Thursday, February 26, 2009

Why the chain disdain?

In the comments on my post about The Greek Wraps in Peoria, I got an excellent question from Sean of South Bend, Indiana. I think that answering a thoughtful question deserves a better fate than getting buried in a comment thread. Sean writes...

I wonder, though; do you have any favorable opinion of any of the chains? I've always thought that Chevy's did a servicable interpretation of TexMex and was a better experience overall than some of the local places and regional chains (ie Soranos in Mesa or Ajo Als). I still love Blue Nile Cafe any time I'm in town, and would tend to privilige an independtly owned, and especially chef driven, restaurant over a chain but chains (at least some of them) still have their virtues.

The main problem with most chain restaurants is that they are publicly held companies. Once a company does that, the big food decisions are no longer being made in the kitchen by the owners. They're being made by stockholders in boardrooms. The absolute best example is Cheesecake Factory. I still remember the first time I went to one. I got orange chicken, took a bite, and my very first thought of any food at Cheesecake Factory was "This used to taste better". You could just tell that anything someone might not like about the dish got tossed ("It's too spicy!" "It's too tart!"), and the end result was a pale ghost of what the dish could have been. Since the major decisions are now being made by marketing wonks who run focus groups, everything interesting about a dish gets tossed in favor of something safe. To me, it's a little bit like American Idol: The person who wins isn't necessarily the best singer, but the singer with the broadest mass appeal. Sure, the record may sound like every other pop record on the rack, but they know it's going to sell.

That right there is why massive chain restaurants are so popular: They're safe. You can walk into any Olive Garden in the country and know that the fettuccine Alfredo there is going to be exactly the same as the fettuccine Alfredo you have back home. The thing is, within ten minutes' driving time from each of these two Olive Garden locations on opposite sides of the country, the odds are good that there's going to be a mom-n-pop neighborhood red sauce joint that not only serves up Alfredo that's a million times better than the Alfredo at Olive Garden, but also happens to make a really mean veal scaloppine... or pizza quattro stagioni... or some other fabulous dish. And you know darn well that the mom and pop behind the restaurant can't believe that the line goes out the door at Olive Garden while there's always a table available at their place.

All this isn't to say that all chains suck... just the vast majority of them. There are some chains I do enjoy. In-N-Out Burger and Chik-Fil-A are both very good restaurants. Mimi's has been reliable for a great many years, especially at breakfast. This is one of the exceptions to publicly owned chains. This is because when Bob Evans bought them out, they didn't screw with the already successful formula very much. Moral of the story: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. I've heard Mimi's is shooting for a more upscale angle lately, but I haven't been in to check it out yet. As long as they keep serving mimosas, I'll be a happy camper. I will readily admit that I enjoy the occasional late-night breakfast at Waffle House. Yes, Waffle House. I wouldn't be caught dead there during the day, but going at 2 AM, getting taken care of by the world-weary chain-smoking waitress with a hair color not known in the natural world, while you tuck into a double order of hash browns topped with chili, tomatoes, cheese, onions, and god knows what else... there ain't nothing like it.

Like Sean said, Chevy's is pretty good, certainly a step above most chains. The problem around here with Chevy's is that good Mexican restaurants in Phoenix are a dime a dozen. Why bother with imitations when the real deal is right around the corner? I will agree that Chevy's is better than Serrano's and Ajo Al's, but then, I've always thought that Serrano's was the redheaded stepchild to other local chains such as Mi Amigo's and Macayo. Ajo Al's is solamente para las turistas.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Review: The Greek Wraps, Peoria AZ

Settling into the new house is going pretty well. The kitchen is ready for prime time, as is most of the house. The big game room in the back is currently finding use as an enormous walk-in storage unit. All of this busy work left me ready for a vacation, but those take a little planning and I wanted one NOW. Well, it's now past tense, so I suppose it would be better to say I wanted one RIGHT THEN, but that doesn't have the same punch as wanting it NOW, n'est-├že pas? Anyway, for the first time in several years there's actually a movie in theatres that I want to go see: Coraline in 3-D. I looked up movie times for it and it turns out that it's playing in 3-D at places all around the edge of town, plus Arizona Mills. Since I have friends up towards Peoria that I haven't seen in a while, I fired off an invitation to come see the movie with me and headed on my merry way up to the area of Arrowhead Towne Center.

A few moments after I picked up tickets for the late showing, my friends called to let me know that they already had people over but I was more than welcome to join them. Since I already had my ticket for the show, this was not an option. I now found myself with close to two hours to kill, and a completely open dance card. I stopped by the mall and made a beeline for See's to pillage the post-Valentine's Day chocolate. A couple of oversized chocolate Bordeaux hearts later, I found myself getting quite hungry. The food court looked as unappealing as ever, so I trekked out to survey the surrounding area.

A few moments of reconnaissance showed that selections in the area are awfully bleak. Turns out the Arrowhead area is the third circle of chain restaurant hell. Cheesecake Factory, PF Chang's, Chevy's, Buca di Beppo, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, you name it. Since I was on my own, I didn't want to succumb to mediocrity. I knew of a couple of places on the other side of the 101 along Union Hills, but I decided to see what I could find that was interesting and new. It turned out I wouldn't have to look for as long as I thought I would. There, tucked away in a strip mall (It's Arrowhead, there's nothing but strip malls and tract housing for miles!) on the southeast corner of 75th Avenue and Bell, was a decidedly non-chain looking sign for a place called The Greek Wraps. I pondered for a moment, decided gyros sounded like a tasty idea, and brought the Jestermobile in for a landing.

I arrived just in the nick of time, 15 minutes before closing. The place looked vaguely chain-y, but not overly so. I'd almost be willing to bet that a failed franchise (maybe two) didn't take root in the space, and all the new owners had to do was put up framed prints of the Greek isles. You wouldn't have guessed they were winding down the business day from the business level in the restaurant. There was a slow but steady stream of people coming in either for take-out or a quick sit-down bite. A look at the menu hanging over the counter showed the usual suspects: Shawarma, hummus, falafel, gyros, et cetera. The different offerings were available either as a sandwich (with sundry toppings, wrapped in pita bread; fries and drink are an optional extra) or as a plate (served with rice, hummus, and a small salad). The menu also showed something I was absolutely thrilled to see: They make their own pita bread. Not only do they make their own pita bread, they bake it fresh to order.

I perused the menu, and thought that steak shawarma ($6.99 for the 10" wrap; a smaller 7" pita is $5.75) sounded absolutely delicious. It's hard to resist when the menu says they use "The original recipe from back home". Turned out everyone else that day thought it sounded delicious too, as they were all out of it for the night. The chicken shawarma ($6.25 and $4.99, respectively) was made by the same recipe, so I went with that instead. A little extra nibble sounded nice, so I added on a falafel appetizer ($1 for two pieces). I put together an Arnold Palmer from the self-serve beverage machine (my only quibble is the iced tea is the pre-made Gold Peak instead of fresh-brewed), checked my watch to make sure I had enough time to make it to the theatre (I still had an hour to go), and a few minutes later my shawarma was ready.

The falafel was piping hot out of the fryer, just the way it should be. I think the fryer could have been a wee bit hotter as they were just a little bit oily, but not unpleasantly so. The shawarma was utterly divine. Their use of chicken thighs kept the meat flavorful and juicy. The shawarma marinade was vibrant, and the pita... oh, the pita. I can't even begin to tell you what a difference freshly made pita bread makes. I may have to come in for some hummus and a huge stack of pita bread some time soon, never mind that the place is 15 miles from my house. The fries were the archetype Greek restaurant fries, same ones you'll find at every other casual Greek place in town. They were hot and crisp, really can't ask much more than that from a fry, can you? All told, I was absolutely thrilled with the meal I had at The Greek Wraps. The people who run the place care about the product they put out, and it shows. I'm looking for any excuse to get back up towards Arrowhead just so I can try more things on the menu. Maybe I'll go see Coraline again...

Oh, speaking of Coraline, go catch it in theatres while you can... especially in 3D. It's a trip and a half.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Stopping for a drink: Hanny's, Phoenix AZ

I recently got together with a friend for dinner in downtown Phoenix, and remembered that I'd been wanting to stop in at Hanny's to check out the place. The food menu does look tempting, but as I'd just finished a rather hearty dinner, more sustenance was not on the bill. The place used to be a men's clothing store back in its day, and the new owners wisely kept some of the decorative touches, giving a certain urban sophistication that was much appreciated. As with the owners' other local restaurant, AZ88, the restrooms are almost worth the trip on their own. I can't imagine how much of a nightmare it would be to navigate one's way to the loo if you're three sheets to the wind. After perusing my surroundings, I sidled up to the bar and perused the cocktail selections, only to be promptly dismayed that there were no after-dinner libations. There was some temptation to try ordering a Stinger or a Rusty Nail (either of which would certainly befit the atmosphere), but I have a feeling that our bartender who appeared barely of drinking age would have given me a blank stare.

Further observation of the boy behind the stick leads me to believe that anything more than what was on the menu would be met with the aforementioned blank stare, as he proved himself to be out of his league. I ordered a Cosmopolitan, and watched him go to work. Out from the chiller came a pleasantly small Art Deco era size cocktail glass. I'm glad to see a cocktail glass that size. Huge drinks are a bad bet all around. The last half of the drink is room temperature, and you can't have more than one without having to be poured out the door. A cobbler shaker was produced, and was filled with ice. His hands were all over the ice in the shaker. I was tempted to give him a hell of a tongue-lashing about it, but I was with genteel company. Le sigh. He then continued to show his ineptitude by using the glass for my friend's gin & tonic as the ice scoop. I don't really need to mention this faux pas to the bartender. He'll learn his own lesson on a busy Friday night when he tries to scoop the ice with the glass, and it breaks into the ice. I've had to clean up that mess, and to say it is not pleasant is mild. With the freshly handled ice in the shaker, he then started pouring for a modern sized cocktail, i.e. too big for the small glass. He gave it four shakes. Bartenders, heed me well: Shake the hell out of your drinks! They're supposed to be freezing cold! If you think your hands are stuck to the shaker because it's so cold, you're doing it right. The cocktail was then poured to the brim in my glass, and I watched about a third of the potion go down the sink because there was no more room left in the glass. This was absolutely a crying shame. You made that much booze for me, why is such a significant portion of what should by MY drink going as an offering to Bacchus? The drink itself was, as is almost always the case, too sweet. It tasted less like the heavenly potion it should be, more like limeade. On the bright side, he didn't stub his toe on the cranberry juice like so many bartenders do.

I am tempted to return some time for the food, but after watching the bartender I'm not sure if I can bring myself to do so. If the people making things in the front of the house are either green behind the ears to the point that they should still be doing backbar (or worse, just don't care), I'm not sure I can trust the back of the house to do a significantly better job.