Tag Archives: disappointing

Arrivederci Roma’s

This casual encounter was a landmark for us, because it meant the very last time we’d have to go to the Mall of America during this adventure. Our long national nightmare was finally over!

It’s also notable because nary a week had passed since this Encounter when this Tony Roma’s location announced its closing. We got in just under the wire to experience its true mediocrity. Looking back during our review process, were the signs of its imminent demise there? It’s hard to say. But they weren’t not there. If that makes any sense.

You’ll see some of this hindsight in our commentary, though we probably would have said equally disparaging things even if this place were to stay open until the End Times.

Food:

Tony Roma’s is known for ribs and other grilled meats. On the menu we found plenty of standard fare (including a chicken sandwich for Aaron, hallelujah). Their signature appetizer is something called an onion loaf, which is like a Bloomin’ Onion but with a f***ing terrible name.

2 sides? I’ll have the rice and the gravy, please.

Rachel says: Tony Roma’s has the distinction of being the first place where I ever ate ribs. A big moment for a Jew from a kosher home. It was only fitting that I have ribs again, although I tried to cut costs by sharing a combo platter with Jenna. The ribs were good. Not saucy enough. The steak was pretty good. One of them was cooked medium rare, the other was medium well. I’m mystified as to how that happened, since I bet they were cooked right next to each other. Anyways. My side salad was extremely subpar; not even a cherry tomato to justify the 5ish bucks I spent on it.

Not pictured: Value. What a goddamn travesty.

Jenna says: I rarely order ribs out, but I figured if they were “legendary”, I should probably give them a try.  Rachel and I split the filet/ribs combo. If I were to rate solely on the ribs, I’d say 4 cheesecakes. Pretty solid, could have ate more. However the filet was super mediocre and the sides were a snooze fest.

Aaron says: Chicken sandwich, obviously (Chicken Caprese Panini to be exact). Although their panini press was broken, they still made it presentable on the griddle. Good flavor with chicken that wasn’t too dried out and fresh-ish basil/pesto/mozzarella. Best casual chicken sandwich I’ve had at one of these deals.

Behold, a decent (albeit un-pressed) chicken sandwich.

John says: After much consternation and Aaron swiping my idea of ordering the chicken caprese panini, I went with the vegetable linguine. It was good! Perfect amount of vegetables to coincide with the pasta.

John’s pasta is at least one thumb up.

Food rating: 

Beverages:

Apparently their signature drink is a Romarita. Just think: This was one place where it would have been actually appropriate for Jenna to get a margarita, and she didn’t. AND NOW THAT OPPORTUNITY IS GONE FOREVER.

Rachel says: I had a Diet Coke. At least I think I did.

Aaron says: My first water seemed to be tainted with Jenna germs, but then I realized it was Jenna’s water.  Didn’t seem to catch anything from her, whew! [Ed. note: Watch out for that incubation period, dude.]

Jenna says: Pretty standard fare.

John says: I ordered my usual whiskey ginger ale. It was perfectly fine. The water tasted like motor oil though. [Ed. note: At least it didn’t taste like Jenna germs.]

Beverages rating:   

Ambiance:

This place gave off the vibe that it used to be a “nice” restaurant, and it relied on peoples’ memory of that rather than actually trying to keep up with that charade. There was some fake greenery, some fake leather booths, along with fake leather menus. Was there crap on the walls? Not nearly enough.

Rachel says: I’m sure everyone who walks in, even people who’ve never been there before, says “Hm, I thought this place used to be fancier.” The brick walls were made out of plastic and there was fake greenery as the only pop of color. To top it off, there was no smell of ribs cooking, even though the place is known for ribs. That was kind of weird. I like to dine with all five senses.

Jenna says: Yeesh. Like faux brick with weird plants. No updates, no remodeling done in probably 20 years. WEAK! Plus it’s the MOA. Or maybe they just didn’t give a sh*! about appearance because they were a week away from closing. (Although bonus 0.5 points for convenient parking at the damn MOA!)

John says: Perfectly bland. Nothing memorable at all. We learned that the brick on the pillar was plastic. And we were at the Mall of America. Again. Sigh.

Aaron: I like to see more junk stuck to the walls (here we come Cracker Barrel!).  Tired carpet, wood paneling on the walls, sort of quaint street light lamps.

Ambience rating:  

Service:

Again, with a “nicer” restaurant, we were expecting some above-average service. No such luck. What was most impressive about our server is that no one seems to truly remember him. Maybe this guy knew what was about to befall his employer and decided to be as average as possible.

Aaron says: The server was attentive, but didn’t seem to care much about anything, or that he just wanted to get out of there.  No complaints on the service.  On the way out the door, they were already closing the gate across the entrance, and the two people that were standing at the gate seemed to be bothered that we’d have the audacity to try to leave the restaurant. [Ed. note: Maybe they were hoping you’d stay and spend enough money to save the restaurant.]

Rachel says: Our server was nice and adequately attentive. I don’t remember much about him except for that he had some tattoos.

Jenna says: Apparently the service was not that memorable, because I can’t recall the dude’s name!

John says: We had a male server. I don’t remember his name. He was attentive but no overly so. All I could think about is that the best server ever, Earth, was probably working at the Rainforest Cafe at the same time. She was great. [Ed. Note: Apples and oranges, John. Apples and oranges.]

Service rating  

Casualosity:

Despite being a place that at some point was fancy, this ranked pretty high in casualosity for our group. It seemed like a higher-priced Applebee’s but with fewer TVs. Being at the mall? Casual. High prices? Not casual. Steak and ribs? Not casual. Aaron’s flip flops? Very casual. Contradictions on all sides.

Aaron: I have a feeling that since it was as the MOA, pretty much anything goes, including velvet flip flops and inappropriate t-shirts….[Ed. Note: Yeah, eating at a mall is like eating at an airport, no one’s going to look twice at your sloppiness.]

John says: Casual AF. I felt like it was a robe-wearing place.

Rachel says: On the surface it looked pretty low on the casualosity scale. The menus were even that fake dark leather, for god’s sake. But it quickly became apparent that things were pretty darn casual. Aaron felt comfortable wearing his velvet flip flops, and I felt comfortable being seen with him in those flip flops. Not to mention the fact that our server had lots of tattoos. More tattoos=less casual. Also, I’m 90 years old according to that last comment.

Jenna says: Super casual. I’m pretty sure everyone was wearing velour flip flops and inappropriate t-shirts like Aaron Smith.

Casualosity rating   

Dessert:

At first it looked like our cheesecake dreams were dashed because the menu only listed a handful of desserts, none of which fit the bill and all of which contained cinnamon (sorry Aaron). But then God shined down on us in the form of a table tent advertising their special dessert, a chocolate and caramel cheesecakes with chunks of ganache both in and on it. And it was pretty good too! Hallelujah!

Rachel says: I had high hopes for this one, mostly because it featured the word “ganache.” I love me some ganache. This one fell a bit short for me, though. I thought there could have been better distribution of the chocolate chunks throughout the slice. But it was still good.

Pictured: Textural delights

Jenna says: Unexpectedly bold and texturally delightful! Wasn’t that someone’s nickname in college??

Aaron says: Looked super tasty! It had “Luscious Layers” and “Textural Delights” (which was one of John’s many nicknames in college).

John says: Cheesecake with chocolate bits in it It was a pleasant surprise. The little sign on the table that advertised it said it was full of textural delights. Textural Delights (believe it or not) was my nickname in college.

Dessert rating  

Let’s all raise a toast to the Mall of America. Home of some of the highs (Rainforest Cafe service) and lows (Hard Rock Cafe everything) of this adventure.

Overall rating  

Next up: Cracker Barrel!

Buffalo Boring Wings

[Ed. note: Throwback to a year ago this month, when we took our famous Casual Encounter Roadtrip to Milwaukee!]

Buffalo Wild Wings is about wings (duh). But we learned during this particular encounter that specialization doesn’t necessarily bring excellence (in your FACE, Adam Smith). BWW shouts its mediocrity from the rooftops. Well, maybe not “shouts.” More like, “mumbles it whenever it decides to makes its appearance on the rooftops, because you haven’t seen it in a while and would like it to bring you your check as long as it’s coming by.”

Food: BWW is primarily known as a wing place, but there were ample other non-wing-related options for our dining enjoyment. But always chicken, everything chicken.

Jenna says: Things started promising – a flatbread appetizer that did the trick – but it was all downhill from there. I’m not a Big Wings Guy so I went with the chicken tacos. The tacos tasted like a bad Taco Bell experience. Most Taco Bell visits I have are actually quite enjoyable, but every so often I’ll have a south of the Border experience that causes me to question everything in life (I’m looking at you, Taco Bell in Anoka). [Ed. note: Don’t drag Anoka into this, Jenna. It’s been through enough.] I did sample the wings, but I don’t consider myself wing-savvy enough to rate them. 

Tacos. As unremarkable in flavor as they are in appearance.

John says: Buffalo Wild Wings is known for…wings! We went on a Wednesday and come to find out that it’s BOGO on boneless wings. I hit that up hard, bought 12 and received 12 free. I went with 4 different sauces: Parmesan garlic, mild, Caribbean Jerk, and Chipotle dry rub (also my nickname in college). Cool. Also, I ordered a flatbread appetizer thing for the table. It was fine.

Pile o’ boneless wings

Rachel says: I went in with every intention of forcing myself to get the grilled version of the buffalo chicken sandwich, but I didn’t specify that when I ordered, so I got fried. Self-sabotage at its most delicious. Even with that, the sandwich was disappointing. It was merely topped with buffalo sauce, not coated in it. C’mon guys, I know you have the coating technology back there. The flatbread app was good. I stole one of Aaron’s boneless wings and it was fine. 

Fried instead of grilled. “Oops”

Aaron says: The appetizer was good. And made even better by the fact that John paid for it.

Food rating:

Beverages:

Jenna says: Beer. Fine. I’m over ordering anything other than beer at a Casual Encounter, unless it’s a well made margarita [Ed. note: That’s probably wise.].

John says: I got there before everyone. Just early enough to catch happy hour. Yay me!! I had a beer. It was mediocre.

Rachel says: I think I got water? Even that was unmemorable.

Aaron says: I got a Coors Light. It was nice and watery.

Beverages rating:

Service: As we’ve proven time and again, the Casual Dining experience is made or broke by the service. We’ve had some truly stellar service during our journey… but this was not it. You’d think that those jersey uniforms would indicate a little more hustle, but you’d be wrong.

Jenna says: Sam was not great, not great at all. Rarely checked on us, no clever banter, and he definitely DID NOT share intimate details about his dating life. The restaurant was not super busy, and yet it took them hours to clear off the tables around us. Just gross.

John says: Phew, not good. I think our server was named Sam. He was about the blandest server we’ve had since we started this endeavor. He wasn’t bad, just boring.

Rachel says: I learned something new about myself at BWW. I learned that I have a limit to how many dirty dishes I can tolerate on our table at any given time. Not to mention that the waxed paper that lines everything gives height where other restaurants’ dirty dishes only have depth. It was like I was in an interactive sculpture full of dirty serving vessels. Our server was boring and slow. As a cap to the night, he also got my to-go order wrong.

Aaron says: Started off strong, but went downhill. He brought our waters two at a time, like a rank amateur. 

Service rating:

Ambience: BWW is a sports bar and boy howdy do they want you to know that every second that you’re there. The staff wear specialty jerseys in an unflattering gold color, perhaps in a bid to stay neutral in a world full of team rivalries. There are also TVs crammed onto every conceivable square inch of the walls so you could sports-watch to your heart’s content. It’s like Hooters but with fewer boobs.

Jenna says: BWW out sports bar-ed Hooters, which I didn’t know was possible. 40+ TVs, jersey clad servers, dudes hanging with other dudes eating wings.

John says: There weren’t enough TVs playing sporting events. JK there were like 5938 of them. It’s honestly hard to talk to people because of all the distractions. It wasn’t even sports I cared about. I am pretty sure they had ESPN 8, [Ed. note: The Ocho] showing dodgeball. But I might be wrong.

Aaron, seen here with just a tiny fraction of the TVs available.

Rachel says: The sports-themed atmosphere was what I expected. I can usually ignore TVs at restaurants pretty well because I don’t care about sportsballs. It was tough here, though. There was probably some kind of memorabilia on the walls, but I can’t remember for sure. Any sort of ambience was overshadowed by the aforementioned landscape of uncleared tables. 

Aaron says: I learned from Jenna that there were 40+ TVs present. Some of those TVs were playing hockey, so I was all about it.

Ambience rating:

Casualosity: It seems we’ve stumbled upon a new scientific theory: The more a restaurant appeals to dudes, the higher the casualosity. BWW practically sprays testosterone into the HVAC system, so the casualosity was hard to beat.

Jenna says: Again, dudes hanging with dudes eating wings.

John says: It was pretty damn casual. It was casual enough for a baby to join us or whatever.

Rachel says: I felt comfortable having my baby in there, that’s for sure. 

Aaron says: Flip flops in full effect! The clientele was wearing  a mix of business casual and sweatpants. Pretty casual, kind of confusing.

Casualosity rating:

Dessert: Our choices were limited, and mostly deep fried. We stuck to our guns and ordered the deep-fried cheesecake bites. We weren’t expecting much, and we got it.

Jenna says: TERRIBLE. Deep fried cheesecake bites that tasted like cough syrup. A real disgrace to the art of making cheesecake.

John says: This was the absolute low point. The closest thing they had to cheesecake were these fried cheesecake bites. There were 8 of them for like 5 bucks. Nope. Unhappy, BWW.

Rachel says: I was willing to give the deep fried cheesecake balls a chance. I was thinking it would be kind of a State Fair thing. Turns out, warm cheesecake is weird.

Aaron says: [Ed. note: Aaron inexplicably gave no comments about the dessert, yet rated it a 4. Phone it in, much?]

John thinks these cheesecake bites are #1…at sucking.

Dessert rating:

Favorite part:

Jenna says: Nothing was stolen from my car, unlike at Red Lobster! And Sadie graced us with her charming personality and witty one liners!

John says: Honestly…nothing. Absolutely nothing stood out. Every other casual dining establishment we’ve been to had some memorable, be it bad or good. There was nothing cool.

Rachel says: My adorable baby. Like John said, nothing really stood out.

Aaron says: That flatbread app.

Least favorite part:

Jenna says: The food, by far. I expected it to be better because I remember having positive experiences years ago at the Fargo location. But then I remembered that we used to just play trivia and order soda at the BWW in Fargo, so maybe the food has always sucked.

John says: The cheesecake bites. DUMB!

Rachel says: I was so disappointed by the food. It’s hard to make fried chicken unremarkable, but they did it. Also, the hellscape of uncleared tables.

Aaron says: Service was slower than slow.

Overall rating: 

Next up: We class up the joint with a trip to the original list’s #1 pick, Benihana!

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!

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!

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!

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!

Milwaukee Throwdown

As some of you might know, Casual Encounters of the Food Kind hit the road a couple of weeks ago in pursuit of some casual dining experiences that can no longer be had in the Twin Cities, or indeed in the entire state of Minnesota. Our two contestants were #20-ranked California Pizza Kitchen (no, there are no longer any CPK’s in MN, despite what you remember. Yes, even the one at Southdale is gone.) and #22-ranked Carraba’s Italian Grill. Rather than do a classic ratings rundown, we decided to do a little head-to-head competition between the two to see who was the best. Or, as the case turned out, who was the least mediocre. Let’s get ready to rumble!

Food:

We went in with fairly low expectations. This was encouraged by the horrified reaction of whomever we told where we were dining while in Milwaukee. “But…there are so many good restaurants!” they’d say. “We know,” we’d say. “But that’s not why we’re doing this. Our cause is noble and our dining casual.”

Carraba’s rundown:

Carraba’s had ample free bread and included a free side salad with many of their entrees. These are niceties you just don’t generally get at those farm-to-table spots.

John says: They cooked the steak to my liking. I got my choice of flavored butter to top it, too. 
Rachel says: Well cooked, moist chicken. Good ratio of protein to greens. Included side salad…..NICE.
Aaron says: I really enjoyed it. The pork-on-pork [Ed. note: Prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin. Semed like overkill, but I’m Jewish, so what do I know.] was okay, however the chicken marsala was very good, the mushrooms were a definite stand out.
Jenna says: I ordered incorrectly. My pasta dish was unremarkable. Unless you are John Ward and eat in your sleep [Ed. note: He really does this. Ask him about it.]. Then it’s DELICIOUS.
California Pizza Kitchen rundown:
The starter, some ginger-soy dumplings, was the standout of the evening. Delicious with lots of flavor, and enough to share. We split two pizzas: The signature BBQ chicken pizza, and the thin crust spinach-artichoke pizza.
Spinach-artichoke pizza: Thin, crispy crust was perfectly thin and crispy. Good cheese blend.
BBQ chicken pizza: John and Rachel say fine. Aaron says mediocre. Jenna says: Terrible – basically cardboard with the blandest BBQ sauce imaginable and rubbery chicken. All agree that it was probably just a CPK brand frozen pizza. 
Verdict: It should be called California Ginger Dumpling Kitchen. The category goes to Carraba’s.
Carraba’s food rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakecheesecake
Ambience:
To try and keep the playing field level, we ate at both places around 8pm, post-dining-rush, and sat on the patio. Though the time and setting were largely the same, the two scenarios were quite different.
Carraba’s rundown:
Rachel says: I wasn’t really pleased, but I wasn’t really displeased either. It could have been the patio for any casual dining establishment. I got neither “Italian” nor “grill” vibes from it. 
CPK rundown:
Jenna says: When we arrived, there were four tables on the patio that had yet be cleared, and they stayed that way for at least 30 minutes. While this falls more under the service category, it definitely affected the overall ambience. That shit wouldn’t fly at the Fryn’ Pan. Also, the bathroom situation was not up to par – water (pee?) on floor, and paper towels everywhere.
Aaron says: The chairs were somehow too small for my bony body. Don’t know how they managed that. 
Rachel says: The track lighting over our table was broken, and the server didn’t mention it. It’s not hard to eat pizza in the dark, but that’s not what I’m here for.
Verdict: Carraba’s ekes out a victory again by being pretty clean, unoffensive, and more comfortable for Aaron’s skeletal frame. The category goes to Carraba’s.
Carraba’s ambience rating: cheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake
Beverages:
Like any typical casual dining experience, the beverage list at each place was of considerable size yet managed to not really entice anyone at our table.
Carraba’s rundown:
Aaron says: I got an  Arnie Palmer, which came with free refills. Score!
Jenna says: I got a nice glass of rose, which Rachel reminded me goes well with everything, and also goes well with just my mouth. 
Rachel says: My water was nice and watery. 
CPK rundown:
Jenna’s Moscow Mule was delightfully refreshing and helped her “choke down [her] cardboard pizza.” The rest of crew left the drinking to Jenna and enjoyed water.
Verdict: A tie!
Overall beverages ratingcheesecakecheesecakecheesecakecheesecake
Service:
It became apparent that both servers were basically just phoning it in, ready to be done for the evening and hit up the Milwaukee suburbs. It should be noted that our previous Causal Encounter at Rainforest Cafe introduced us to Earth, the best server this side of the Mississippi. So we still coming off that high, and ain’t no one gonna live up to EARTH.
Carraba’s rundown: Although our server, Destiny, warmed up later in the evening, she initially was ICE COLD. However bonus points for the manager checking in with us on our dining experience. That’s a level of hospitality you don’t see at every Casual Encounter establishment.
CPK rundown: The aforementioned messy tables and bathrooms were a major points boner killer. Our server was fine, but could have been more attentive with refilling glasses and asking if we (ahem, Jenna) wanted more Moscow Mules.
Verdict: Tie!
Overall service ratingcheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake
Casualosity:
Both were fairly casual, although CPK had a preponderance of strollers and children, which always brings up the casualosity level.
Verdict: California Pizza Kitchen takes the category.
CPK casualosity ratingcheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake
Dessert:
Carraba’s rundown: We broke one of our rules and ordered tiramsu, instead of cheesecake because it was a ricotta-based cheesecake, and Rachel was previously traumatized by a ricotta cheesecake incident. Consensus was that it was “quite good.” No regrets.
CPK rundown: No cheesecake available, at least not from what we could piece together from the menu and the server’s apathetic description of the seasonal dessert, and to be honest, after that disappointing pizza experience, everyone wanted to leave. We did enjoy delicious frozen custard from Milwaukee’s world famous KOPP’S. Except for Aaaron because he ordered some lemon bulls***. WTF Aaron, who orders lemon ice cream?!? [Ed. note: It tasted like Lemon Pledge. Unpleasant.]
Verdict: Kopp’s obviously won, but in keeping with the (loosely enforced) rules of the game, we’d have to say Carraba’s.
Carraba’s dessert ratingcheesecakecheesecakecheesecake
Return potential: 
John says: I won’t set foot in a CPK again. Carabbas was fine. If someone had a bday party, I would go after suggesting a different venue.
 
Overall winner: Carraba’s
Overall rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecake
Overall REAL winner: Our group, and the city of Milwaukee. It’s not often that the idea of a road trip actually turns into a road trip, but we did it, folks. And Milwaukee is a lovely town.
Join us for our next casual dining adventure at Chevy’s!

We Go to Old Country Buffet…Not Because It Is Easy….

…But because it is hahd*.

*JFK voice

Easily the least-anticipated of all the potential casual dining experiences (save for “getting hit by a car”), our excursion to OCB (ranked #26 on our list) was taken on with the grim determination that only middle-class hipsters can muster when faced with this vestige of suburbia.

A few years ago, OCB went through something of a rebranding process. They added some fancier dishes in hopes of capturing the public’s disdain for sh***y food. A few years after that, they’ve closed many of their locations. As it turns out, when you’re known for sh***y food, it doesn’t matter how many times you say “we’ve added non-sh***ty stuff to the lineup!” Every 22-year-old social media twerp will tell you, and they’re right: Branding is everything.

With only one OCB remaining in the Twin Cities metro, our choice of location was somewhat limited. This was our last shot before this casual dining experience is gone.

Our rankings:

Food: Overall, the food surpassed our expectations. Which is to say it was pretty bad, but not shockingly bad. Each of us found a couple of things that were downright edible. The orange chicken (aka chicken nuggets with sweet and sour sauce) was the clear winner.

20160515_12552220160515_125643

If brown or white foods are your thing, you’re in the right place. 

John says: My highlights were the orange chicken and the surprisingly good potato salad. My lowlight was a slice of roast beef so chewy they could have sold it as roast beef flavored gum and I wouldn’t have batted an eye.

Aaron says: A few standouts: baked ham (I managed to line up for the hand-carved ham right when they brought a fresh one out, so it was fresh and tasty), dinner rolls (buttery and fluffy!), chicken pot pie. A few poor choices: rib tips (I couldn’t discern if there was any meat on the bone, or if it was all just bone), the Montreal veggies (might have been good if they were fresh, but by the time I got them they were pretty soggy).

Jenna says: Standouts: fried chicken (better than KFC, on par with Hornbachers which I totally enjoy). Orange chicken was very good. However many items looked less appetizing than school cafeteria food, notably the refried beans (looked like they’d been sitting their for days. The same cheese sauce was used for the nachos and the macaroni and cheese, and I use the term cheese sauce loosely.

Sarah says: the fact that it was a buffet meant you could dig through all the crap to find the few things that were palatable. I am pretty sure the macaroni & cheese included cheese whiz as the #1 ingredient. The meatloaf was surprisingly delicious – it had just the right texture, and came with a yummy sauce. Sadly, I only had one piece before they switched that section of the buffet to some type of disgusting looking mystery meat. The dinner rolls tasted fresh out of the oven and were buttery and tasty. I liked the jello whip, but combining cool whip and cubes of jello in a bowl is not really a culinary accomplishment to brag about.

Rachel says: I skipped so many things based on looks alone, so I can’t say too much. You eat with your eyes first, and my eyes were all “blech.” That being said, the chicken-based things were all decent. The mini chicken pot pie was a standout and made me feel dainty (no easy feat).

Rating: cheesecakecheesecake

Ambience: OCB gives each of its buffet sections totes adorbs nicknames, like Maple Street Bakery and Fire Mountain Roasters Coffee. Other than that, it was a run-of-the-mill buffet setting with dusty pastel colors and fluorescent lighting.

Sarah says: I expected noise, long lines, rowdy kids, spontaneous “Make America Great Again” chants, etc. I was pleasantly surprised to encounter none of these. It was pretty quiet and orderly. But it was still an OCB.

Rating: cheesecakecheesecake

Casualosity: Casual, and how! Our group saw a wide range of Casualosity levels, from flip-flops and sweats to peoples’ Sunday church outfits. Everyone can feel comfortable here.

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OCB’s casualosity packs ’em in on a Sunday. 

John says: This is probably the most casual place to eat. No server bothering you. Eat as much as you want. They even had a mini arcade. It was kind of a lame arcade but noteworthy nonetheless.

Jenna says: Suppppppeeerrrr casual. So casual I was able to walk in without paying. Although let the record show I went back and after I realized you were supposed to do that first. (Editor’s note: This incident was hilarious, and Jenna is a more honest person than any of us by going back and paying. Frankly, with the way things are going for OCB, it felt more like a donation than payment.)

Sarah says:  It doesn’t get much more casual than this without being fast food.

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakecheesecake

Service: Not much to say initially, since it’s a buffet. But the staff we did interact with were friendly and efficient. Our dirty plates never sat on the table for more than a couple of minutes before being scooped up by someone. OCB could really do with stocking their bathrooms with free tampons. Just a suggestion.

Jenna says: They were speedy in collecting dirty plates, which I appreciated. Other than that we didn’t see a whole lot of people. However the woman in charge of filling the soda fountain of the future was constantly doing that.

Rachel says: The guy who carved the ham was so nice, I bet he would have hand-fed me if I’d asked. 

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

 

Cheesecake: The cheesecake, which came in both plain and strawberry-topped varieties, was clearly an industrial-scale version of that no-bake Jello cheesecake mix you made in your dorm room that one time. Better than the abomination at the Hard Rock Cafe, but still. Other desserts fared better, including a fairly decent single-serve peach cobbler. Not to mention la grande dame of buffet experiences, the make-your-own-sundae station.

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Peach cobbler, bread pudding, chocolate cake, cheesecake. Not pictured: A sundae that is 3:1 hot fudge to ice cream. 

Aaron says: Better than HRC, but that’s not saying much. Other desert options fared better, rice crispy bars were decent and whipped Jello was a flashback to childhood.

Jenna says: Better than Hard Rock, that’s for damn sure! Bonus for a decent ice cream bar.

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Beverages: Now, here is where OCB decided to throw off the mantel of mediocrity and really shine. If the OCB were the movie “Rudy,” the beverage selection would be that scene where they all lift Rudy on their shoulders in jubilation for kicking a goal or whatever. (Ed. note: The editor has never seen the movie “Rudy.”) Not only did OCB feature two Coca-Cola Freestyle machines, they also had Icee machines! Our crew took full advantage of the situation, mixing the blue flavor and the red flavor for maximum fun. However, points were docked for the lack of alcohol, because SOME people in the group can’t handle the realness of a depressing buffet in the suburbs without a drink. Go figure.

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Part red, part blue, all joy.

Aaron says: Icee machine! This made the trip for me. I mixed the red and blue flavors, but the coke flavor was out of order. At some point, someone had the idea to put coke in with the icee to make a flavor vaguely reminiscent of cherry coke.

Rachel says: Even though I only ever get regular-ass Diet Coke, I still love the potential represented by a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine. I like to be bathed in the glow of possibilities, right before I select the same thing I’d get anywhere else. 

John says: Icee machine. Chocolate Milk. No booze though.

Sarah says: Couldn’t have been better from the standpoint of a non drinker.

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecake

Return potential: No surprise here, no one in our group was the least bit enthusiastic about coming back.

Aaron says: It wasn’t an unpleasant experience, but it was 30 min away and I’m not huge on buffets. Now if there was still a OCB in Highland Park or Roseville (arguably one of the top few suburbs), I could see going back if I really HAD to.

Rating: cheesecake

The best part:

John says: Getting to eat as much as I want.

Aaron says: Icee!

Rachel says: Putting peas on my salad like I was 6 years old again. And that pot pie. And Jenna not realizing she had to pay in advance.

Sarah says: Halfway through the meal when Jenna asked how much the buffet cost, and we all realized she hadn’t paid.

Jenna says: Going to the Home Depot afterwards.

The worst part:

John says: Having to drive to Burnsville.

Aaron says: Having a stomachache all afternoon.

Jenna says: That “cheese” sauce.

Sarah says: The guilt I felt from only eating one bite of my
chicken breast. (At least, I think it was a chicken breast).

Our pro-tips for buffet success:

John says: Always eat salad second. Expand your stomach with some meat, potatoes, etc. first. Then dial it back down with salad. Then ramp back up with whatever you want.

Rachel says: To paraphrase Cher Horowitz, do a lap before you commit to a location. Always scope things out and have a strategy in mind before you start plating.

Jenna says: Skip the salad bar, it will never live up to the Fryn Pan.

Sarah says: OH from the man sitting behind me. “I have diabetes, so my doctor says I shouldn’t come to places like this. But I figure oh, what the hell. We all have to die from something.” OCB should use that for marketing purposes. “Old Country Buffet: Because we all have to die from something.”

Weird combos we saw on other peoples’ plates:

I saw a little girl with broccoli cheese soup and and a chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream on top.

A half a plate of raisins.

I saw a six year old with an entire plate heaping with the disgusting macaroni and “cheese.” Where are the parents? When I was little and wanted to fill my entire buffet plate with bacon, my Mom put the kibosh on that and limited me to a still-satisfying four pieces. Thank you, Mom.

Overall rating: 2.5

Next encounter: Outback Steakhouse!

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John’s digestif: A giant gumball. 

Not so Hard, not so Rockin’

The Hard Rock Cafe

“Well, that was disappointing.”

The deck was stacked against our visit to the Hard Rock Cafe (ranked #30 on our list) from the beginning, for one simple reason: It’s located at the Mall of America. The attitudes of our group in regards to this mall range from “It’s fine” to “I’d rather join a suicide cult.” But there we were, honoring the arbitrary list and putting on our game faces for pseudo-journalism. Even after we met up at the restaurant, things were less than ideal. We had to wait until 80% of our party was seated. That is an odd mathematical threshold for people being seated. I guess they probably started out saying “most of your party” and then repeatedly had people saying “We just want to sit down but Aunt Cheryl is finishing up at Everything But Water, so please let us have a table and she’ll be here soon.” So, 80% it is. They do text you “Your table is ready to rock” when your table is, um, ready, so that’s cool, kinda. Also kinda cool: The presence of the turtleneck sweater that Alanis Morissette wore in her “Ironic” video. Would we have 10,000 spoons during dinner, when all we need is a knife? (Spoiler: No.)

The food: Overall, bad. Rachel learned that her palate is distinctly less refined than that of her peers, being neutral or even positive regarding food that the others deemed disgusting.

John says: My honey mustard chicken sandwich might as well have been my shoe. Terrible. The bacon was as limp as Elton John at a Hustler shoot. The brownie sundae was ok but didn’t outweigh how bad my sandwich was.

Jenna says: If you f*** up chicken strips, well then you are just an asshole. I’m pretty sure the Mexi-flatbread had a mayo based sauce on it. Just ew. The only edible thing was the brownie sundae, which was actually tasty. Or it might have just seemed tasty after that mayo-based incident that will haunt me forever.

Cheesecake ratingcheesecakehalf cheesecake

Ambience: Morrissetturtleneck aside, there were also cool artifacts from Prince (of course), Kiss, and Linkin Park (rawk). The server turned over one of the TVs to the hockey game, which was nice of her. Other than that, it felt very generic in its chain-restaurant-ness.

John says: I actually liked some of the memorabilia on the walls. The bathrooms were weird though. Don’t put the dryer with the sink. No, just no. Most of the place is garish and hard to look at. The lighting made everyone in the bar look attractive, which is total bulls***.

Jenna says: Nice stage, curious about the acts that they draw. Alanis Morissette?

Cheesecake rating:cheesecake cheesecakehalf cheesecake

Casualosity(tm)?: This place was definitely casual. You could probably show up in swim trunks and no one would care. If you think Olive Garden is too fancy because they have cloth napkins, you’ll probably feel very comfortable at HRC at MOA.

Jenna says: I was honestly so disgusted with the food that I didn’t pay attention. But having trivia is a nice touch.

Cheesecake ratingcheesecakecheesecakecheesecake

Service: The Cinderella story of the night. Our server took forever to get to us, and seemed jumbled when we asked for things like water or a beer list. But as the night went on, we realized how appreciative she was of us not being restaurant amateurs (like more of her clientele, surely) and being friendly and polite while still asking for what we wanted. By the end, she was so downright friendly that we had to reevaluate our first impressions.

Aaron says: When asked [about a beer], the server says something like, “oh yeah it’s still coming” as if they’re cask conditioning some Dale’s Pale Ale and just a few more minutes will really mellow the bulls*** and enhance the I-don’t-give-a-f***. GIVE ME A GOD DAMNED BEER!

John says: Our server was actually pretty good. Probably the best part of the experience.

Jenna says: Started at a 0 when it took 15 minutes for us to just order water, then she forgot my water. But she climbed out of that hole nicely and was actually quite pleasant towards the end of the evening. Plus the free booze.

Cheesecake ratingcheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Return potential: Basically, nil. Even though we cleaned up at trivia (obviously), we still would not come back unless forced to do so at gunpoint, or if we were starving and penniless and would thus be able to use our gift card prize to buy food.

John says: I am perfectly fine with never setting foot in another HRC again.

Jenna: NOPE

Andrea says: I would rather listen to Bjork for 3 hours while having a migraine than go back.

Cheesecake ratinghalf cheesecake

Cheesecake: A huge disappointment. What looked like a delicious towering slice of Oreo cheesecake was merely a mixture of poorly blended sour cream and cream cheese.

Rachel says: The best part of the entire dessert experience was the half of an Oreo served as a garnish.

Cheesecake ratinghalf cheesecake

Beverages: The tap beer selection had some surprising winners on it (Dale’s Pale Ale) was a table favorite. The free round of drinks we won included a mojito. This turned out to be, best we could tell, a rum-and-Sprite with mint leaves thrown in. Awful and too sweet. They did have a selection of N/A cocktails, which was canceled out by the presence of Pepsi (not Coke) products.

Jenna says: Impressed with the fact that they had Dale’s Pale Ale, however you had to practically get behind the bar to figure out their beer list since it wasn’t clearly listed anywhere. But that mojito, just no.

Cheesecake ratingcheesecakecheesecakecheesecake

Worst part: Interestingly enough, the bathrooms came out at the bottom of this experience. The sink fixtures included an odd faucet-and-dryer hybrid that was engineered by Dyson. Between not being able to figure out how to use them, to getting water blown in your face while drying your hands, these sinks got a thumbs down from everyone in our party.

Best part: Getting free drinks (mojito aside) from a server who grew in competency before our very eyes.

Would you go back? Again, a resounding “no” from our entire team.

The best part:

Andrea says: trashy wait staff

Aaron says: not just one free beer, but two! thank you very much John! (and trivia mafia!)

The worst part:

John says: being in the mall. AND F*** WE HAVE TO GO BACK 3 MORE F***ING TIMES.

Aaron says: looking up on the map at the mall entrance, all the information it gave for HRC was “in Camp Snoopy.” As if that narrows it down. Somewhere in or around the biggest indoor theme park in the world, there is a s***ty restaurant that you’re trying to get to. Also, it’ll always be Camp Snoopy to me!

Andrea says: Extremely confusing bathroom sinks

Rachel says: Having to make polite conversation with the host, an old college buddy, while he was supposed to be grading our goddamn sheets so we could just finish trivia and get the hell out of there.

Overall cheesecake ratingcheesecakecheesecake

Next Casual Encounter: Houlihan’s in Richfield!