Tag Archives: mall of america

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!

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!

Rainforest Cafe: Oooh, Heaven is a Server Named Earth

We found ourselves back at the Mall of America, this time to embark on a jungle safari to the heart of darkness that is the Rainforest Cafe (ranked #27 on our list). This is one of the only themed restaurants on our list (unless you count “depressing mediocrity” as a theme) alongside Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood (which isn’t anywhere near us and thank god for that).

.

Our passport to adventure. Adventure started around 7:36 p.m.
Our passport to adventure. Adventure started around 7:36 p.m.

Our safari began right outside host stand #1, next to the alligator misted with fog (this coming right after that kid was killed by a gator at Disneyworld. Too soon, RC).

??????????????
Gator rising out of the mist.

Once our name had been called, we were directed over to host stand #2, in the shape of an elephant. From there, we were finally led to our table under a twinkling “night sky.”

Food: Some pretty cute nicknames for the food, including Chimi-Cha-Chas. But beyond that, we realized that the food was airport-restaurant level in terms of both price and deliciousness.

John says: Tons of options. Tons of dumb options. Everything was overpriced. This place is clearly for tourists coming in from Brainerd. Or people from suburbs who think this is a great place to have a birthday party. I had a chicken sandwich with rice. The sandwich was fairly blah. But it was better than the catastrophe at Hard Rock Cafe.

Aaron says: I ordered a chicken sandwich, I don’t know why I was expecting something earth shattering, but it was mediocre. I had the “seasonal veggies” as my side, and I guess frozen green beans are in season now.

Sarah says:  At a first glance, the menu seemed to offer a nice selection. Upon closer inspection, most menu items seemed unappetizing or overpriced. Usually both. Sandwiches started at about $15. I ordered the Awesome Appetizer Adventure (AAA). The highlight was the chicken strips, which were tasty and had the perfect ratio of crispy breading and tender chicken. Unfortunately, the mozzarella sticks lacked that crucial gooey quality, the chips and guac were so-so, and the artichoke dip and chimi-chachas looked so unappealing to me that I left them to my co-explorers. Still a lot better than the Hard Rock Cafe appetizer sampler (Ed. note: New Rainforest Cafe slogan “It’s not as bad as Hard Rock Cafe!”).

Jenna says: Food was average and overpriced. I ordered the the Jungle Safari Soup – the most notable thing about the soup was that it had the prefect amount of heat. I also participated in the AWESOME APPETIZER ADVENTURE. Nearly identical food items as the disastrous app platter from HRC, however the chicken strips were notably better. The CHIMI-CHA-CHAS tasted like something you’d find in the frozen food section of your local Cub.

Rachel says: Like so many of our other Casual Encounters, my unrefined palate worked in my favor. I ordered the fish tacos (blackened, not fried, at the insistance of our server) and they were fine. I’m trying to be healthier, and fish tacos are a step towards that without me having to be the girl who orders plain oil and vinegar on her garden salad.

Aaron eagerly anticipating his chicken sandwich. Poor guy.
Aaron eagerly anticipating his chicken sandwich. Poor guy.

Food rating: cheesecake cheesecakehalf cheesecake

Ambience: Boy howdy, does this place have ambience. Mostly in the form of fake rainforest animals (parrots, butterflies) blown up to ridiculous proportions, as if this particular rainforest were located on Three Mile Island. Every 20 minutes, the lights would darken and there would be a “thunderstorm.” We get it, the rainforest is rainy. But this is also a cafe. Find a balance, RC.

John says: Let me tell you a story. A story about 5 friends who chose to take a journey. A journey through the rainforest. Their were dangers afoot everywhere. Tigers, leopards, gorillas, overpriced drinks, and deer sized parrots. Plus, thunderstorms. Timed thunderstorms.

Aaron says: Sh** yeah there was ambiance. We were in a freaking rain forest! 20 minute cycles of thunderstorms and robot animals doing their thing. I especially liked the projector system for the sky. It rotated sunrises and sunsets and had shooting stars zooming around. The only detractor on the ambiance was that it was so loud! Every 20 minutes we’d have to pause our conversations so that the gorillas could do their mating calls.

Jenna says: There was a ton of ambience, I’m just not sure it was the right ambience for someone who gets easily overwhelmed by loud noises/ screeching monkeys and gorillas. Just. Too. Much. However, I’m sure it’s heaven for a 9 year old. Side note: my dad and I got into an argument about whether or not he took us to Rainforest Cafe when we were younger. I said “NO RICK, you DIDN’T. The wait was too long so you to us to HOOTERS instead.” True story, Rick, you can’t hide from your poor choices anymore. I’m throwing in an extra 0.5 points because I not-so-secretly love hearing One Direction playing while I eat (which is probably why I’m single).

Sarah says: My only other visit to the Rainforest Cafe occurred in the mid-90s. I recall the most notable parts of the ambience were the rainforest decor and some light sound effects. My, how things have changed. Welcome to Rainforest cafe 2.0 – which is like that iPhone iOS upgrade that turns out to be more trouble than it’s worth. We were seated near two loud animatronic gorillas who were PISSED and hard to talk over at times. Every so often, the restaurant would grow dark and a “storm” would descend upon us, complete with booming thunder and flashing lightning. It was not the laid back experience I am typically looking for when I choose casual dining.

Rachel says: As expected, a total sh**show. The anamatronic gorillas who insinuated themselves into our conversation reminded me of the Country Bear Jamboree, only less whimsical. The “rainstorm” would be cute for a little kid, but it was just another thing we had to yell over in order to talk with each other. And a big falldown with the fact that the restrooms were NOT on theme. No fake animals on the walls, no jungle sounds, not even a soap dispenser shaped like a frog or something. A massive oversight.

Ambience rating: cheesecake cheesecake

Beverages: It’s important to note a few things when we talk about the chaos that was our beverage order. 1) The Rainforest Cafe has ICEEs served in souvenir cups 2) The Rainforest Cafe has a full bar 3) The Rainforest Cafe does not allow you to put alcohol in one of their souvenir cups. CONUNDRUM. But that didn’t stop our table from laboriously hashing out exactly how we could get some booze into a Coke ICEE. After 10 minutes of decisions, questions, backtracking, and shouting over gorillas, we arrived at a solution: Get the ICEE in a regular glass and get a shot of Jack Daniel’s on the side. Perfection.

John says: Tons of options. Lots of specialty drinks. The server even brought shots for Jenna/Aaron to put in their Icees. AWWWWWWW! Just like mom used to make’em.

Aaron says: Easily the highlight of the trip. Icee machine! I barely have to say more. But I will, because the server offered to bring me a shot of whisky to go with the coke flavored icee. I couldn’t get it in the gorilla sippy cup, that’s crossing the line apparently, but I got it in a glass and poured the shot of whisky into it. Well played RC!

Jenna says: Three words: Jack. Daniel’s. ICEES.

Sarah says: There were ICEEs. In character cups. Need I say more? (Ed. note: Apparently, brevity is the soul of beverage descriptions at the RC). The price (around $9, if I recall correctly), kept this from getting a perfect score.

Rachel says: I ordered a Diet Coke, and then I watched everyone else at the table solve the ICEE+booze problem like it was the final third of “Apollo 13.” It was great. 

Coke ICEE plus whiskey, the answer to life's problems.
Coke ICEE plus whiskey, the answer to life’s problems.

Beverages ratingcheesecake cheesecakecheesecake cheesecake

Service: We seem to be in the middle of a lucky streak, here. Our server was named Earth. At first we thought her name was fake, and that the restaurant had their servers pick rainforest-y names to stick with the theme. Then we saw another server named Katie, and we realized that Earth was our server’s real name.  Thankfully, we were all cool enough to not comment on it. Anywho, Earth was an outstanding server who put up with a considerable amount of BS from us at the outset, only to be charmed by us through out the rest of the meal.

John says: Absolutely top-notch service. Our drink orders were complicated. Mostly because of Aaron and Jenna. But to be fair, they always weigh us down. Our server was attentive, quick, funny, and eager to please. Can’t say enough good things.

Aaron says: Can’t complain here. We were worried we’d have spit in our food, but I’m pretty sure the server had more fun with us that the screaming kids that she has to deal with on a daily basis, I’d bet.

Jenna says: Earth was the best server I’ve had in a very long while. Good humored? Check. Able to split checks with ease? Check. Zero flinching when I dropped the F-bomb? Check. Able to handle a fairly complicated drink order and support our (mine and Aaron’s) alcohol habits? CHECK CHECK CHECK. She brought me a birthday dessert AND sang to me even though she clearly knew my birthday was 6 weeks away. 

Sarah says: Quick, attentive, and fun! Our server seemed eager to go out of her way to indulge our every whim – whether this was a hankering for a boozey ICEE, a child-like fascination with the Rainforest Cafe characters, or a pretend birthday. When we got high maintenance with some drink orders, she did not appear even a little annoyed. When she noticed how amused I was by my gorilla character cup and the accompanying plastic figurine, she brought me a child menu and crayons so that I could see what the other characters were! How do we keep getting such great servers at such mediocre dining establishments? What if we wind up finding that the lower ranked restaurants actually have the best service? Maybe they have to make up for the mediocrity in other categories by trying extra hard?

Service ratingcheesecakecheesecakecheesecakecheesecakecheesecake

Casualosity: This one was a little trickier than most restaurants on the list, because there’s no real rule of thumb about how you’re supposed to dress at a rainforest-themed family eatery. That being said, we can’t imagine there are any overly formal rainforest-themed eateries (maybe in Dubai?), so we can assume a casual nature.

John says: Off the charts casual. I wish I had worn my robe.

Aaron says: Pretty solid on the casualosity side of things. I’d say maybe a little higher class because it’s in the mall? I tried to embrace the title “casual restaurant” by wearing my velvet flip flops. I think it worked.

Jenna says: Anything goes, because there are butterflies the size of monkeys on the walls. Plus it’s the MOA.

Sarah says: A) at the mall, b) gimmicky, c) popular kid destination. In other words, very casual. Only slightly less casual than Chuck E. Cheese’s. However, in my opinion, the intense ambience detracts from the feeling of casualosity.

Aaron's casual outfit.
Aaron’s casual outfit, complete with luxurious velvet flip flops.
Let's have a closer look at Aaron's luxurious velvet flip flops.
Let’s have a closer look.

Casualosity ratingcheesecakecheesecakecheesecakecheesecake

Cheesecake/dessert: The signature dessert at the Rainforest Cafe is something called a Sparkling Volcano. It’s theoretically only served when it’s your birthday, but since Earth was the sh**, she decided that it was Jenna’s birthday, and Jenna needed a dessert volcano.

John says: Only had one bite of the dessert volcano. Coincidentally, The Dessert Volcano was also my nickname in college.

Aaron says: I didn’t know it was Jenna’s birthday (Ed. note: It wasn’t), but the flaming volcano doesn’t lie (Ed. note: It does). That was tasty along with not-too-terrible cheese cake.

Jenna says: I don’t remember the cheesecake, so that’s saying something (that I went a little too hard on the Jack D ICEE). The chocolate lava cake was pretty good, mostly because it involved sparkers and people singing happy birthday to me.

Sarah says: I ordered the Lava Mud dessert off the kids menu. This was your classic chocolate pudding-oreos-gummy worms concoction. It was a fun throwback to childhood.

Rachel says: The cheesecake was fine, and the presentation was actually pretty impressive. The lava dessert cake stole the show though, despite it being some from-a-mix chocolate cake with plain vanilla ice cream. With the volcano theme, I was hoping for an ooey-gooey molten center of chocolate magma. This was not that.

Happy birthday, Jenna!
Happy birthday, Jenna!

Dessert ratingcheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Best part of the Rainforest Cafe:

John says: The service. Absolutely top notch.

Jenna says: The delightful Earth, our server.

Sarah says: Celebrating with Jenna on her birthday!

Worst part:

Jenna says: The MOA, and seeing so many children in public. I prefer to see children at school, and nowhere else.

Sarah says: Wishing there was something, anything I could do to appease the gorillas so we could converse in relative peace.

Rachel says: Listening to John and Aaron complain about their chicken sandwiches. And the wall gorillas.

Which Rainforest Cafe “Wild Bunch” animal are you?

John says: Ozzie the orangutan. I am just such a wild card

Jenna says: Definitely Tracy the Tree, in the gift shop. Tracy doesn’t give a sh**.

Tracy the Tree, seen here giving no sh**s.
Tracy the Tree, seen here giving no sh**s.

IMG_3038

Sarah says: In reality, probably Ozzie the orangutan. But I aspire to be more like Maya the jaguar. While the rest of the RC animals lost their sh** on the regular, Maya appeared to be calm, collected, and amused. I’ll have what Maya’s having.

Rachel says: Probably Nile, the crocodile with a “large appetite for fun.” And by “fun,” I usually mean “nachos.”

Overall rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Next up, Casual Encounters takes a road trip to Milwaukee for two restaurants no longer in the Twin Cities metro: California Pizza Kitchen and Carraba’s. Road trip, woooooooo!

IMG_3042

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Next Casual Encounter: Houlihan’s in Richfield!

An Introduction

Casual Encounters of the Food Kind: Introduction

Our friend John Ward loves to rank things (Twin Cities suburbs, Air Bud sequels). When one of us spotted this article online,  it seemed only natural that we would ask him to re-rank this list according to his own, near-impeccable taste. From that re-ranking came a new and glorious idea: Why not try all the restaurants on that list that are in the Twin Cities area? And with that, this random supper club was born.

The official list, determined by Ranker-in-Chief John Ward:

  1. Cheesecake Factory
  2. Red Robin
  3. Buca di Beppo
  4. Cracker Barrel
  5. Benihana
  6. Fuddruckers
  7. Hooters
  8. PF Changs
  9. Macaroni Grill
  10. Applebees
  11. Red Lobster
  12. Olive Garden
  13. Buffalo Wild Wings
  14. Ruby Tuesdays
  15. Tony Romas
  16. Uno Chicago Grill
  17. Dave and Busters
  18. TGI Fridays
  19. Chevys
  20. California Pizza Kitchen
  21. Chilis
  22. Carabbas
  23. Bennigans
  24. Texas Roadhouse
  25. Houlihans
  26. Old Country Buffet
  27. Rainforest Cafe
  28. Ponderosa
  29. Outback Steakhouse
  30. Hard Rock Cafe
  31. Longhorn Steakhouse
  32. Planet Hollywood
  33. Getting hit by a car
  34. Golden Corral

Methodology

  • Each official dining occasion requires a quorum of at least three (3) members.
  • Visits to restaurants need not be in any particular order. In fact, skipping around will allow us to more accurately rate restaurants and to not drive ourselves insane by going to the Mall of America too many times in a row.
  • Because The Cheesecake Factory is the gold standard against which everything else is compared, our rating system will be a scale of 1-5 cheesecakes for all categories.

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  • Each member who attended that particular dining experience will be asked for their thoughts and rankings. Those scores will then be added up and averaged to determine final number of cheesecakes.
  • When applicable, a chain that is not found in the Twin Cities area will be replaced by a similar local chain (a casual dining restaurant with three or more metro locations).

Criteria

Food – Quality/taste, menu selection, value for money

Ambience – Décor, lighting, volume, and general vibe

Service – Speed, friendliness, attention to detail

Casualosity ™ – Does it deserve to be called casual dining? Is it DTF?

Return potential – Would you go back? Or, what would you rather to than go back?

Cheesecake – Do they have cheesecake? If so, we are required to try it and rate it

Beverages – Selection (both N/A and A), preparation

Our first stop: Hard Rock Café at the Mall of America…