Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Chains of Love’ Category

Chains of Love: Claim Jumper

claim jumper facade

Similar to Cheddar’s or  Souplantation, Claim Jumper has always struck me as a not terribly appetizing name for a restaurant. Prospectors, floppy hats, droopy mustaches, pick axes in hand, don’t make me think of steak or whatever it is that they serve there. And after finally dining at a Claim Jumper, I’m still not sure what to make of it.

claim jumper room

 

I loved it less than I thought I might. (As opposed to the P.F. Chang’s which I’m not blogging about but enjoyed–it will shock you that I don’t post everything here–in the upscale, outdoor shopping center practically across the street.) I assumed it was akin to Cheesecake Factory, something for everyone, kind of bananas decor, but the menu is far smaller in contrast to the enormous dining area that reads like three different ski lodges cobbled together. Nothing on the pricier-than-expected menu (not much under $14.99 and many of the steaks and seafood were over $25) made me excited about ordering.

claim jumper pretzel

Soft pretzels a.k.a pub pretzel, are just a vehicle for cheese sauce. The appetizers were all buffalo wings, mozzarella sticks, artichoke dip with no twists at all. It was like they weren’t even trying. TGIFriday’s, just to use one example, adds asiago to its mozzarella sticks, panko-coats its chicken fingers, and makes its soft pretzels seem more special through adjectives. Witness “craft beer cheese dipping sauce” with “crispy applewood-smoked bacon.” Maybe I should appreciate Claim Jumper’s confidence and simplicity.

claim jumper salad

 

Cobb salad might’ve been a vehicle for the only vegetables I ate in my nearly two weeks. I topped it with semi-tough beef tips for an $18.99 salad, which is more than touristy midtown pubs charge (I’m a mild connoisseur of pub steak salads).  I actually took leftovers home despite salads always being gross later, and the tiny house where I was staying did not have a refrigerator yet. I just gnawed on the cold meat the next morning.

Claim Jumper * 18000 SW Lower Boones Ferry Rd., Tualatin, OR

Chains of Love: Benihana

I was in Las Vegas for business, which sounds more important than it was, but I can’t not mix business with pleasure so I turned it into a mini-vacation since I happened to be there during my boyfriend’s birthday (who has the same birthday as my ex-boyfriend and my sister’s ex-husband, all different years) and flights from where he lives (Portland) are fast and cheap.

We’d planned the Benihana birthday when I was in Portland a few weeks prior. Neither of us had ever been. There is one in Beaverton, the only in Oregon, but on spur of the moment there were no reservations until 8:45pm (the restaurant closes at 9:30pm) and as I’ve learned (once years ago when I attempted to walk-in at the Edison, NJ location) you have to have reservations if you want to be subjected to the whole dinner and a show thing. I even signed up for the $30 off coupon if you dine in your birthday month. That’s really the only way to do it because Benihana is not exactly cheap, though you do get soup, salad, shrimp appetizer, rice, and ice cream. My Splash ‘n Meadow (hibachi steak and shrimp) was $42. (Strangely, this combo doesn’t appear on the Oregon or NYC menus).

benihana interior

There is a newer Benihana location on the strip but I was not risking it with a new-and-improved modern version. Benihana should not look like it was designed in 2016. This restaurant at the Westgate, neon visible all the way from my hotel, the El Cortez, downtown Vegas (distances are super deceiving in this flat, plunked-down city–Benihana was three miles away) was sprawling with little indoor fountains, bridges, and semi-private rooms. And most impressive to me was a roving photographer who would take your photo before the meal had begun, posing and staging diners like I haven’t encountered since my senior portrait, and putting two images in a padded display binder to sell you as you left. I had never encountered this practice, which I thought was extinct, yet there was a woman with a camera doing the same thing at the Peppermill where we went afterward, my third time at the infamous fire pit lounge. This time I had a valid excuse, “Thanks, but we just got our picture taken.”

Usually I’m opposed to communal dining. On my left was an adult child and spouse taking parents out to celebrate a 40th wedding anniversary. The father, wearing a baseball cap, arms crossed and stony nearly the entire meal, was not having any of it. On my right were women from somewhere in the South, one 30something and single, the other 40ish with a teenage daughter at home who was also celebrating a March 22 birthday, and were there for a different conference than mine and appeared to already have a few drinks in them. They were old pros at Benihana, made sure to tell staff it was the boyfriend’s birthday and were even trying to finagle free photos (no dice). Two of the six strangers had dietary restrictions (one, no shrimp, the other no meat at all, which if you have a legit allergy, um, the food is all being cooked on the same grill) and concerns were voiced about the sauce being too spicy.

benihana trio

I haven’t spoken about the food because it’s not really the point. You get your onion soup, salad with miso-ginger dressing, and chicken fried rice. My steak and shrimp had fine texture, and my medium-rare request was granted, but the beef barely tasted of anything despite lots of a vaguely teriyaki-ish sauce and butter splashed on it while it was grilled.  It reminded me of when I get desperate and buy meat at a C Town.

Whatever, Yan, who was Chinese, did the shrimp flipped into the toque trick, made lots of puns, “Have you ever seen butter fly?” as he plopped half a stick with his spatula, and…

benihana love

…clearly was a romantic at heart. All that you could hope for celebrating a birthday in Las Vegas.

benihana photos

And I even paid $40 for the not-super-flattering, dough-faced (far more common than doe-eyed, I’m afraid) photo, something I normally would not do, but being in a long distance relationship, I’m a little more frivolous when we get together every few months. The photographer said I reminded her of her sister-in-law “she has pin-up bangs too” and was trying to find a photo of her and I was cringing inside because I was worried she’d show me a chunky rockabilly chick. (I’ll own my growing plumpness but I think I dress fairly modern/contemporary. The default style in Vegas if you’re not touristy or preppy is ‘90s burlesque. I did not see a single person in four days that could be characterized as “hipster,” despite that tired term now being devoid of meaning.) The sister-in-law ended up being an attractive blonde with a flower in her hair, similar age as me, honestly a little too old for that look if I were being judgy. (Dita Von Teese is the only example I can think of as a 40+ woman who can get away with that retro style. It ages you after a certain point.) But everyone, servers, bartenders, Lyft drivers, was so nice in Vegas–or maybe everyone is chatty everywhere except NYC–I felt obligated to engage when my instinct is to brush off. It’s kind of scary now that I think about it. Considering I work at home 2-3 times per week and rarely go out on weekends these days, I think I had more extended conversations with people I just met in those four Vegas days than a month in NYC.

Benihana * 3000 Paradise Rd., Las Vegas, NV

Chains of Love: Yard House

yard house facade

Despite possessing a master’s degree, I wouldn’t say that I’ve had an academically rigorous education. In art school in the early ‘90s we met credential-granting liberal arts requirements with classes where we read biographies of our choosing and essentially wrote middle-school level book reports. (A Korean exchange student brought in a copy of Stuart Smalley’s “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!” believing it was non-fiction.) There was one freshman class, though, Art and Ideas, where we were expected to take a more critical approach, or maybe it just seemed more serious since the instructor was British.

pioneer place food court 2

An early assignment was analyzing a regional landmark. I chose the newly opened Pioneer Place mall, as it was pure transitional 1990s–lots of muted pink and mint hues, curves and waves, glass block walls–and was trying very hard to convey an upscale atmosphere. It wasn’t clear who it was for since–at least in my mind–downtown was playground to panhandlers and street kids at the time. (They haven’t been pushed out in the New Portland of 2017, don’t worry–now, there are entire homeless camps under bridges, along medians, and behind bushes.) The only memories of that essay was that I got called out for the use of “sea foam green” which the instructor didn’t get.

pioneer place food court

 

More than 25 years later, and now Pioneer Place is dated (there is not a single photo of the mall on its website) and going through an aesthetic overhaul, which I discovered while passing through the drained fountains, shuttered food court to get to Yard House in an attempt to be a Darden completist. (Breaking news now means I’ll have to add inexplicably named Cheddar’s to my list. And I couldn’t justify a trip to Eddie V’s on my one weekend in Austin, the only city I’ve visited where the chain exists, so that’s a knowledge gap.) Also, I had a $40 gift card from my birthday that I had been saving for just the right occasion. 

vault

Based on the above hint, I’m guessing the new food court will be flush with reclaimed wood, hand-drawn chalkboard menus, and filament bulbs. Maybe an 18-year-old with middling writing ability can deconstruct it.

yard house duo

The Yard House is at its heart a sports bar, touting classic rock, vast and on multiple floors connected by a staircase (apparently it replaced a Saks in 2012) and to my surprise it was very full at lunch with office workers and an enormous table occupied by what seemed like a tour group. (I thought everyone ate at food carts downtown.)  It’s eerily dark because the bulk of the restaurant is in a windowless basement, booths, walls, and ceilings black semi-matte, lit primarily from the multiple TV screens.

yard house chicken sandwich

The menu is a mishmash of what-millennials-eat fare, despite the boomer-leaning rock angle: “street tacos” with a Korean short rib option, deviled eggs with candied bacon, poke nachos, and my choice, a Nashville hot chicken sandwich enlivened by “fried sage, sweet potato pancakes, pickles, ranch dressing, honey hot sauce.” Wow, that’s a lot of trends for one sandwich. I don’t have any recollection of sweet potatoes and the chicken, itself, wasn’t particularly spicy. The bun, not unusually large, muffled a lot of the expected distinct flavors. It was exactly what you would expect of a regional specialty filtered down to KFC and elevated by a gastropub-ish chain.

The previous night’s stay at the nearby Hotel Monaco, festivities kicked-off at 4pm with poutine and happy hour martinis at Red Star Tavern (Portland does have some of the best, most loosey-goosey-houred drink and dining deals), squeezing  in one $5 Vieux Carré at Imperial before the 11pm happy hour cut-off, continuing at Little Bird with the late night happy hour $7 (once $5 but now service-included) double brie burger, then prolonged until the wee hours in my room, meant that by noon check-out my insides were trying to escape my body. My first meal of the day was irrelevant, but I could’ve done worse than a free hot chicken sandwich eaten in a faded glory of a mall basement.

Yard House * 888 SW Fifth Ave., Portland, OR

 

Chains of Love: Cheesecake Factory Elmhurst

I just said I didn’t eat at chains alone. This was an exception. It was bugging me that the city’s first Cheesecake Factory opened practically walking distance (a 12-minute bus ride, if you time it right) to my apartment but I hadn’t been yet. Queens already isn’t an easy sell as it is–Brooklyn people are very, very provincial/lazy–and I maybe have two friends that could be convinced to go to a mall in Rego Park (the Cheesecake Factory’s address is listed as Elmhurst–it’s very cuspy). I couldn’t wait any longer.

I used my trip to Target to return this ridiculous pepper grinder that had no obvious way to insert peppercorns (I’m not great with spatial logistics, but seriously) for my $7.99 back just before the 60-day grace period was up as an excuse to mall-hop.

chain nexus

This Cheesecake Factory, across the road from Shake Shack and up the block from a Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, Joe’s Crab Shack trifecta, is the nexus of chain culture in Queens. This restaurant is palatial for the area, large-scale, properly Vegas-y, yet not as sprawling and labyrinthine as its suburban brethren. There also weren’t hour waits for tables, though there were expectant diners waiting in the lobby.

cheesecake factory bar

Just me, I went to the bar. I didn’t grow up with Cheesecake Factories, I’ve only come to know them in adulthood, and the first two times in two different New Jersey locations, you could still smoke at the bar, so that was pre-2006. It must be noted for The Middle Ages posterity that there was one solo woman at least a decade older than me wearing earbuds while she ate (realizing more and more this is very common) who ordered a virgin pina colada, something off the “Skinnylicious” menu, and then crab wontons to go when she saw mine and asked what they were. Another solo woman at least a decade younger was on her left and was gnawing on a pile of wings.

I couldn’t necessarily pin down the crowd. An ethnically ambiguous (the man seemed sort of Latino and the woman a little South Asian) 30something couple in workout clothes, or maybe just athleisure, sat on my other side. The man asked if they had any organic wine, which ok…no. Then he didn’t know what a flatbread was. Like I said, I can’t say exactly what kind of people these are.

cheesecake factory wontons

The portions are big and American so you get kind of screwed by yourself even if ordering appetizers like my crab wontons. It’s too much and you want another item. Tuna tartare was randomness because I wanted variety and lightness. 

cheesecake factory bread

I do like that you get a full bread basket.

cheesecake factory menu

There seems to be a misperception among those who have not had the good fortune to visit a Cheesecake Factory that all they sell is cheesecake. My god, no. There are multiple menus with more choices than a typical spaghetti-to-spanikopita Greek diner, and they are not averse to trends. They’ve got your kale, quinoa, and avocado toast, ok?

cheesecake factory cheesecake

I decided I would be remiss in not ordering cheesecake, at least to go. This is 1,200 calories of salted caramel madness.

Previously in Cheesecake Factory.

 

 

Cheesecake Factory * Queens Center, 90-15 Queens Blvd., Elmhurst, NY

 

The Post-Millennium Chain Restaurants of Middlesex County: Kona Grill

kona grll vibe

I’m not going to tell you how long ago I ate at Kona Grill because it’s kind of embarrassing in its negligence (not for the mere fact that I ate there). But the documentarian completist in me can’t let it go unmentioned. Plus, I took NJ Transit to get there on a weekend so it was kind of an effort (combined with a visit to friends nearby–I don’t generally do chains solo unless in other countries–where we also did Bonefish Grill brunch). I’ve never been attracted to Kona Grill, kind of because it has a conflicting brand identity. The name would imply meats with some tropical edge, though in reality sushi is prominent. It’s not a part of some major restaurant group (though it’s based in Scottsdale, AZ like P.F. Chang’s) and there are only roughly 30 locations in the US. And also it’s in the parking lot of the Renaissance Hotel, near no other restaurants, unlike the usual suburban clusters, but most importantly it’s across the highway from Bonefish Grill, my old favorite chain, so if I was going to go to Woodbridge (technically Iselin), NJ I would have a hard time giving up a plate of Bang Bang Shrimp for the unknown.

kona grill food

So, Kona Grill is glitzier than it projects from a speeding car zooming down Route 1. There is a main dining room, with a sushi bar as its focus, all glowing blue like a Vegas (or NJ) lounge. We sat in a windowed side room near a fire pit, illuminated by TV screens, and shared a bunch of small plates (crab cakes, dumplings, avocado egg-rolls with honey-cilantro sauce, and portobello & goat cheese flatbread). Entrees remind you of the Grill part of the restaurant’s name and read busy a la miso-saké sea bass shrimp & pork fried rice, pan-asian ratatouille, yet there are also cajun dishes, cuban sandwiches, greek salads, and clam chowder. The menu could stand to be shaved by one-third.

kona grill drinksYou can have sake flights in addition to the Strawberry Basil Lemonades made with Bacardi Dragon Berry Rum. Yes, I’m the freak who always orders a martini with a cheese-stuffed novelty. I think the chain does a substantial happy hour business (I recall reading that in some earnings call transcript), which I will probably never witness first-hand.

Kona Grill * 511 US Hwy 1 south, Iselin, NJ

Chains of Love: Denny’s Jackson Heights

Though it seemed like it appeared overnight, anyone following Queens chain news knew that this Denny’s has been promised for years. The first rumblings were in spring of 2013, a year and a half before I moved down the street. I assumed upon unpacking I would have Super Birds at my disposal 24 hours a day.

denny's facade

The most surprising thing about the new Jackson Heights’ Denny’s, nestled into the fresh, picture-window building also housing a Chipotle and Dunkin’ Donuts wasn’t that they don’t serve craft cocktails like NYC’s first Denny’s (they don’t serve alcohol at all) or that the host automatically sent my arriving party to the table where I was already seated (guess there’s a dearth of childless, middle-age white ladies in the neighborhood) or that it was nothing like the Denny’s in Japan. No, I was extremely tickled that the check was automatically divvied into three. I’m pretty sure I’ve never encountered that at a restaurant in NYC–or any other Denny’s.

denny's receipt

I did not take any photos of the interior. The restaurant is quite bright and large (the waiting area is the size of most cafes in the area) with lots of burgundy booths, diner seating, and totally nondescript décor. I kept getting distracted by blown-up photos on the wall depicting what looked like a Waffle House, but with Denny’s name on the signs.

The menu is heavy on Grand Slams, skillets, and burgers, as it always was. It’s also pretty trend-averse. There are no flatbreads or kale salads. Jalapeño bacon and salted caramel are about as daring as it gets.

denny's pot roast

Bacon cheddar tots were a new addition, and regular old fries could be upgraded to the little blobs, more fritter than tot, for $1.29, so that had to be done. They would probably be better if they cheese had melted rather than stayed shredded. I had no complaints about the level of American cheese oozing on my pot roast melt, though. With the addition of sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions, held together by toasted 7-grain bread, this was not a bad sandwich. There was an unplanned double pot roast order at my table.

denny's duo

I love leftovers (I always freak when dining with people who leave 25% of their food destined for the trash) so I brought them to work the next day. I reflexively hid my plastic bag from view on the subway, but remembered this was the 7 train, not the F where my Olive Garden remnants elicited scowls.

Denny’s * 8710 Northern Blvd., Jackson Heights, NY

Un-American Activities: Breakfast at Denny’s Japan

dennys-18-of-21

I ate breakfast at Denny’s in Tokyo and wrote about it for Extra Crispy. Spoiler: there are no Grand Slams.

 

Un-American Activities: KFC and Domino’s Japan

kfc-christmas

I was blessed to be in Japan in December because I got to witness first-hand the phenomenon that is KFC at Christmas. However, I wasn’t able to partake in it because all those displays and set menus plastered on the wall (Sparkling cider with the Colonel’s face on it! Chicken cordon bleu! A $50 whole turkey with its own tote!) are for pre-ordering only. I had no idea.

kfc-trio

So, I settled for a four-piece meal with biscuits, no finger sheaths provided. I love how even at fast food restaurants (well, at least KFC and MOS Burger) if you order iced coffee you receive a little plastic container of simple syrup and the creamer comes in an even tinier plastic container (even though I take it black).

 

Twitter knows me far too well, as evidenced by Pizza Hut’s enticement of online ordering (no human interaction!) in English (bonus!). But after a solid 20 minutes on their site and being surprised that pizzas cost $30+, I kept getting a garbled message after inputting what I thought was my postal code, which I took to mean I was out of their delivery zone even though I was in a centrally located neighborhood. I was not going to give up ordering pizza to my Airbnb even though it had a wonky address that confused multiple cab drivers.

Plan B. Domino’s, similar oddball flavor combinations (roasted pork with demi-glace and mustard sauce,  crab gratin and something called Mayo Jaga with potato, corn, sausage, and mayonnaise obvs) also offering online orders in English, and no less expensive. I, no joke, spent a half hour trying to type my address into a form so the system would recognize it.

dominos-screenshots

I thought with near 80% certainty that I would be charged, and then like an hour later would receive an angry call in Japanese and I would have no way to direct the driver. I clearly have been living in in NYC too long because in Tokyo you could track your pizza every step of the way. I registered for the service (and received a 1000 yen coupon for another order) about ten minutes into waiting and was shocked to see the pizza was 9 minutes away, marked with a cartoon reindeer (despite Domino’s shelving reindeer delivery in Hokkaido) and moving fast. I could also read about the driver’s favorite pizza, music, and sports team, except that I couldn’t read them.

dominos-duoI made my boyfriend put on pants and run down to the street from our second floor (first floor in everyone else in the world’s parlance) to intercept a potentially lost driver, still not convinced we were actually going to receive our pizza. No worries, two friendly guys on mopeds showed up and the box was handed off (I love no tipping culture even if it results in a $33 pizza).

I was the proud owner of Cheese ‘n’ Roll Quattro Delight. That meant a surprise cheese-stuffed crust, and one quarter each of Margherita, deluxe, special seafood, and garlic master. I kind of was the Garlic Master. Japan can thwart visitors in so many ways–procedural, cultural–so I felt a strange sense of accomplishment for having conjured a pizza to my door without speaking the language. Also, I wonder how long my coupon is good for?

 

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Fresh Seafood and Forgotten Chains of the Oregon Coast

local ocean trio

Because I enjoy generalizing and like seeing the world through my own experiences, I have no problem stating that Oregonians don’t really eat seafood. Not natives anyway. And Dungeness crab aside, local bounties don’t get their due either. You’ve probably had Washington oysters, maybe northern Californian (even in Seattle, some Humboldt Bay bivalves float their way onto menus) but do you even hear about Oregon oysters? I don’t. I don’t even know why.

mo's clam chowder

Regional chain Mo’s and its famous thick, buttery clam chowder is probably the only coastal restaurant with name recognition. And this treatment from the Sterns in Saveur a few years ago is the only food-focused article on the area that I can recall seeing in recent history. It’s strange how so much coastal food is overpriced and geriatric and ‘90s continental crusted in hazelnuts. I just wanted to eat fresh fish, which is how I ended up coercing my mom and stepdude 75 miles from where I was staying in Nehalem, and my sister and her husband (even after a decade, brother-in-law sounds weird) 120 miles from their base in Eugene to Local Ocean Seafoods in Lincoln City for a belated Christmas dinner. (Yep, it’s now April–I’m determined to rein 2016 back in.)

Read more

I Do(nut): Red Hot Red Lobster

cheddar bay mixThere’s likely a lame bae pun in this, but I’m just going to give the facts: Green Bay Packer James Jones proposed to his now-wife using Cheddar Bay Biscuits as a romantic foil, as one should.

I would’ve preferred the ring to be inserted into one of the baked goods rather than just placed in the basket. And now you know my preferences, if anyone was getting an idea or anything.