After writing about my excellent experience eating at a great new place last week (The Ki Sum Cafe), Rob Maguire tweeted to ask me whether there was a restaurant I’d ever given a bad review to. The truth is, I thought I was actually critical when it comes to food reviews. I like to paint a picture of what the average person would experience when they walk in —- a man on the street sort of vibe. However, for the record, the policy at Planet S is that if the place is so terrible that we can only say bad things about it —- then we don’t review it. Our Mother’s taught us that if you can’t say something nice (at least one thing!) then don’t say anything at all. That’s why you’ve never seen Tomas the Cook between our pages. And again, for the record, our reviews are no paid reviews. I can’t believe people still think that. I can tell you that my poor editors get a lot of angry phone calls from restaurants based on why my little ole’ pen does —- droppin’ truth bombs! Haha. Anyway, I thought I’d repost this classic review on Chili’s for Rob, one of the worst restaurants I’ve ever eaten at. It’s fun from a food point of view, but it also answers the question —- ‘why would anyone in Saskatoon care about Chili’s opening?’
by Craig Silliphant
Originally appeared (in a slightly different edited form) in Planet S Magazine.
A few weeks back, I found that people were in various stages of ecstasy over the opening of the new Chili’s Restaurant across from Preston Crossing. My head was filled with stories of delicious and amazing meals. I was intrigued; as far as I knew, Chili’s was just one of those ‘sit-down-fast-food’ chains, where they serve a lot of processed, frozen ‘food’ in a sit down meal environment. This isn’t normally the sort of restaurant we’d talk about within these pages, but I was curious to see what the hubbub was all about.
To combat their giant-sized menu, I brought 11 people with me who would best represent Chili’s target audience. Our Chili’s experience started as soon as we walked in, with a half hour wait in the lobby area amongst about 40 other people. While waiting, I noticed that the ambience of the place was surprisingly generic. Similar ‘sit-down-fast-food’ joints each utilize visual flair for branding purposes; Boston Pizza is bright and resplendent with neon and Montana’s has that ‘Of Mice and Men’ ranch house feel, but Chili’s didn’t really have the Tex Mex vibe I was expecting.
Though the service would prove to be excellent overall, I did overhear several inappropriate comments from staff while waiting for our table, including two waitresses loudly complaining about another staff member and ‘whose job it was to do what.’ Customers should never, ever be privy to these kinds of conversations —- it gives them an unglamorous look behind the wizard’s curtain and presents the establishment in an unprofessional light.
Onto the food! Most of my favourite restaurants serve food that is cooked fresh, from scratch if possible, using fresh ingredients (and local, if possible). Chili’s is the antithesis of this idea; most of their menu items are boxed frozen goods, mostly made with chemical preservatives and the like. A lot of restaurants do this, and I enjoy eating at some of them, so I refuse to single out Chili’s for this, but what I’m trying to say is that I’m surprised more of the public don’t make this distinction when hyping up what a supposedly wonderful experience Chili’s is.
As the meals started hitting the table, I looked at what everyone had ordered and quizzed people on what they thought about their food. A few had quesadillas, which were just dandy. They contained chicken breast, grilled onions, and Monterey jack cheese, served with sour cream and pico de gallo (a sort of salsa). Other than the fake tortillas, these were one of the freshest meals, mainly because it’s a lot of veg and cheese.
Next: burgers and sandwiches, some of which fared better than others. One person had a burger that he really enjoyed; all though it was a processed frozen chemical patty. Why not use real beef patties? That stale chemical patty flavour was masked by virtue of the fact that the burger was smothered in aged cheddar and topped off with apple wood smoked bacon, which never hurts. Bacon fixes everything!
There were also chicken sandwiches, and those who went with the grilled chicken generally enjoyed their fresher meals more than those who chose the deep fried processed versions.
Unfortunately, there were a few meals that went out of the kitchen with zero quality control. One diner ordered the grilled chicken sandwich and received a dry, overcooked piece of chicken. Her sandwich also had BBQ sauce instead of the honey mustard that was described in the menu and her fries were undercooked and lukewarm.
Another had a nightmare of a chicken ranch sandwich; the ‘crispy’ deep fried breading was soggy, making the chicken feel and taste like it was coated in oil slicked oatmeal, which also made the bun wet. If I had to guess, I’d say the kitchen was using a fry vat with the temperature too low. Needless to say, she couldn’t finish it. Like the previous meal, the ranch sauce described in the menu was nowhere to be seen, and the fries were also undercooked and lukewarm. Seriously —- no self-respecting kitchen would have ever let these meals cross the threshold into the dining room. Things were going downhill quickly.
We had better luck with the sizzling fajitas. One diner was satisfied with his sizzling Buffalo chicken fajita, which was placed before him on a fun black skillet that hissed with heat. It was tossed in Buffalo chicken sauce and served on peppers and onions, with blue cheese crumbled in and more of that delectable smoked bacon. I have to point out that for some inane reason, the chicken was basically a deep-fried chicken burger that was cut up into strips, which is less than classy as far as I am concerned.
The ironic thing about this whole experience was that I actually had one of the best meals on the table. I went with the fajita trio, which featured grilled steak, grilled chicken, garlic and lime grilled shrimp, with onions and bell peppers. It was served with yet more processed tortillas, but with pico de gallo and sour cream. The steak was slightly overdone and the ‘sizzler’ plate had lost any semblance of hot sizzle long before it left the kitchen, but the shrimp was bursting with perfectly seasoned flavour. My meal was probably the freshest of the bunch, though it was also $23.99; quite a stiff wack to the wallet.
All in all, 8 out of 11 of my experimental diners were either disappointed or didn’t see what all the hype was about. The one thing that stood out over all the mix ups and poor quality control was the price —- everyone commented on it, as meals were between around $14 and $25 dollars. To give you some context: I had lunch at both Truffles and the Yard and Flagon in the next few days —- fresh food with fresh ingredients, made to order, and each meal was more than $10 less than my lunch at Chili’s. I would expect a much more exotic meal and exciting surroundings for Chili’s highly inflated prices.
The story of the Emperor’s new clothes came to mind when thinking back on the fuss that surrounded the opening of this Tex Mex chain. The reason people flock to Chili’s is because they perceive it as a big chain that we’ve never had before. Its appearance, to some, means we are growing and that’s thrilling.
However, what many don’t realize is that these processed food chains aren’t the way of the future of good food in Saskatoon —- and we are paying double or triple the amount for a reduction in ambience and food quality. If you want to spend $15 - $30 on lunch, or even dinner, there are more engaging restaurants in Saskatoon to frequent, especially other south of the border-inspired places like Amigos, Las Palapas, La Bamba, or EE Burritos.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that I wasn’t being a Mr. Snobby-Food-Snob-Guy; most of my lunch mates were in agreement. One of them did mention to me that Chili’s would be a good place to have a drink and some guilty pleasure appetizers, which I thought sounded right. I just don’t think I would ever go back to this restaurant for a meal again on my own volition, but each to his or her own, I suppose.