Tag Archives: Southdale

Cheesecake Factory: The Final Causal Frontier

Guys. Guys. GUYS.

 

 

Guys.

 

 

We did it.

After nearly 2 years, we made it to the top of the cheesecake mountain and completed (more or less) our list of casual dining visits. What started out as a classic “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” evolved into a full-blown project and we actually followed through on it. This club had everything: Road trips, pop-up campers, boozy slushies, and diarrhea. Plenty of diarrhea.

It’s not often that a group of adult friends follow through on a long-term hobby, much less one that involves multiple trips to the Mall of America (yeesh). But we stuck with it because of our passion for eating, and for judging. Maybe the real casual encounter was the friends we made along the way? Maybe, if you want to be weird about it. But let’s finish this the way we started, with incisive commentary from almost everyone in the group.*

*Yes, even for this final review, Aaron couldn’t be bothered to submit any comments or ratings. Now that this adventure is over, penalties will be created and enforced.

Food: CF is notorious for its gigantic menu. The menu has advertisments for other things on the menu, for god’s sake. This might be intended to signal abundance and decadence, but it really serves to distract you when you’re trying to stay on track and just pick a goddamn chicken dish out of the hundreds of chicken dishes they offer. Seriously, it’s borderline suspicious how much many menu items involve chicken. Maybe its original name was “The Chicken Factory” but that hit a little too close to home.

Rachel says: As the resident queen of panic-ordering, I knew this encounter had the potential for true disaster. If I didn’t do some preplanning I’d be left ordering a plain hamburger and a lemon slice, or something. So I went to their website and picked out a few possibilities. Then I wrote down those possibilities on a piece of paper. Then I took out that piece of paper during the ordering process at the restaurant and read my order directly from it. I did it, everyone! No panic ordering. All it took was a colossal amount of restraint that no normal adult should need to exercise. I had a kale salad with salmon on it. [Ed. Note: All that for a damn kale salad?] It was very fresh and tasty. I tried to fill up on free bread so I could bring some leftovers home. If the strategy ain’t broke, don’t fix it. 

A few more party platters, erm, single-person entrees.

John says: The menu is enormous! It’s probably the biggest menu for any restaurant I’ve ever been to. For someone like me who gets overwhelmed by the number of choices, it’s difficult. I finally settled on a Cajun chicken dish that came with corn succotash. It was fine. The chicken didn’t seem to be any sort of Cajun thought. So…kind of disappointing. 

Jenna says: That menu, yeesh, it’s just too many options. Overwhelming, and it always seems like they are out of at least 20% of the items. I went with a tomato and mozzarella pasta dish that was fine but unremarkable. That bread though, I’d take that bread home with me for sure. 

Food rating: 

Beverages: Drinks are served in glassware, yet waters are oddly served in plastic mugs that were maybe bought when all those A&W restaurants went out of business.

Rachel says: Since it was a celebration, I treated myself to a delicious Diet Coke. 

John says: Jenna arrived early in order to secure us a spot in line. Cheesecake Factory doesn’t take reservations on Friday nights [Ed. Note: You gotta want it!]. Anyway, I joined her early while waiting for the rest of the group. I had a happy hour priced margarita. It was basic but good. I had some whiskey with dinner which was unremarkable. 

Jenna says: They had a happy hour special on margaritas, and they were well made! Not mix-forward (ahem, Red Lobster). Good wine. 

Beverages rating: 

Ambiance: Far funnier people than our group have dissected the opulent tackiness of The Cheesecake Factory. Suffice it to say, the décor falls into the casual dining category of “reach exceeds grasp.” It’s trying damn hard to be fancy, but if you spend any real time focusing on any of the décor, you start to get really confused and possibly angry.

Rachel says: The ambience is a world of contradictions. There’s marble-style floors and tabletops, yet the drinkware is thick plastic. There’s dim lighting and cloth napkins, yet there’s also commemorative teddy bears and jars of salad dressing for sale. Also, the floor is super slippery! 

John says: This is where Cheesecake Factory really shines. The entire restaurant is dimly lit and well decorated. I mean, its faux columns even look good. And with it being so busy I was impressed with how clean the bathrooms and the rest of the establishment were. 

Jenna says: Of all the casual encounters, CF has by far my favorite decor. It’s like the Bellagio and Venetian hotels in Vegas, so gaudy and over the top and faux fancy that they win you over. Or at least they win me over. I waited in the bar for a bit (of course I waited in the bar) and found it to be a lovely place to enjoy a solo drink. Only complaint was the weirdly slippery floor, which is just a lawsuit waiting to happen. 

Ambiance rating:

Service: The Cheesecake Factory is a cut above, and you’d expect the service to be likewise. But this experience was spotty. Some people in our crew thought it was great, others thought it left something to be desired. One thing is for sure: We did not write down or remember our server’s name. So there you go.

Rachel says: Our server was good. The place was packed and he was clearly trying to go quickly, but he was patient with us and politely chuckled when I showed him the note with my order written on it. He answered our questions (the busiest day of the year is Mother’s Day, in case you were wondering) and asked about refills in a relatively timely fashion, considering the circumstances. 

John says: This one is difficult to rank. It was incredibly busy and so things came out pretty slow. I don’t necessarily fault the server for this. The dizzying array of dishes they have on the menu has to be a challenge for any kitchen/server. But there was a notable look of disgust when we asked for a picture of our table. While I understand it’s busy, try to keep your emotions in check dude. But…this coming from a guy who can barely do that himself as a 36 year old man. 

Jenna says: Was our server’s name Nick? [Ed. Note: Sure, why not.] I’m blanking. Nick was very busy, but very efficient. You’d have to be super patient to work there because that menu is such a beast to go through, so bonus points for Nick’s patience. No bulls**t small talk with Nick but he got the job done. 

Service rating: 

Casualosity: CF might be one of the most ironically named restaurants out there. The word “factory” conjures image of blue-collar efficiency and very few frills. This place is nothing but frills, so it screams out as a special occasion restaurant. If you are between the ages of 15 and 22 and your parents want to take you out for dinner, there is a 90% chance you are choosing this place.

Rachel says: Not very casual. I used to make my mom take me here for dinner when I was in college and I wanted to feel special. There were plenty of casual-looking people dining, but it was clearly Celebration Central for the majority. I saw more than one mylar balloon. 2 cakes.

John says: Not casual. It does feel like a place where one needs to dress up a little. That’s totally fine though. 3 cheesecakes

Jenna says: This is a special occasion restaurant for sure, though I think food prices might be slightly lower than Friday’s. But Aaron definitely would feel out of place wearing his slipper sandals. [Ed. Note: We’ll never know.]  2.5 CC

Casualosity rating:

Dessert/Cheesecake: Well duh, here we are at the restaurant that inspired this very category. It’s a factory for cheesecakes, for chrissakes. We came to play. We smartly decided to order a selection of ‘cakes, divided into categories: Fruit, classic, chocolate, wild card. That meant: Key lime, Original, (the exhaustively named) Adam’s Peanut Butter Cup Fudge Ripple, and coffee.

Choose wisely.

Rachel says: I was riding high after my not-panic-ordered entrée, so I let the rest of the crew take the lead. We were so smart to divide the flavors into categories. I wouldn’t have wanted to eat an entire piece of any of them, so I was glad to have the sharing option. I scoffed at the choice of Original flavor at first, but it really was a smooth and classic cheesecake that tasted great. The peanut butter whatnot flavor was too rich, even for me. 

John says: It’s what they’re known for. Cheesecake Factory didn’t disappoint. We ended up getting 4 pieces of cheesecake to share among six people. This was probably overmurder (I am trying out a new word for overkill). [Ed. Note: Keep trying.] We ordered an original, peanut butter chocolate, key lime, and coffee cheesecakes. I think most people liked the original the most. However, I really enjoyed the peanut butter chocolate. But I was happy with all the delectable tastes exploding in my mouth. [Ed. Note: Remind you of your college years, John?]

Jenna says: This is why we came, right?? And why this whole casual encounter of the food kind was started? They do a really fantastic plain cheesecake. Light and creamy, I’d do curbside to go and just get that cheesecake. I might stir up controversy here, but I could do without all the flavored cheesecakes. Too rich. But the basic bitch one was my favorite of the casual encounters.

Before.
After. Just a bite left of each one, because that’s how we roll in Minnesota.

Cheesecake rating: 

Favorite part:

Rachel says: The final stop on our project! We did it! I was relieved that this restaurant wasn’t a total disappointment; that would’ve been quite an upset.

John says: Being able to celebrate actually completing this casual dining journey. Really impressed with the team’s dedication.

Jenna says: Completing our casual dining journey. And getting a decent margarita for once. 

Least favorite part:

Rachel: Having to find some other excuse for hanging out with these people on a regular basis.

John says: Sigh, this being the end. But we have plans for 2018! Just you wait.

Jenna says: The food was just ok. 

Overall rating: 

We still have one more post to go! The group will be sharing some final thoughts, and we will re-rank our picks according to our ratings.

PF Chang’s: Lettuce Wrapper’s Delight

For those of us used to Chinese food being a strip-mall staple, PF Changs comes as something of a revelation. Cloth napkins, craft cocktails, and menu items with descriptions all stand in contrast to whatever greasy takeout spot you frequented in college or on your lunch break from your sad cubicle job. These guys invented lettuce wraps, for crying out loud! That’s class. Even the back history is a cut above: According to their website, a restauranteur met the original restaurant’s owner and “with a handshake, they agreed to share the magic and P.F. Chang’s was born.” So that’s how restaurant babies are made, kids.

And so, with visions of build-your-own appetizers in our heads, we ventured to Southdale Mall yet again for our second-to-last Casual Encounter.

What time is it? Oh yeah, casual o’clock.

Food:

Besides the aforementioned lettuce wraps, PF Changs features what it calls “farm to wok” cooking. It goes to show you how even mall Asian restaurants are trying to change with the times and offer a more personal, (theoretically) transparent dining experience. We’d like to see Applebee’s try that. You can really make any kind of cuisine sound more personal and transparent by putting “farm to [cooking/serving vessel].” We had a hard time deciding on what to order, so we got a few different things to share.

Rachel says: Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was suffering from pneumonia. So, my appetite was not what it usually was. But I was still excited to be in the birthplace of lettuce wraps, so I did my best to keep up with the crew. I was disappointed to see that the lettuce of said wraps was iceberg. I would have expected Bibb since this place seemed a little nicer. I also had some egg drop soup, which I know is fake Chinese food but I don’t care. It was tasty.

Jenna says: I was really excited about PF Chang’s. I used to go there in college and thought it was sooooo hip (mostly because Fargo didn’t have one) so I was looking forward to catching up with those lettuce wraps. Very, very good. The lettuce wraps were just as delicious as I remembered them (even with the iceberg lettuce, Rachel, sometimes that’s just what you need). The ginger chicken dish was equally good, but the real standout of the evening was the Mongolian beef. The meat was perfectly seared, crispy but not dry, and the green onions were a perfect addition. Of all the casual dining establishments, PFC’s is the one I’d most likely visit again because of the food.

Stuff of legends and (appetizers).

John says: I think we have a winner for best food so far during our casual dining adventures. We started out with lettuce wraps which were awesome. The group then shared an order of vegetarian fried rice, ginger chicken with broccoli, and Mongolian beef. This may be recency bias but the Mongolian beef dish was the best dish I’ve had since we started. It was damn near perfect. 

Food rating:

Beverages:

PFC’s features a full bar, complete with signature cocktails with snazzy names. We were too late for happy hour, though.

Rachel says: I really enjoyed my tea. It came in my own personal teapot so I could be in control of my destiny. And it was served with a tiny little teacup so I could A) feel like a giant and B) stay busy during the entire meal pouring thimbles of tea for myself. Hours of fun!

Tea-ny cup. Get it???

Jenna says: Not surprisingly, I had best drink of all the casual encounters. (insert joke about how I had two drinks on a school night, the nerve!). [Ed. note: Drink as much as you want, kids are the worst.] A well made Moscow Mule, complete with fresh mint and candied ginger. I docked a point though for lack of copper mug, and fancy cocktail bar prices.

John says: I went ahead and ordered a full pour whiskey which was Woodford reserve. It was good but WAY overpriced.

Beverages rating: 

Service:

Rachel says: The server was nice, if a little aloof. We also had random cast of characters bringing us our food so I can’t remember much about him.

Jenna says: It was good but unremarkable. Every time our waiter came by I had an Ann/Egg Arrested Development reaction. “Wait, that’s our waiter? Never met him.” [Ed. note: Him? Is he funny or something?”]

John says: We went ahead and made a reservation just in case holiday shopping crowds (we were at the Southdale PF Changs). I was seated immediately [Ed. note: We were one of about six tables in the whole place, so…] and the rest of the group joined shortly thereafter. Our server was patient, friendly, and not overly attentive. Those are the 3 most important qualities in a server to me. 

Service rating: 

Casualosity:

PF Chang’s skews much lower on the casualosity scale than many of the other restaurants on the list. It was, dare we say it, nice? Would a truly casual restaurant feature grandiose horses flanking the entrance, recalling some kind of Qin dynasty burial village? And also cloth napkins?

Behold the plaster grandeur.

Rachel says: Not terribly casual. No stuff on the walls, a menu with flowery descriptions, and dark leather booths. Would work well for a celebration dinner or a 17 year old’s first date. [Ed. note: We assume you mean two 17 year olds dating each other, not you pulling a Roy Moore.]

Jenna says: Although PFC scores high in food & drink for me, perhaps the best of our experience thus far, it scores extremely low in casualosity. I’m still unsure how it can be on the same list as OCB and Golden Corral. We really need to have casual dining brackets or tiers to better organize all the establishments. Get on that, John Ward.

John says: This was a big step up from our previous encounter at Golden Corral. I would say this is the second most “formal” casual dining restaurant we went to after Benihana.

Bringing the casualosity rating back up by checking on the Wild score.

Casualosity rating: 

Ambiance:

Whether it was the mall proximity or wanting to give an overall feeling of grandeur, this restaurant had soaring ceilings and a wide open dining room. A distinct lack of crap on the walls added to the vibe. There was a TV in the bar area though, in case things were feeling too sophisticated.

Rachel says: It felt way too open air for me. Or maybe that was the secret pneumonia telling me I should have been under a blanket instead of out at a restaurant. But anyway, no warmth to speak of in the atmosphere.

John says: Nothing particularly memorable about it. Since we were at a mall, it takes away some of the luster. Also, the lighting was kind of odd. Way too dark, like my soul. 

Ambiance rating:

Dessert:

PF Chang’s offered something we’ve seen and adored before in our casual journey: miniature desserts. They offer the best of everything! We all get to try something new, and at least one of them is gross and we all try it and comment on how gross it is. It’s a true bonding experience within a bonding experience.

Minis part 1

Jenna says: Could have been a whole lot better, it seems that dessert is not high on the PFC priority list. 

Rachel says: Good lord I love mini desserts. They always seem so practical, as if I couldn’t easily eat an entire full dessert by myself. The chocolate one was kind of weird, the strawberry cheesecake one had one strawberry involved in the whole thing, but it was good. An uneven experience, to be sure. 

More minis. The spoons, while thematically appropriate, weren’t the best tool for the tiny job.

John says: Ah, yes PF Changs shines again. We got 4 mini-desserts to share which were tasty. The cheesecake mini dessert was a hit. Not as good as the OCB cheesecake but pretty close.

Dessert rating: 

Favorite part:

Rachel says: The nonstop action of pouring my tea in order to get enough to drink.

Jenna says: The food!

John says: The Mongolian beef. It was so good.

Least favorite part:

Rachel says: Being sick.

Jenna says: Expensive.

John says: This being almost our last casual dining encounter.

Overall rating: 

CE at D&B’s

As we enter into the home stretch of this crazy project, we found ourselves picking up a restaurant from the middle of the list (#17 to be precise), Dave and Buster’s.

One thing you’ll notice as you make your way through a dining experience at Dave and Buster’s is that it’s essentially a theme restaurant, and the theme is “fun.” Their stock ticker is PLAY, for god’s sake! And it is fun, if this is the kind of thing you think is fun. (How’s that for logical reasoning?) Mssrs. Dave and Buster want you to forget your cares by coming up to the third level of Southdale Mall and entering into a perpetual twilight of blinking lights, finger food, and the chance of winning a fistful of (digital) tickets you can exchange for random crap you’ll give to your niece the next time you see her. It’s like a Chuck E. Cheese but for adults, and with slightly less chance of getting pink eye.

The adventure begins.
Regular fun is for losers. Epic fun is where its at.

Somewhat related note: Out of the four remaining Casual Encounters, three of them are located at Southdale, a location that has seen the rise (Cheesecake Factory) and fall (California Pizza Kitchen) of many a casual dining restaurant. It was also the first enclosed shopping mall in America. Don’t say we never taught you anything.

Food:

In keeping with D&B’s focus on indulgence and fun, the menu featured a wide variety of fried, cheesy, meaty, carby options. There’s a sandwich filled with short ribs and mac and cheese. There’s something called the Caveman Combo, which is ribs and cheeseburger sliders served in a bucket. Seriously, a lot of this food sounds like a dare.

Jenna says: A common theme that’s come up as we’ve made our way through Casual Encounters is a strange desire that I often have to order salmon. Strange because  fish doesn’t seem to be the bread and butter of these chain, casual dining establishments, except for Red Lobster, of course. It’s like I want to torture myself emotionally (which sounds like something I’d do, yes editor?). [Ed. note: Don’t bait us into commenting.] Will the salmon make me regret all my life choices?  [Ed. note: We don’t think the salmon was the only thing standing in the way of that…(See, we got this)] Fortunately, D&B’s salmon was very, very good. Had a nice char, well-season, buttery and fresh. The sautéed spinach was a bit oily and the rice was rice, but overall very good.

Jenna’s surprisingly tasty healthy entree

John says: Well, this was an adventure for me. My wife and I are doing the Whole30 diet. [Ed. Note: What a chump.] What does that entail? No grains, no gluten, no dairy, no booze, and no added sugars. So it’s difficult when ordering out. After a good amount of searching, I ended up getting a plain steak. It came with loaded potatoes which I had to substitute with the seasonal veggies. The potatoes still came out and I was tempted. But I asked for the veggies nonetheless. But the veggies ended up being 6 pieces of broccoli. Lame.

Rachel says: Valiantly trying to break my streak of panic-ordering every damn place we go, I had it narrowed down to two choices. I was trying to decide between the steak salad and something called the Bang Bang Chicken with Spicy Thai Peanut Noodles. I told our server about my conundrum and he enthusiastically recommended the chicken thing. Was it chicken nuggets on top of pasta? Yes. Delicious? Also yes.

Rachel’s unsurprisingly tasty unhealthy entree.

Food rating: 

Beverages:

We kept things really tame this time around. Aaron might have had a beer, but he didn’t submit his review, so that fact is lost to the sands of time.

John says: Again because of the diet, options were limited. I had water. It was cold.

Rachel says: I had water because they carry Pepsi. Boo.

Beverages rating: 

Service:

In keeping with the general trend of our encounters, we had great service. You’d expect any staff to be at least a bit cranky when their work environment is filled with neon and arcade sounds, not to mention suffering from the carpel tunnel that results from carrying buckets of appetizers around. But nope: it was fast, friendly service yet again. And plenty of it; We counted no fewer than three people behind the bar (on a random Wednesday), plus two people at the host stand, plus plenty of other servers. Impressive.

Jenna says: Kellis was fantastic. Good banter from the start. Made smart food recommendations (hello, salmon). Quite the salesman, too. He convinced Rachel and I to spend $10 extra on game cards, even though I knew full well that I’d spend not even half of it. Also encouraged my friends to order booze so I wouldn’t drink alone. [Ed. Note: Doing God’s, or maybe the Devil’s, work.]

John says: Our server was great overall. Only mixup was the veggie thing which wasn’t a big deal. He was attentive, friendly, and had suggestions about the games/food. He even shook all of our hands at the end. I’d say this was the second best server experience behind Earth at Rainforest Cafe.

Rachel says: Our server started out seeming kind of quiet and aloof. But after we got going on our orders, his personality blossomed and he was great. He helped me through my quasi-panic order, cracked some jokes, and was efficient in getting food and drink to us.

Service rating: 

Ambience:

The ambience at Dave & Buster’s has something for all five senses. And that something is “overload.” Thankfully, the eating area is separate from the gaming area, so you don’t have to worry about making yourself heard over the World’s Biggest Pac-Man game. There isn’t really crap on the walls, because there really isn’t any open wall space. Not that you’d notice.

Jenna says: It smelled like a dusty closet that was trying to be covered up with a vanilla air freshener. There were lights bright enough to need warnings for those with epilepsy. I’ve never been big on video games or arcades. Not my jam.

For it not being her jam, lots of jamming going on here.

John says: Lots of TVs playing tons of different sports. It had game 7 of the World Series, car racing, volleyball, basketball, college football, and Russian Roulette. One of those is fake. [Ed. note: Everyone knows that Russian Roulette is only on ESPN 8] The games were all over the map as well. There were skill games, racing games, shooting games, and so much more. I really enjoyed shooting hoops and skee-ball!

Rachel says: I love Skee-ball. I will throw down any place, any time. Based on that factor alone, this place is great. I will say that it was kind of loud and a bit too bright over by the dining area. Then, in the gaming area, the lights are turned down just low enough where it makes it hard for you to find your friends. All of that gives the place an overall feeling of disorientation. Maybe based on the same principles as casinos? No visible exit, no clocks, etc. But…skee-ball! And four-person air hockey was really fun.

Ambience rating: 

Casualosity:

It’s a restaurant inside an arcade. You’d think it would be simple to gauge its casualosity level, but our team had some issues in that respect.

Jenna says: Very casual. I was honestly expecting it to be a little classier. I had no basis for that expectation, but still.

John says: I’d say that of all the places we’ve been this is the most difficult one to judge. All the games make it seem casual but it’s also incredibly distracting and hard to hear. But it seemed pretty laid back overall which I liked.

Rachel says: It’s an arcade, in a mall, and they have more than one menu item served in a bucket. The presence of cloth napkins brings it down a tad, but not much.

Casualosity rating: 

Dessert:

Jenna says: No cheesecake, which I found surprising considering they had a bananas foster on the menu. Chocolate cake was good in the moment, but in retrospect I’m second guessing it.

John says: I couldn’t have dessert because of the diet. So N/A.

Putting a brave face on a bummer of a situation.

Rachel says: For some reason, the crew put the onus of ordering dessert (whether to order, what to order) on me. [Ed. note: You rose to the challenge of ordering dessert? What a surprise…] Even though there was no cheesecake available, I took one for the team and bought the table a piece of chocolate layer cake. It was pretty good, as chocolate layer cakes tend to be, but nothing special. I kind of wanted to order their brookie (that is, brownie+cookie) sundae tower, but that would have somehow been trying too hard and not trying hard enough.

Dessert rating:

Favorite part:

Jenna says: One casual encounter closer to Cheesecake Factory.

John says: Playing four way air hockey. It had three discs! It was really hard. I was the first to go out.

Rachel says: The games! Air hockey was super fun, and I didn’t go out first! Also, skee-ball. I’ll play skee-ball until my wrist falls off.

Four-person air hockey ftw

Least favorite part:

Jenna says: One casual encounter closer to being hit by a car.

John says: Not being able to order what I wanted. But that’s more my problem, I guess. [Ed. Note: Yeah, don’t drag D&B’s into this.]

Rachel says: Getting conned into buying the Eat and Play combo, which gave me more game credits than I ever could have used in the time I had. Maybe I’ll come back and use the rest up while we’re waiting for a table at Cheesecake Factory.

 

Overall rating: