Best of Northside Food & Wine 2008
Best reasons to go to a chain restaurant
By Susan Dyer Reynolds
I’ve never understood why food critics feel they have to be food snobs. I grew up in the Valley of the Olive Garden (known by some as the Silicon Valley), and I have a special place in my heart for chain restaurants – there is something to be said for consistency and comfort. I doubt Michael Bauer has ever waited in line for orange chicken at Panda Express in the mall, and that’s really too bad. How can you judge food if you aren’t willing to try it all?
When I wrote “Guilty Pleasures of a Food Critic” for the last “Best of Food and Wine” issue, a reader sent an e-mail in which she called me “the people’s food critic” – she liked the fact that I gleefully admitted occasional cravings for 7-Eleven burritos and those tuna salad sandwiches in the plastic containers.
In the economy we’ve had lately, where 401Ks are now 201Ks, the prices are a little easier to swallow, too. Here are a few of my favorite reasons to go to a chain:
Fresh Alaskan king crab:
The Fish Market
From October through November, The Fish Market features fresh Alaskan king crab legs. If the only king crab you’ve had is the spongy, saline-soaked stuff you find at Costco, then you are in for a real treat – fresh Alaskan king crab is sweet and firm. With a squeeze of lemon and a quick melted butter bath, this is easily one of the best things I’ve eaten all year. (Around $25 for a pound of crab and two sides.)
Broiled stuffed lobster:
You can find steamed Maine lobster in quite a few upscale eateries and boutique seafood spots, but broiled stuffed is hard to come by outside of New England. Even steamed lobster is seldom done well – it’s overcooked and tough or, when you crack it, water floods your baked potato. The Red Lobster does an excellent steamed version fresh from their tank, but I always pay a little extra to have mine broiled stuffed – split down the middle, slathered with butter, fluffy crab and seafood stuffing in the cavity, and broiled until the tail meat has a little char. (Around $30 with a salad, a side and those addictive cheddar biscuits.)
10-ounce lobster tail and prime rib:
Growing up in Sunnyvale, this was the go-to date spot for my high school football hero boyfriend and me (man, that guy could eat). It was also the place I went most often on father-daughter night with my dad. Lobster tails – especially non-Maine – often seem as if they’ve been in a freezer for a year (and sadly some have); they arrive mushy and tasteless. Not so at Black Angus – the 10-ounce tail is broiled and fluffed in the shell and served with salad, a baked potato, and veggies. Add a tender slab of slow-roasted prime rib, and it’s one of the best deals on the menu at under $35.
Pin rice noodle soup:
P.F. Chang’s does a great job with dumplings in general, but I love this comforting soup – little pork dumplings, plump shrimp, green onions, and bean sprouts in a homey, spicy chicken broth. ($7.95 for a big bowl.)
My mother made the best eggplant parmigiana in the world, and even she liked the Olive Garden classic version of lightly breaded eggplant fried in olive oil and topped with marinara sauce and melted mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses ($13.50 with a salad and fresh-baked garlic bread sticks). Olive Garden is one of the few chains you’ll find right here in the City – stop in after holiday shopping at Stonestown (3251 20th Avenue).
Also known as “The Big Slab,” these award-winning pork ribs are hand-rubbed with Dave’s secret seasonings, pit-smoked for a few hours over a sweet hickory fire, slathered with the signature Rich & Sassy BBQ sauce, and flame-grilled until they’re caramelized and crispy brown. Pork ribs can be tough (I order baby backs at most places), but not at Dave’s – the meat gives just enough resistance when it’s pulled from the bone – no par boiling here! Served with corn bread muffin, corn-on-the-cob, and your choice of two sides for $23.99, it’ll feed three regular appetites, two hungry folks or one ravenous soul.)
– S. D. Reynolds