s syrup (I know you have hot fudge back there, don’t hide it) and what I believe was the Twinberry syrup from the Perkin’s just up the road. Is it possible for something to be less than the sum of its parts? Because that’s what this donut tower was.

John and guest Dustin approve of this ring stack.
John and guest Dustin approve of this donut stack.

Dessert rating:fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Favorite part:

John says: The burger was free since it was my birthday month. Thank God, because it sucked.

Jenna says: Celebrating John Ward’s 40th [citation needed] birthday.

Jenny says: Eating a mozzarella stick – just like high school times. 

Rachel says: The bond that has formed among us over our hatred for the Ziosk.

Least favorite part:

John says: The Ziosk. They are the worst.

Jenna says: Going to a place that specializes in burgers and getting a sh***y burger. Also getting tricked into paying for the trivia game on the Ziosk. Damn you Ziosk, now I know why you have such a terrible reputation.

Jenny says: Waiting around to leave due to our server.

Rachel says: Being at least mildly disappointed in every aspect of this dining experience, especially after having such high hopes. Not getting to try Aaron and Jenna’s miracle booze shake. 

Overall rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake

Next up: Squeezing in one more Casual Encounter before 2016 is over at Ruby Tuesday’s!

Buca di Birthday at Buca di Beppo

Since October was Rachel’s birthday month, the group allowed her to select the next casual dining encounter, no matter where it fell on the list. She selected Buca di Beppo (#3 on our list), the Minneapolis-founded chain of Italian restaurants (it is now owned by Planet Hollywood, a Casual Encounter restaurant that is thankfully nowhere near the Twin Cities).

What we expected: A bacchanalian feast that would feed our souls and our tummies until both were uncomfortably full.

What we got: That, pretty much.

Food:

Buca’s claim to fame is that its food is all served family style, to encourage sharing and to also potentially serve as a real-life example of the Tragedy of the Commons when it comes to that one entree that everyone in the table likes best. It also makes ordering the proper quantities trickier, which I’m sure goes directly into Buca’s bottom line. No one wants to be the douche who prevents the table from an ample bounty. With a keen eye for strategy, we ended up ordering a caprese salad, a few entrees, and garlic bread.

Jenna says: Better than I remembered! Carbonara was my personal favorite. Definitely the best pasta on the casual dining list.

John says: Buca has always had fairly good food. I was impressed with the eggplant parmesan the most. I also want to give kudos to the team. Since orders at Buca are family style, having 6 people trying to order is difficult. We took care of it in only a couple of minutes. 3 small entrees, some caprese, and garlic bread. Perfect.

Jenny says: I’ve never been a huge fan of greasy Eye-talian food so this was my first foray into Buca territory. Family style? As if I’m supposed to know what that is. I guess we all have to share food. The eggplant parm was way better tasting than it looked. It heated up well too the next day. My fave was the Chicken Carbonara; it felt a little lighter tasting and had peas in it. It had me at the peas.

Andrea says: I thought the food was motherflippin’ delicious. The portions are obviously abundant – that’s their thing. The flavor was excellent. Great comfort food. Spent less than I thought I was going to, so great value too!

Rachel says: Olive Garden may say that you’re family, but Buca walks the walk with their family-style dishes. A nice way to try out a few different things. The carbonara was more like an alfredo with peas in it, but it was still delicious. The eggplant parm was my idea, so I’m glad it went over well with the crowd. The rigatoni thing was uninspired but filling, like most of the pasta I make at home. Plus, leftovers!

Carbonara, eggplant parm, and John's stylish 'do.
Carbonara, eggplant parm, and John’s stylish ‘do.
The spoils.
The spoils.

Food rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake

Beverages:

Jenna says: My margarita streak has come to an unfortunate end. There version was $11 and featured….wait for it….orange juice. What. The. Fudge. Who does that? Someone with no respect for a margarita, that’s for damn sure. We panic ordered a bottle of sangria, and only after receiving did we find out it was the Lisa Vanderpump brand. I don’t even know who she is [Ed. note: Neither do we, but we refuse to Google it because we have a bad feeling about her], but one of her skills IS NOT making sangria.

John says: We ended up ordering a bottle of wine (which was already on the table when we sat down) and a carafe of sangria. The sangria was pretty underwhelming. But I got drunk more quickly because I had given blood only an hour before starting drinking. So that’s monster plus.

Jenny: I was disappointed that the sangria wasn’t served in the traditional casual-dining style of carafe-filled-with-fruit. The water was good ole St. Paul crisp.

Andrea says: I had wine. The wine was cheap and a bit acidic, but hey, wine.

Rachel says: I just had water. But it seems I dodged a bullet by not getting the sangria (which is Spanish, not Italian, so I’m not sure what the group expected) [Ed. note: Snob]. I liked the suspense of seeing how drunk John would get while he was still missing a bunch of blood.

Beverage rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Casualosity:

This was an interesting scenario. The crap on the walls said “hella casual,” but the slightly elevated prices and the number of celebrations happening there said “take your velvet flip flops elsewhere, Aaron.” Hard to tell if it would feel more or less formal at the Pope’s Table, where Dope Pope Francis’ plastic head spins around on a lazy susan.

Jenna says: Birthday casual.

Jenny says: Less casual than I thought it would be. That might be due to the Italian-date-night vibe I was picking up. The humongous dripping candle that appeared with the birthday cake upped the fancy points.

Andrea says: Buca is casual, and welcoming.  It really does feel like you’re at a big family dinner. I *may* have even unbuttoned my pants afterward. Just kidding – I totally did.

Rachel says: I’ve always associated Buca with celebrations, which knocks it down on the casualosity scale for me. Birthdays, graduations, my mom’s 60th birthday…these are where Buca comes in. There were certainly more people there on an idle Tuesday than I’d expected, although we were far from the only birthday table there. 

Hey everyone, it's this a-hole's birthday.
Hey everyone, it’s this a-hole’s birthday.

Casualosity rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Ambiance:

Jenna says: So much to look at! And all of the shit on the walls looked like it had 10 years of dust caked on, so that’s fun.

John says: This place had oodles of things on the walls. I liked that a cardboard cutout of Sofia Vegara greeted us as we walked in. Of particular note is the pope table. In the middle of a round table sits a bust of the current pope. I tried to convince that this table was permanently reserved for the pope. The team wasn’t buying it.

Jenny says: John convinced me that the pope table was always reserved for the pope. I learned later that it is not and I’m completely gullible. I enjoyed the wall-to-wall pictures of old Italian photos and movie shots. Gave me something to look at while the table argued over whatever they were arguing about. I can never keep up [Ed note: It was probably something really important, like what variety of garlic bread to get].

Andrea says: I like the fun kitschy photos on the walls. We could have been slightly farther from other people, if I had my way, but I also feel like that when I’m eating at home. Alone. So that’s just me.

Rachel says: It’s like dining inside a delightful Italian stereotype. Plus pictures of nuns playing soccer?! Count me in forever.

John with his new special lady.
Something something jokes about balls something something

 

Ambience rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Service:

Our server, Ryan, was a key part of our dining experience. He was friendly without being creepy and attentive without hovering. It must be hard to be a server at a place like Buca, but he was a pro.

Jenna says: Ryan was super chill, in a good way. He dealt well with our spastic behavior. He really didn’t want to sing to Rachel for her birthday, but he did anyway, which made me happy.

John says: Ryan was a baller. Attentive but not pushy. Patient but with flair. He also said “hell yeah” a few times when I asked for something. More specifically, he brought me marinara sauce for the garlic bread. Nicely done sir.

Jenny says: He was fine. I think he needed a bit of help since there were 6 –yes 6!–other bday tables. I like that he was honest about the size of the birthday cake Rachel got for free.

Andrea says: Our server was great! Absolutely no complaints. He sang to Rachel for her birthday, but I guess that’s kind of a requirement there, so no extra points for that. He didn’t go over the top as far as service, but he was definitely more than average.

Rachel says: Our server got major points for overhearing our mumbling about marinara sauce and running to get some right away. Our passive Minnesota non-complaining wasn’t going to get in his way of excellent service! I can’t even fault him for getting the birthday singing going. The man has a job. No, I blame my dining companions for that travesty. 

Seen here: Embarrassment. Not pictured: Clapping along to an Italian-themed birthday song.
Seen here: Embarrassment. Not pictured: Clapping along to an Italian-themed birthday song.

Service rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake

Dessert/cheesecake:

The fact that Buca sells any dessert at all is a testament to the sheer force of will that’s part of American eating habits. After a pile of apps and entrees, no reasonable person at a Buca is hungry enough to truly want dessert. But people must figure “Hey, I already feel full, might as well take it all the way and feel awful. One slab of cake, please.”

Jenna says: I was so full by the time it came, I don’t even remember what it tasted like.

John says: We were celebrating Rachel’s bday. Due to good planning, she was able to secure a small cake to celebrate. And yes we made the staff sing despite protestations from Rachel and Jenny. The cheesecake was good. Probably not as good as Old Country Buffet, but I doubt nothing is [Ed note: Your mom is.].

Jenny says: The cheesecake was just what you expected and needed after tubs of Italian food. Rachel’s adorable birthday cake was tasty. I’m honestly glad it was so little because we were stuffed.

Andrea says: Yeah they had cheesecake, no i didn’t eat it. I’ve seen the movie Seven, and didn’t feel like reliving the “Gluttony” scene.

Rachel: I was perceptive enough to spot that their website offers a free cake when you bring a group in for your birthday. The picture on the website was of a cake with frosting in the style of spaghetti. They must have run out of those at the central commissary (which I’m ok with, actually), so the cake I got was your average white cake with pastel sugary frosting. It was fine, if a little dry. The cheesecake, towering and topped with a tasty fruit sauce (I want to say raspberry), was also fine.

Foreground: Free cake. Background: Cheesecake.
Foreground: Free cake. Background: Cheesecake.

Dessert rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Favorite part:

John says: The Cubs game being on the tv in the bar. 108 year curse gone!

Jenna says: Celebrating Rachel!

Jenny says: Celebrating Rachel’s birthday with a tiny cake a large, dripping candle

Rachel says: Everyone else’s glee at my embarrassing birthday song. Being savvy enough to have a coupon for free cake. More places should give me a coupon for free cake.

Least favorite part:

John says: No pope has ever visited this Buca di Beppo.

Jenna says: Writing this review while waiting in line for an hour to vote at the SLP city hall, and then having to leave even though I didn’t vote because I committed to volunteering and am going to be late. [Ed. note: Democracy in action!]

Jenny says: There was a lot going on; a little overwhelming. Don’t judge.

Rachel says: My stupid husband eating all of our leftovers, which meant that I couldn’t have them. 

Overall rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

 

John and Aaron, truly delighted.
John and Aaron, truly delighted.

Coming soon: Our Casual Encounter at Red Robin!

TGI Friday’s: A Flair for the Casual

Sunday, October 2 marks the date of two occasions: The beginning of the Jewish New Year (Happy 5777 everyone! Best year ever!), and also the casual dining encounter that brings us to halfway done with our list. Granted, five of those restaurants are nowhere near the Twin Cities and we will never review them (and one of them is “getting hit by a car,” which is impossible to schedule as a group), but we still feel it’s quite an accomplishment. What better way to celebrate than to visit one of the top-ranked suburbs in the area, St. Louis Park?

TGI Friday’s (#18 on our list) falls alongside Chili’s in terms of nostalgia. Our group was eager to swap stories of visits earlier in life, as well as lament the change in slogan from “In here, it’s always Friday!” to some focus-grouped benign phrase that is unmemorable to the extreme. Plus, did you know that TGI Friday’s servers NO LONGER WEAR FLAIR?! It seems unconscionable. But, as Nobel Laureate* Bob Dylan once said, “times change, get over it.”

Food:

Friday’s menu is packed full of casual dining goodness. Most notably, they’ve realized that people love pouring smoky corn syrup on their food, so Jack Daniels sauce makes an appearance on nearly every page.

Jenna says: I decided to live dangerously and order the Bourbon Barrel Mahi Mahi. Fish, at TGI Friday’s. Seems crazy guys, but I went for it. And you know what? It was GOOD. Well seasoned, not overly “fishy” tasting, appropriate portion size. Served with perfectly salty mashed potatoes and broccoli, I might say the meal was better than Outback. Bonus points for the beer cheese dip that came with the pretzel, I think we all wanted to pitch a tent and live in that dip.

Jenna's surprisingly tasty fish dish, served on a plate designed by the Jetsons.
Jenna’s surprisingly tasty fish dish, served on a plate designed by the Jetsons.

Aaron says: I had the jack daniel’s burger, which was great and had good flavor with the Jack Daniels BBQ sauce. [Ed. note: Aaron sent in his comments while on vacation, hiking with his dog or something. Hence the brevity.]

Sarah says: We ordered pretzel sticks and cheese for an appetizer. I was expecting something just slightly above what you’d get at the Fargo South High concession stand, so I was really surprised by how great it was! The pretzel seemed fresh out the oven and the cheese sauce was so good that I saved some for my steak. Don’t judge. My steak was good but I ordered it medium rare and it came medium well which was really disappointing. The mashed potatoes were rich and delicious. My other side was a tomato mozzarella salad. It was good except for the part where Friday’s thinks I’m too stupid to know what a Caprese salad is. [Ed. note: We’re here to eat, not to learn Italian, hippie.]

John says: I was very happy with my meal. We ordered pretzels for the table that were awfully salty. I had the Jack Daniels chicken and Battered Shrimp meal with cheddar mac & cheese, plus broccoli. The portions were a little small for the price but I left content.

Rachel says: I am a Jack Daniels sauce evangelist. I love that stuff. But for some reason, I panicked and ordered a goddamn Cobb salad. I have brought shame onto my head and the heads of my family. The pretzel was delicious. Served piping hot (no other version of hot is acceptable) with creamy cheese sauce, it was a hit with the table. I would happily move into Jenna’s cheese sauce tent. 

Food rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Ambience:

As opposed to the anticipated wall-to-wall quirky crap on the walls, this Friday’s seemed somewhat understated, although the signature red and stripes could still be found, connecting this modern Friday’s to its ancestors.

Jenna says: I don’t remember much about the ambience because I was too excited about the FLAIR John C Ward brought us to wear. [Ed. note: An entire bag full of buttons. This group is the freaking best.]

Aaron says: Not enough sh*t on the walls.  We were in a fancier part of town, so the lights were kind of dim (except for the spot light on Jenna) and overall kind of an more upscale vibe.

John says: This was kind of a fancy TGI Friday’s in my mind. There was an ultra exclusive upstairs (at least that’s what I was lead to believe). My favorite part was the American Ryder Cup fans coming in to celebrate America’s victory (USA! USA! USA!). Suck it Europe (except Ireland which is the home of the gods).

Ambience ratingfresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Service:

Jenna says: John and I were on time (AHEM). Everyone else was late, and our server was super accommodating with our not-so-punctual friends. Seemed to take a bit of time to get our food, but he checked on us multiple times. I appreciated the mellow vibes he was putting out.

Sarah says: I have no complaints, but our server still wasn’t Earth. Oh Earth, nothing compares 2 u.

John says: Again, top notch service. Our server was patient with our frantic ordering. He checked on us numerous times. Not Earth level good but great nonetheless.

Rachel says: I agree that our server showed infinite patience with our panicked, piecemeal ordering. HOWEVER, I don’t think we would have been so panicked if he hadn’t insisted on checking in on us every two minutes. We’re a group of friends clearly chatting and having a good time. Give us more than 30 seconds between check-ins to decide on our beverages and such. DOUBLE HOWEVER, if he hadn’t been a little overattentive, we would have been late to our next engagement (trivia). So it all worked out in the end. 

Service rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake

Casualosity:

Jenna says: Definitely the least casual place we’ve visited. Way too expensive for a casual dining experience, both food and drinks. My fish dish (rhyme time!) [Ed. note: Neat treat!]  was nearly $20, and while it was good, that’s money I would prefer to spend on non-casual dining experiences. Also there was a fancy pants family celebrating Rosh Hashanah next to us (it wasn’t a wedding, JCW). You don’t see that at OCB or Chevy’s.

Aaron says: Despite being fancier, I think you could get away with wearing pretty casual clothes, like velvet flip flops.

Sarah: This wasn’t the Friday’s of my youth and I’m not sure how I feel about the sleeker, more sophisticated vibe they’re trying to go with.

John says: This is the first time I didn’t feel the true casual experience. There were people legitimately dressed up pretty nicely. We believe the group just to the left of us had come from a wedding (A SUNDAY WEDDING? WHO WOULD DO THAT?).

Rachel says: John, I would do that. And if memory serves, you had a f***ing delightful time at my Sunday wedding. Put that in your chuppah and smoke it. But I agree, this wasn’t as casual as anticipated. I think it still falls squarely in the “casual dining” category, because it still has things like build-your-own appetizer platters, but it’s definitely a notch above most of the places we’ve visited.

Casualosity rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Cheesecake:

Since we had very limited time to wrap up our meal before heading to trivia, we were forced to order our dessert to go. Yet another rushed decision, but in this case, it worked out quite well. We got the cheesecake to go, and at it at our leisure.

Jenna says: Best yet, by far! I’m thinking about making to go TGI Friday’s cheesecake a new Sunday trivia tradition.

Sarah says: Close to the best we have had so far! I wish I would have had more than one bite, but the other casual diners had to get going to trivia so they took the rest to go. Lame. They better not do that when we go to the actual Cheesecake Factory!!

John says: We took the cheesecake (save Sarah who didn’t attend trivia) to go. It was actually really tasty. It didn’t have the same perfection of an OCB piece of cheesecake but pretty close.

Cheesecake rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Beverages:

Jenna says: Ok Margarita – a bit too sweet. Way too expensive. Also: I seem to order margaritas at every casual dining, so I’m making an executive decision and judging drinks on margaritas. Specifically on how many margs I’d drink at that specific establishment. this time around: 2 margaritas, though I regret the second one due to price.

Sarah says: I had a booze-free paradise punch. It was tasty without being too sweet.

John says: I got something a Peach Honey Smash. It was some sort of Jack Daniels concoction. I was happy.

Rachel. I had water. The water was fine.

Beverages rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Favorite part:

Jenna says: Going to a casual dining in my current hometown, the lovely St Louis Park, first best suburb! 

Aaron says: Sharing the cheesecake at trivia.

Sarah says: When John made sure we were all wearing flair.

John says: We kind of threw this trip together on the fly. So my favorite part is that our group made time to get together to hang out. AWWWWWWWWWWWWW!

Rachel says: John going the extra mile and bringing flair for us. They may not wear flair anymore at Friday’s, but we’ll always wear flair in our hearts. Our hearts are the flair. 

Least favorite part:

Jenna says: I spent too much money.

Sarah says: When the servers were not sporting any flair.

John says: Being in Saint Louis Park and not Roseville.

Rachel says: Straying from my heart’s true desire and not getting something doused in Jack Daniels. It was ok, I won’t make that mistake again.

Mistake.
Mistake.

Overall TGI Friday’s rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Next encounter: We jump WAY up the list to Buca di Beppo (#3) in honor of Rachel’s birthday!

 

*Much to his annoyance, apparently.

Fuddruckers: A Warm Texture in Your Mouth

Our September casual encounter was to Fuddruckers, that staple of every road trip you took when you were a kid and your parents wanted to try a little harder than McDonald’s for dinner.

This encounter welcomed a special guest, John’s brother-in-law, Dustin. He is older and more successful than anyone in our group, so it was an honor to have him slum it with us.

Food:

Fuddruckers hangs its hat on burgers. You can order a pre-ordained combination of toppings, or you can bring a plain burger over to a toppings bar and then pile high with whatever nonsense you decide is right for you. We’re sure this leads to kids on those aforementioned road trips slathering their burgers in an irresponsible amount of ketchup and pickles. These kids then cry when their burger slops all over the place, and their parents regret ever giving them that much freedom with wet substances. Fuddruckers: Where We Learn That Actions Have Consequences.

Along with the regular toppings, there was the much-touted “Fudds cheese sauce,” kind of like a paler version of the stuff that comes with stadium nachos. Our special guest Dustin said there wasn’t much in the way of flavor, but he did enjoy the “warm texture in your mouth.” Don’t we all, Dustin, don’t we all.

Jenna says: Burger was better than Culvers, but still a good distance from Blue Door. ALSO I prefer my buns a bit more toasted, if you know what I mean…[Ed. note: No, we don’t. Please elaborate.]

Aaron says: Burger tasted pretty good, but was way too greasy from the mushrooms and fried onions.  Wedge potato fries were decent.

Rachel says: I spotted the manager’s special, which was a burger, fries, and a beverage for a very reasonable price. They even offered to upgrade my beverage to a shake, what a treat. I appreciated that the menu featured nods to other tastes, like chicken sandwiches and salads. Not that I would ever come here to get those. My burger was cooked fine, on a bun that was fine. I don’t really like seasoned fries, so I only ate a few of those. (Fortuitous, since that left more room for my shake. ) The burger toppings bar featured surprisingly fresh veggies; I’d expected them to be limp and sad since it was later in the evening.

So fresh and so clean, clean.
So fresh and so clean, clean.
John, mid-pico-application
John, mid-pico-application

John says: Perfect portion size with the manager’s special. However, they didn’t ask how I wanted my burger cooked. Toppings were excellent.

John's phone added a soft, porny filter to his burger. Nice money shot.
John’s phone added a soft, porny filter to his burger. Nice money shot.

Food rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Beverages:

Once again, we find ourselves in the presence of a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine. Glorious. However, there was a distinct lack of any slushee machine, which is odd considering how much this place is geared towards kids. Our group also bemoaned this lack since Fuddruckers (somewhat inexplicably) has a full bar, and this would have been a prime setting for a booze slushee. Milkshakes were available in a variety of flavors, but did not bring any boys to the yard beyond those in our original party. Perhaps it was because it was a school night.

Jenna says: Surly Furious on tap, works for me.

Aaron says: I snagged a “tall” beer for around $5.  Pretty good value.

Rachel says: My chocolate milkshake was fine. The first sip had a weird aftertaste, but like so many beverages (alcoholic, mostly), if you keep drinking it, it goes away.  My shake was an upgrade to my manager’s special combo, which made for good value. It was a large, too, so I got the can with the extra shake in it, perfect for sharing.

John says: My peanut butter shake was mighty delicious. Lots of chunks at the bottom which was a nice surprise.

Beverages rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake

Ambiance:

Fuddruckers seemed to be going for some kind of old-timey car service station vibe, but stopped short of the finish line [Ed. note: Get it? Finish line? Because, cars? Nevermind.]

Jenna says: The bathrooms, ugh. Just ugh. Doesn’t matter how interesting the decor is, if the bathrooms are dirty, you’re dead to me.

Aaron says: Nothing noteworthy.  Minus points because I like random crap hanging on the walls.  Bonus point for arcade.

John says: It was fine. Nothing special, nothing weird. The mini-arcade was a nice touch.

Rachel says: The restaurant was spacious. Like, really spacious. Couple that with high ceilings, and I came away with the sense that we had eaten in the dining area of a raceway-themed Costco. Like John said, though, nothing too weird. They must have cleaned the bathrooms between when Jenna visited and when I visited, because I thought they were fine.

Ambiance rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Service:

This was a situation where you order at the counter, and then they give you a buzzer that activates when your food is ready. Sometimes. Sometimes they also bring it out to you, depending on what you ordered. From what we could surmise, if you were building your own burger with the toppings bar, your ass had to get up and get the burger. If you were a fancy aristocrat who ordered a burger with special toppings, they brought it out to your table. A metaphor for the wealth gap? Maybe. Or maybe not.

Jenna says: It took me 10 minutes to order a beer at the bar. And I was the only one in line. You don’t make a teacher wait for her beer on the fifth day of school. I would have given service a 1, however the gentleman who cleared our table was oh-so-polite.

Aaron says: A few burgers took longer than others to get prepared. I  went to the bar to get a beer, but the bartender was also the dessert counter cashier, so she was running back and forth between the two stations.  Ended up having to wait for a bit before she could serve me.

John says: Drives me crazy when they don’t ask how I want my meat cooked. I like my meat wet and raw. [Ed. note: We see what you’re trying to do, and we’re going to ignore it.]

Rachel says: Bonus points for telling me I could upgrade my soda to a shake for a minimal cost. The person clearing the tables was very polite. The girl (she was a girl, not a woman) who served me my “dessert” seemed flustered since she didn’t have a cash register near her and had to run back and forth, but she did put on rubber gloves to serve up the brownie I’d ordered. Safety first.

Service rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Casualosity:

It doesn’t get more casual than a place that allows you to pretend you’re a line cook for a little bit at the toppings bar, and then sends you to the mini-arcade at the back of the restaurant.

Jenna says: Fuddruckers was my birthday spot in Fargo for several years as a kid [Ed. note: Probably because it was next to the quaint and questionably-affiliated putt-putt course Fuddputter’s. True fact.]. Any restaurant that hosts birthday parties for 7 year olds has to be pretty, pretty casual. Not as causal as OCB, which is the gold standard (at least until we get hit by a car/go to Golden Corral, my stomach is already hating me for that one).

Aaron says: No problem wearing my velvet flip flops and my t-shirt that says “Coroner: I’m here for your body”….check!

John says: They may as well have put a sign that said Casual Central above the Fuddruckers sign.

Rachel says: You can tell a lot about Casualosity by what kind of napkin situation a place had. Fuddruckers has paper towel rolls on stands. Nuff said.

Casualosity rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Dessert:

Dessert, if you could call it that, was a very big step down from the rest of the meal. The section of the restaurant called the “Bakery” was rows of grocery-store-caliber cookies and a row of brownies (for which you could see the industrial mix in boxes behind the counter). Most of us relied on our shakes as our dessert, which was an excellent choice.

Jenna says: Sampled Rachel’s chocolate shake, it was delicious. But Cub foods makes better brownies. 

Aaron says: I got a chocolate malt to go.  it was as expected and tasty.  

John says: Counting my shake as a dessert. Extremely tasty. It wasn’t as good as the OCB cheesecake but good nonetheless.

Rachel says: I was the one foolish enough to actually get something from the bakery, a brownie. It’s not even like “it was from a box so it tasted bad.” My go-to brownies are from a box. They’re delicious. This tasted like it came from a box, then was left out for a three-day weekend, and then frosted in a harebrained attempt to add moisture/hide taste. It didn’t work. But everyone is counting their shakes as desserts, so I’ll factor that into my rating. 

Dessert rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Favorite part:

John says: A new special guest joining us.

Jenna says: Pickles.

Aaron says: Lots of condiments and junk to put on your burgers. 

Rachel says: Knowing that John kept accidentally writing “Fuddf***ers” when composing his review.

Least favorite part: 

John says: No pie options for dessert.

Aaron says: The super greasy onions that came on my burger. 

Jenna says: I have two. 1) I missed how they used to announce your name over the loud speaker when your burger was ready. We could of had a lot of fun with that…. AND B) A dude used a pokemon pickup line at me at the bar. At Fuddruckers. In Bloomington. I might as well just get 9 cats and call it a day. [Ed. note: Might as well.]

Rachel says: That brownie. It was a prison brownie. 

Overall Fuddruckers rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

 

Next up: We’re donning our pieces of flair and hitting up TGI Friday’s!

Chili’s: Diners on the Storm

Chili’s (#21 on our list) holds a special place in many of our group members’ hearts. This was one of the crucial hangs in high school (if it wasn’t after hours. After hours, it’s Perkin’s or GTFO.). The sensory memories here are strong, and expectations of the food tasting the same as back then were simultaneously high and low. Cautious optimism, thy name is casual dining.

Food: After much deliberation (seriously, there were way too many choices on the menu), a surprising number of steaks were ordered considering the Tex-Mex theme of the restaurant.

Aaron says: I naturally went with chiiiillliiii’s baby back ribs, being one of their signature dishes, or at least the only thing that I can remember from any of their commercials.  I went with the original BBQ sauce, as I didn’t feel like venturing into the world of Dr. Pepper BBQ sauce.  I don’t know if I could handle the responsibility of BBQ sauce laced with Dr. Pepper.  Plus, it was a school night.  The ribs were good, not great, but as expected.  The BBQ sauce tasted good, but the meat itself was a little flavorless.  

Sarah says: The menu was too much. There was the main, huge menu and then two additional “special” menus. Why? Rachel made a great call by bringing in a coupon for chips and queso. The queso had a hint of beans which made it gross to look at but delicious to eat. For my entrée, I had a 6 oz. steak that seemed bigger than 6 oz. It wasn’t anything special, but it was only $12.99, it tasted fine and was cooked as I ordered it (medium rare). (By the way, did you know Donald Trump orders his steak well done? Well, he does. Not surprising, right?) 

Jenny says: – It was Colorado Springs, 2001. I remember a specific moment in high school of eating perfectly golden and delicious Chili’s Chicken Crispers. I’ve been chasing that taste every since…last week. I was not disappointed! I ordered the classic -i repeat, classic – Chicken Crispers. I don’t know what the new Crispers are and I don’t care.  My chicken was again crunchy on the outside and juicy white inside. The side of corn on the cob was also delish.

Rachel says: I had a coupon for free queso, so I was delighted to treat the group to that crucial part of the Chili’s experience. But it was only ok. Not that that stopped me from eating a bunch of it. After much entree deliberation, I landed on the Quesadilla Explosion Salad (which was basically the name of what happened to John after our visit to Chevy’s). It was your average “southwest” salad, aka a regular salad where chili powder has been added to the ranch dressing, plus pieces of cheese quesadilla as garnish. That’s definitely not a complaint, though. I took said garnish home for lunch the next day. Two meals in one: That’s value. 

John says: I was very happy with my choice. I got the ribeye and a loaded baked potato for a side. It was cooked to my liking and had good flavor. We also had a coupon for queso and chips. Both were adequate. 

Food rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Service: Our server, Kale/Cale/Cael, was friendly and unflappable, which is very impressive considering there were plenty of children in his section, along with a group that had the damndest time making up their minds on what they wanted to order (read: us). But things took an immediate downtown at the end of the evening when Caheale handed referred us to the “Ziosk” on our table (heretofore only recognized as a gaming machine) to pay our bills. It was nice that things were split up by seat, but Jesus H. Christ it took 10x longer to pay our bill because of it. It’s supposed to “revolutionize the dining experience,” and it did, in that it turned it from one where the server runs payment on a machine he is familiar with, to one where we have to do our best to figure out who should pay what while the server ignores us.  After submitting payment, the Ziosk asks for your feedback on your experience. Everyone commented on how the Ziosk, the very thing that was asking the question, had somewhat ruined that experience. Ironic.

Aaron says: With many of the servers we’ve encountered on our casual experience vision quest (for food), Cale (sp?) warmed up to us more and more as he realized how fun we were.  I mean, we were fun the whole time, it just took him a while to realize it.  The only knock on the service here was handing us off to the robotic “Ziosk” for paying our bills.  Then we were left to fend for ourselves for picking our meal and dealing with the card reader on the machine.  In theory it seems like there’s a place for it, but for a group of people paying separately, it made the bill-paying process longer than it needed to be. 

Sarah says: Cale was friendly and I liked the positive affirmations he gave us when we finished our entire molten lava cake. One thing that was not cool, Cale, was laughing us off when we asked about the tornado emergency plan. The weather was very ominous, and it was really coming down out there. Yet Cale did not assist us in preparing for possible tornadoes. Luckily, Aaron took his belt off and used it to demonstrate the technique used at the end of Twister. Thanks for picking up Cale’s slack, Aaron. Aaron gets 5 cheesecakes for his safety demonstration. 

Jenny says: Chilis did not have an evacuation plan in the event of monsoons, but Cael eased our worries that the Chili’s reinforced nuclear shelter could withstand this storm. Cael was attentive and pleasant. No complaint. No near Earth experience from what I hear. [Ed. note: Truth.] Also, the table machine that took all of our payments seemed pleasant as well. [Ed. note: Jenny was obviously using some different payment kiosk from the rest of us.]

John says: Cael was great. Attentive and funny. He complimented us on our ability to finish the desserts we ordered. Flattery will get you everywhere. 

Rachel says: I also appreciated how he told us we did a good job with finishing our desserts (we did). I liked his tolerance for John’s insistence on knowing of an evacuation plan, as if we didn’t all know it was going to be some variation on “Hit the exit and run like hell. Or find someone with a strong belt and a plan.”

Service ratingfresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake

Ambiance: The most impressive thing about the ambiance here was that it’s exactly the same as any other Chili’s, at any other point in time. Their commitment to faux-Spanish tile holds fast and true.

Jenny says: It was a quiet Wednesday. We were seated near people but not too close. The only complaint was a screaming kid. But that’s what they do, right? The random lone sled on the wall was out of place but might be comforting if the storm was in January and not August.

John says: Pretty standard fare. It was kind of cramped where they seated us. It was absolutely pouring outside to the point where it was terrifying. We kept checking to see if it was still coming down out there. We then asked about Chilis’s storm plan. They didn’t have one. Sigh. [Ed. note: Stop being such a baby, John. Obviously Aaron’s belt skills would have saved us in the event of a tornado.]

Sarah sees the storm approach.
Sarah sees the storm approach.

Rachel says: I thought their “crap on the walls” aesthetic was lacking in conviction. Don’t just put up a random sled on the wall, with nothing near it, and expect me to be filled with whimsy. 

Ambiance rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake  fresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Casualosity: Casual in high school, casual in our 30s.

Aaron says: Went in with my velvet flip flops and went out with very wet velvet flip flops.  They fit right in with the fitting tiled table tops and random sh** on the walls. 

Sarah: Chili’s was extremely casual, but not in the way I wanted. First of all, Chili’s was too casual about tornado preparedness. Also, the lights were too bright, the music was too quiet, and the atmosphere seemed kind of sterile. It was not the cozy, warm environment that I like to see in a casual dining establishment. Also, part of the casualosity at Chili’s is the Ziosk at each table, which is used for trivia and to pay the bill. It seemed as though the first few minutes of trivia were free and then you would have to pay after that. But nope, we were charged $1.99 for three minutes of trivia. That’s shady, Chili’s. 

Jenny: I felt pretty casual and relaxed. I was not the least bit embarrassed by Aaron’s velvet flip flops. It would have been more cas’ if you didn’t have to pay $2 to play electronic trivia. 

John says: Totes casual. More room would be nice. 

Casualosity ratingfresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake

Beverages: Your typical casual dining selection. But also, 2-4-1’s!

Aaron says: 2-4-1s! They had two for one house margaritas.  I went with original flavor, on the rocks.  Maybe a little sugary, but also what I expect from a fine establishment like Chili’s.  

Jenny says: I had a classic Margarita, the El Presidente. (Wait is that the the president). While it was not on the 2 for 1 menu (I found out later), it was worth it. The little, royal blue shaker they give you is like a magic lamp of never ending ‘rita. It was just right. [Ed. note: Apparently every single Presidente marg is shaken exactly 25 times on the way to your table. We didn’t see Cale shake Jenny’s marg, so we can only assume this standard was kept. Still, an interesting factoid, no?]

John says: I had two delicious house margaritas! They were two for one. It felt like college again! 

Beverages ratingfresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake

Cheesecake/dessert: There’s really only once choice when it comes to dessert at Chili’s: Molten chocolate cake. But we also ordered the cheesecake, because we’re professionals with a job to do.

Aaron says: Cheesecake, meh.  Molten chocolate cake: delish! 

Sarah says: The molten lava cake was exactly what I wanted in a dessert. I felt absolutely no shame as I helped myself to the last bite without asking anyone else if they wanted it. When it comes to molten lava cake, it’s every woman for herself.

Jenny says: The cheesecake was ordinary but thankfully I have low cheesecake standards. The other concoction we ordered  (what was it?) was gooey, sugar heaven [Ed. note: Goddamn right, it was]. We devoured it. I loved the balance of cold ice cream and hot chocolate brownie.

John says: Fairly standard cheesecake (nowhere near as good as Old Country Buffet’s).  [Ed note: GOD DAMN IT JOHN.]

Rachel says: As sure as the sun rises in the morning, Chili’s molten chocolate cake is delicious and tastes the same as it always has. 

From left to right: Glorious, meh.
From left to right: Glorious, meh.

Cheesecake/dessert ratingfresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake

Favorite part of the casual encounter: 

Aaron says: Two for one margaritas and getting to FINALLY order chiiiilllliiii’s baby back ribs.  My parents never let me as a kid.  

Aaron finally gets to try Chili's famous baby back ribs, just like he always wanted when he was a little girl.
Aaron finally gets to try Chili’s famous baby back ribs, just like he always wanted when he was a little girl.

Sarah says: This doesn’t really have anything to do with Chili’s, but you know when you’re a little kid and there’s a tornado warning and even though the tornadoes are nowhere near your town, your parents usher you down to the basement where you play board games and listen to weather alerts on the radio until the tornado warning expires? And it feels fun and exciting because you know that your safety isn’t in any real jeopardy? Reliving that feeling was my favorite part of our Chili’s experience.

Jenny says: Reliving my high school memories through food and booze. And being a part of a cool club. [Ed. note: Aw, thanks!]

John says: Favorite part-all of our great jokes about the weather. And of course the great jokes about their shitty paying stations. Sigh.

Rachel says: Time traveling back to high school, on those rare nights when my parents would let me go out for dinner before a school dance instead of making me eat dinner at home with them. Molten chocolate cake, get in my mouth. 

Least favorite part: 

Aaron says: Ziosks.  F*** those little robot bastards

Sarah says: The kiosks. Worst thing to ever happen to casual dining. This better not be a trend. 

Jenny says: Leaving during the rain. And Aaron splashed me when he ran by. 

John says: Having to drive home in what I believe was Hurricane Katrina Part 2: World Pup. 

Rachel says: The storm. It was really coming down out there. 

Aaron and John valiantly try to figure out the Ziosk payments.
Aaron and John valiantly try to figure out the Ziosk payments.
?
Aaron voices his displeasure at the Ziosk experience.

Overall Chili’s Ratingfresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake fresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

See you all for our next Casual Encounter: Fuddrucker’s!

Chevy’s, With a Hard “Ch”

We all forgot to ask if it’s pronounced Shevy’s or Tchevy’s.

Our latest adventure was at Chevy’s Fresh Mex (#19 on our list), yet another chain that only has one remaining outpost in Minnesota. The downtown Minneapolis Chevy’s tried to keep the fiesta going but closed years ago and is still sitting empty, an ode to Minneapolis’ fickle downtown dining scene. Anyway. The crew entered with someone low expectations for the food, but high expectations for the evening since we would be joined by none other than Rachel’s mom, Helen. Make no mistake, Helen can hang with a casual encounter.

Food:

At first glance, the menu seemed to be a run-of-the-mill Tex Mex restaurant. All subsequent glances confirmed that first impression.

Jenna says: The trip started strong with a super delicious salsa experience. Very smokey with the perfect amount of heat. Unfortunately the chips and salsa were the peak – my chicken enchiladas were “meh”, definitely not worthy of a trip to Bloomington. That being said, the house made masa garnish was delicious. 

John says: I was very excited to go to Chevy’s. I’ve had good experiences and good food there before. Our server, Desirae, complimented me both on my beverage (peach margarita on the rocks) and meal (steak ‘dilla) choices. Unfortunately, the next morning I didn’t feel well and had to spend a good amount of time on the toilet [Ed. note: Ew.]. The food tasted good but the pain the next day severely downgraded it. 

sitting on toilet 2
Artist’s rendering

Aaron says: My fajitas came to the table sizzling hot.  Even after the server, and Helen, said that the pan was hot, I had to test it anyway.  Yes, it was hot.  I think they were light on the number of tortillas, but there were some extras from the others at the table so it worked out.  They were also tasty as a snack a few hours later.  

Rachel says: Fajitas at a place like this are one of my favorite things, because then I don’t have to do the insane amount of mental gymnastics required for me to get all the stuff I want on one plate. Seriously, the amount of time I spent staring at the menu figuring out a way to get rice AND beans AND not pay a $2 upcharge for sour cream (seriously??) would try anyone’s patience. The fajitas were a little more expensive (probably to swallow that sour cream margin), but my mom was paying, so #yolo. I also had my leftovers for lunch the next day, with no abnormal digestion issues. And let it be know that Helen LOVED the fajita presentation.

20160714_202220
Helen says “ole!”

Overall food rating  (note our new and improved cheesecake icons!):

Before John’s unhappy toilet fest  fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

After John’s unhappy toilet fest fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake

Service:

Like many of our Casual Encounter servers, Desirae was exceptional. She had a great sense of humor, complimented our menu choices, was Sally-On-the-Ball with refills of both chips and beverages, and even saved one in our party from esophageal catastrophe.

John says: Desirae was personable, attentive, and friendly. Can’t say enough good things. Plus, she complimented me a lot while ignoring the others. There’s nothing I like more than being the center of attention. 

Aaron says: Ample chips and salsa. Good recommendations. 

Jenna says: While Desire didn’t reach the level of Earth from the Rainforest Cafe, she was VERY good! More importantly, she saved my life. After a horrific glass breaking incident that occurred near the bar [Ed. note: None of us actually saw said incident, so we can neither confirm nor deny if it was indeed “horrific”], she made sure that my drink was remade so that it was glass free. Seriously, I might not be here typing if it were not for her. So I take it back, sorry Earth, Desire is to me as David Hasselhoff is to every girl on a beach in the mid-90s LA: a dreamy lifesaver. 

Rachel says: I appreciated Desirae’s positive attitude and her safety precautions. It’s not her fault Aaron touched the hot fajita plate. 

Overall service rating:  fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake

Ambience:

Chevy’s boasts a typical Mexican chain restaurant color palette (warm, reddish tones) and junk on the walls, but was refreshingly devoid of most of the stereotypical decorations i.e. serapes and sombreros. It definitely had more of a fishing village vibe than a cantina one.

John says: There was a boat/camper hung from the ceiling. That was pretty cool. Otherwise, fairly blah. 

Aaron says: The main thing that stuck out to me was the camper hanging from the ceiling right behind our table. Lots of other random Tex-Mex junk hanging on the walls.

Jenna says: Very laid back beachy vibe with a boat (or pop up camper if you ask Rachel) hanging from the ceiling. I love boats, so this totally worked for me. 

Rachel says: I want to thank everyone for continuing to make fun of me for thinking,  until about a month ago, that pop-up campers were actually pontoon boats (they’re both square-ish!!! I don’t have a lake home! Cut me a break!). So now, every time we see a boat, they point out the “pop-up camper” to me. Great friends. Other than that, I got an amazing Chi-Chi’s vibe from this place. If there is one dead restaurant I wish I could revive, it would totally be Chi-Chi’s. So that made me happy. 

Overall ambiance ratingfresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Casualosity:

Aaron says: No one kicked me out for wearing my velvet flip flops.  

Jenna says: Had it not been for the rainy, cool day, I feel like it would have been totally acceptable for Aaron Smith to have been wearing swim trunks with his velvet flip flops.

John says: Very casual. I appreciated that they made their chips in house, for us to see! 

Overall casualosity rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake

Dessert/cheesecake:

They might as well set fire to any dessert menu at a Tex-Mex chain, because there basically is one dessert and one dessert only: Fried ice cream. But, since one person in our group is hilariously allergic to cinnamon (and we never let him forget it) we had to branch out. All desserts were served in confusingly, unnecessarily large vessels. It was like eating ice cream out of a flower vase [Ed. note: Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it].

Aaron: I was real excited for fried ice cream, but considering it was cinnamon ice cream fried with a cinnamon battered shell served on top of cinnamon crisps, I abstained.  [Ed. note: That is literally all fried ice cream at every restaurant. Not sure what weirdo place you went to that didn’t have cinnamon on its fried ice cream.]

Aaron's Blizzard that he bought because wittle baybay is allergic to cinnamon.
Aaron’s cinnamon-free Blizzard that he bought on the way home. Womp womp.

John says: This also may have contributed to a bad bathroom morning the next day. I shared fried ice cream with others. It was tasty but way too big. 

Jenna says: Just cinnamon. So much cinnamon. On everything.

Rachel says: My dessert was some kind of fried dough thing with dipping sauces. It was served in a goblet shaped like a champagne flute on steroids. It’s hard to mess up fried dough, but they managed to do it. The fried bits were all very dry, and the dipping sauces should have been served warm. 

Overall dessert rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake

Beverages:

Your typical Tex Mex offerings.

John says: My peach margarita was delicious. 

Aaron says: Non-cinnamon margarita [Ed. note: Duh], decent, but a little spendy, especially for the fancier ones. 

Jenna says: DELICIOUS MARAGRITAS. And I’m a tough critic. I paid extra for the “top shelf marg” and there was an excellent ratio of booze to lime, with no sugary mix. Also, John Ward was super happy with the fruity drink he ordered, which was definitely the most Sex in the City-worthy cocktail on the menu. All we needed was a penis straw and we could have relived his epic bachelorette party! Wooooo girls! 

Overall beverages rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake

Favorite part:

Jenna says: Our Special Guest – Fargo’s own Helen Levitt! And let’s be honest, that margarita.

Aaron says: Helen “something funny” Levitt. I couldn’t think of any nickname in time. 

John says: Being joined by another special guest! Rachel’s mom Helen joined in the fun. She even thought our poop jokes were funny. Big win. 

Rachel says: Having my mom there to witness and partake in the glory of the Casual Encounters team. She’s a great lady, folks. I also enjoyed the smug feeling of not getting sick after eating there, in contrast with John. 

Least favorite part: 

John: The pit in my stomach the next morning. 

Jenna: The prices DID NOT reflect the laid back, casual beach vibe. I feel like the prices were on par with Barrio, and no matter how many of those delicious margs I have, Chevy’s will never be Barrio.

Overall Chevy’s rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

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Our next outing: It’s a Tex-Mex Twofer! We’re headed to Chili’s in Roseville for our next outing.

Casually encountering casual dining experiences