Tag Archives: steak

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: 

 

 

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!

Inna Garden Olive-A, Baby

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

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

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

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

Serious faces, serious dining.

Food:

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

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

A tour of Italy. a very fattening tour.

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

Aaron taking his tour of Italy (with his mouth)

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

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

Food rating: 

Beverages:

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

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

John says: The white zin was zintastic!

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

Beverages rating:

Service:

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

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

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

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

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

Service rating:

Ambiance:

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

Private dining!

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

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

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

Ambiance rating:

Casualosity:

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

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

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

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

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

Casualosity rating:

Dessert/cheesecake:

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

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

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

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

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

So….full…

Dessert rating:

Favorite part:

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

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

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

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

Least favorite part:

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

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

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

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

Overall rating: 

TGI Friday’s: A Flair for the Casual

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

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

Food:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ambience:

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

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

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

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

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

Service:

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

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

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

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

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

Casualosity:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheesecake:

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

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

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

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

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

Beverages:

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

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

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

Rachel. I had water. The water was fine.

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

Favorite part:

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

Aaron says: Sharing the cheesecake at trivia.

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

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

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

Least favorite part:

Jenna says: I spent too much money.

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

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

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

Mistake.
Mistake.

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

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

 

*Much to his annoyance, apparently.

Chili’s: Diners on the Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite part of the casual encounter: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Least favorite part: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Outback: Australian for Steak

This particular Casual Encounter (ranked #29 on our list) was hotly anticipated for one reason: Bloomin’ Onions. These deep-fried monstrosities might be served at an “Australian” restaurant, but make no mistake: This is something that could only exist in America. The ratio of fried part to onion is about 3:1, its greasiness both cut and complemented by the peppery sauce (ahem, mayo) served alongside. This was the high point in an overall delightful evening. Plus, we had distinguished guests from out of town, in the Twin Cities for the next day’s Beyonce show.* Put some more shrimps on the barbie and let’s get to rating!

Outback bloomin onion

A picture of  a picture of our Bloomin’ Onion. Very meta.

*A more obvious choice for our meal in light of that event might have been Red Lobster, but we didn’t think of it until too late.

Food: Expectations were all over the board here. Some were thrilled to be heading Down Under, others not so much. But we left pretty pleased with our experience.

outback bread
The free (and plentiful) brown bread served by the entire loaf at our table. You don’t come to Australia for dainty baskets, my friend.

John says: I had rated Outback pretty low because of a bad experience the last time I was at one. However, I was happy with the food this time. I got the filet mignon and lobster tail. The steak was cooked to my liking and had good flavor. The lobster tail was ok but on the bland side. Hooray for redemption, Outback!

Aaron: My expectations were pretty high from previous experiences (family birthdays and the like), and ordering the cheapest steak was somewhat of a let down. It wasn’t bad, but just not great. I took a baked potato on the side, and it was delicious.

Jenna says: I was a bloomin’ onion virgin! It was fine – a little on the salty side. I had the filet and thought it was very good. However, I’m not a big steak eater so I don’t have much to compare it to. The only other restaurant I’ve had steak at recently is Burch. I’m curious as to what a steak lover (aka my parents) would think of it. Mashed potatoes were good – complete opposite of OCB’s box crap. 

Sarah says: My steak was superb for the price. Ordered it medium rare and it came out exactly that. I would actually go there again for that steak.

Rachel says: As a longtime fan of Outback Steakhouse, I was looking forward to this trip for a while. I had the prime rib, a favorite since childhood. It’s kind of hard to screw up a prime rib since it’s full of fat and crusted in salt and pepper, two things that allow for flexibility in preparation. Thus, my prime rib was delicious and I ate it with reckless abandon.

Food rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Ambience: A very average-looking casual dining restaurant, from the beige walls to the TVs in the bar area.

John says: Nothing spectacular. Lots of TVs tuned to basketball. Some random Australian related decorations littered the walls.

Aaron says: I thought the ambiance was great. Mostly because of the people there. I guess I didn’t really notice anything in particular as far as decor, good or bad.

Jenna: I don’t even remember what the decor was, so that tells you something (like, maybe a drank too much wine).

Sarah: For a casual dining restaurant, the ambience was pretty good actually!

Rachel: Pretty un-Australian. Maybe they used to be Aussie-tastic and then scaled back to appeal to a wider group of people who don’t appreciate kitsch. Seems foolish though, as they miss out on lots of potential for conversation pieces. For example, pictures of the actual outback. maybe a kangaroo or two, a fun fact about how far it is from Roseville, MN to Alice Springs. Maybe coasters shaped like wallabees? They did have their Women’s restroom labeled “Sheilas,” though, so that’s a start.

Ambience rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecake

Service: We’re not sure if Australian hospitality is a thing, but if it is, our server at Outback had it in spades. She split the check 10 ways without complaint. Ten ways, people. That’s amazing.

John: The best part of our trip to Outback. Our server was attentive, helpful, and personable. But not annoyingly so.

Aaron: No complaints. Sat next to a fellow patron who tried ordering the special, which they ended up being sold out. No fault of the server, per se, but reflects poorly on the establishment in general.

Jenna: She didn’t bat a single eyelash when we asked for 10 separate checks, ’nuff said.

Sarah: Outstanding. We had a huge table for this particular outing, with lots of guests. Our server was attentive and friendly.

Rachel: Server seemed nice and did split up our checks without hesitation. She happily (although not quickly) changed the TVs over to the NBA game for the fans at the table. As Aaron mentioned, my companion ordered a few things off the “limited time offer” menu, only to find out that each one he tried to order was not available. Not cool, mate.

Service: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakecheesecake

Casualosity(tm): Not much to say here. It’s going to take something really out of the ordinary to catch our eye, casualosity-wise.

John: Damn casual. Not like OCB casual but I felt very at ease. Totally felt good wearing sandals and shorts. My score was downgraded, however, because Nicole Kidman wasn’t there.

Aaron: I got the feeling you wouldn’t get kicked out for wearing flip flops, jean shorts, and an old t-shirt, but you might feel a little under dressed. I propose we make a new metric that falls under the casualosity rating: the flip-flop jorts (ffJorts, for short) scale of casualosity ™. We can work on the quantifiable bits later. [Ed Note: We hereby nominate Aaron to wear jorts to every single remaining Casual Encounter. All in favor? Opposed? Motion carries.]

Jenna: Casual to the point that if someone was doing a big celebratory dinner or birthday party, I’d suggest another location. 

Rachel: A little less casual than other places we’ve visited. Not formal by any means, but I can’t see me coming here in sweatpants like I could at OCB.

Casualosity rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Cheesecake: A pretty decent selection of cheesecake options here, as well as other sweets like cake and milkshakes.

We cannot emphasize enough how much we appreciate thematic food names during our casual dining experiences.

 

John:  While Outback’s cheesecake can’t compare to OCB’s, it was still quite tasty. I had a piece of strawberry topped cheesecake. [Ed Note: Go to hell, John.]

Aaron: I had the strawberry shortcake, which was in a cute little cup and tasted good. From a sampling of other non-cinnamon selections, I thought the deserts were good, not great.

Jenna: Average – fresh berries would have enhanced it.

Sarah: Pretty great compared to what we’ve had so far!

Rachel: Disappointing. The cheesecake came with either raspberry or chocolate sauce. Both the cheesecake and the sauce were nothing special, defrosted straight from the Sysco truck. The carrot cake looked promising, but something about it made it taste like banana, which…ew. Banana has no place in or around carrot cake. I did appreciate the presence of “mini” desserts that others got, like milkshakes and a strawberry shortcake. Goddamit I love mini-desserts.

Meh.
Meh.

Cheesecake rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Beverages: A decent happy hour, a variety of choices of wine size, and some clever alcoholic and N/A options made this a highlight.

John: Very good selection of beers, wines, and cocktails. I got 2 of their specialty cocktails which Aussie refreshing

Aaron: I ordered a Fosters, cuz when in Melbourne I guess. High marks for the selection of Australian beers that I’ve heard of.

Jenna: Enjoyed the multiple sized wines you could order!

Sarah: Beverages: I ordered what was essentially an Arnold Palmer – iced tea and lemonade. It was tasty. Our server brought me frequent (and free!) refills! Five cheesecakes from this teetotaler.

Rachel: A good selection of refreshing-looking drinks, including the “Wallaby Darned.” I appreciated the different sizes of wine, which screams value. Plus, Coke products!

Beverages rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Return potential: By the end of our meal, minds had changed. Hearts had opened. Outback is the first restaurant we’ve reviewed that receives high marks for “birthday party” potential. Not a friends-based birthday party, but a family one where you don’t want to pick something too expensive in case your cousin Chad decides to join, because Chad is cheap and doesn’t like any salad where the lettuce isn’t iceberg.

John: I wouldn’t make it a regular thing but I would definitely return to Outback. If someone had a bday or whatever.

Aaron: Pretty high return potential. I had a good time, again, maybe because of the company I shared, but the food was decent enough to put it back on the family birthday rotation.

Jenna: I only see myself going again if someone makes me, or I am traveling and there happens to be an Outback in the hotel and I don’t feel like leaving.

Sarah: Absolutely. Now that the A line is open, I can be there in even less time!! [Ed. Note: This statement was not paid for by the Metropolitan Council or MetroTransit.]

Rachel: Heck yes, I had a great meal. I’d go back anytime. Seriously. I love the high-end steakhouses in town, but sometimes I want the simplicity and value of a place located in a suburban strip mall next to a Batteries Plus and  FedEx.

Return potential rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Favorite part:

John: Special guests! We had 4 special guests join us. My wife Jenny(despite her worries about the food) joined us. Sean, Rachel’s husband had the night off from hosting 331 trivia so he tagged along. Lastly, Britt and Alicia(Rachel’s friends from Fargo) joined us because they were going to the Beyonce concert the next day. But that’s whole other story.

Jenna:  I agree with John – the specials guests were a nice enhancement! Also, it was fun change of scenery from our usual Sunday night at the 331.

Rachel: Seeing others enjoy the glory of a Bloomin Onion for the first time. Seeing John rethink his low rating of Outback from his original rankings. And having a large, fun-loving group there!

Enjoying each others' company immensely.
Enjoying each others’ company immensely.

Least favorite part:

John: Not one person asked me if I wanted another shrimp on the barbie. Bulls***.

Overall Outback Steakhouse rating:

cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Look out for our next Casual Encounter, coming soon: The Rainforest Cafe!