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Chains of Love

January 27, 2011

All communities have their divides, their wedge issues. These are things where there seems to be no compromise. You are either with us or against us. They incite passions, and make otherwise reasonable people behave in unimaginable ways.

Well, the biggest community of food lovers in Albany can be currently found at the Table Hopping blog over at Steve Barnes has been working hard to build it for the paper over the past few years.

And like any community, it has its divides.  One of the battle lines has been drawn on the subject of chain restaurants.

Every time the name of a chain restaurant is invoked, there are people who start salivating around the corners of their mouths. Some with rabid anger, and others out of some lurid desire to eat at a mainstream American chain.

For some reason I am compelled to try and find some middle ground, because as much as I love honest restaurants, where high quality ingredients are prepared from scratch to order, sometimes I love a meal from a chain restaurant.

Yep. Love.

Love is the only word I have for BonChon Chicken. Well love and get-me-the-hell-to-the-nearest-BonChon-because-their-Korean-fried-chicken-is-impossibly-crispy-and-delicious. BonChon isn’t like your normal chains. It’s not an American business. And they actually cook your food instead of just heating it up in a microwave or from a boil-in-bag.

Fair enough. But you know how I feel about Chipotle, and recently even they have shifted to boil-in-bag technology (they will call it sous vide). Still, given Chipotle’s commitment to quality ingredients—ranging from pork that was raised outdoors to rBST-free sour cream and cheese to organic and local produce—they outshine many non-chains selling food at thrice the price.

But that’s the exception. Still, can I tell you about my introduction to Fuddruckers? I was a kid and the first one had just come to Miami. We walked in and were greeted to the amazing sight of hanging beef. Yep. It was a whole cow hanging from a hook, with butchers breaking down the carcass. They were feeding the meat into a grinder to make the burgers my family would soon be eating. This was a serious place, engaging in a level of craftsmanship (and showmanship) that no locally owned and operated burger joint could match.

Granted, they don’t still do that today. But you can still walk into a Waffle House and ask for your hashed brown potatoes scattered, smothered, and covered. I love me a bona fide diner. And I’m not going to suggest that Waffle House is better than my local favorite greasy spoons. But I have yet to meet the person who doesn’t get even a wee bit excited about getting to make a pit stop at one of those bright yellow beacons of happiness.

Maybe if I lived closer to one, it would be different. But I’ve heard a rumor that Hooters will reopen in the Albany area. I know Hooters is an affront to Buffalo-style wings, since it has the temerity to bread its wings before they are sauced. The wings are almost as obscene as the outfits worn by the staff. And while we have plenty of great wing places here, there aren’t any I can think of that make them in this style.

Speaking of unique offerings, I am reminded of the veggie burger at Houston’s. Instead of a hard dried-out puck of a thing, the chefs in the corporate kitchen conceived of something that actually has the look and texture of a medium rare burger. The interior is colored with beets, and the deep beefy flavor comes from barley and mushrooms.  It’s a delicious culinary achievement.

It’s hardly unique, but if you want fondue in Albany, you have no choice but The Melting Pot. I suppose you could get the cheese fondue appetizer at The Ginger Man. But I believe in fondue as a style of eating more than as a dish one orders out. And for that, you’ll need to head to the mall.

Mrs. Fussy and I ate at the mall Houlihan’s once and had a splendid time. Not because the food was all that great. It wasn’t. Rather the meal became a treat because the restaurant offered flights of wine. Our local wine bar doesn’t even do that.

Not all chains are created equal. Some are terrible. But then again, so are some locally owned businesses. Some mom and pop restaurants use boil-in-bag soup. Some chains prepare fresh food from scratch every day. It is not the business model that makes a place good or bad. It is the food.

Sometimes chains do bad things when they try to standardize food for the American palate. On the other hand, sometimes they hit on something truly wonderful that everyone just happens to love.  Sometimes it’s a little of both. I think that explains how every now and again even reasonable people can be persuaded to overlook the crimes against Italian food just to get at a basket of Olive Garden’s breadsticks.

You just cannot count me as one of them.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 27, 2011 11:13 am

    Speaking of Fudruckers, the roomer is that Hooter’s in going in its old building, right next to Chili’s on Wolf Road.

  2. January 27, 2011 4:53 pm

    I have to admit I like eating at chain restaurants too.

    I don’t do it that often, but sometimes I just get a hankerin’ for a blooming onion or baby back ribs or that sort of stuff. Do I think it’s fine cuisine? Of course not, that would be silly.

    The whole “divide” thing you’re talking about is simply a question of food snobbery. Some people simply can’t bear the thought of being seen eating at a chain. They do of course eat at chains; they just don’t want to be seen. Textbook food snobbery, plain and simple.

    It harkens back to the old joke about vegans. How can you spot a vegan at a party? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you. Again, it’s just snobbery, the desire to feel superior when it comes to something as basic as eating.

    And it seems to me it’s getting worse every day. The whole “organic” thing has empowered a new breed of annoying food snob, and it’s maddening.

    My question has always been for food snobs, if you’re so snobby about what you eat, are you equally snobby about what you shit? Do you boast about the firmness and odor of your stool to anyone who will listen? Do you brag about how your shit literally does not stink? I mean hey, if you’re that into what you eat, why not embrace the food’s entire journey through your body?

    I’ve always felt that militant food snobs are that way due to some horrific potty training accident. Something happened to them at a very young age that made them control freaks, to the point that they obsess about every morsel that goes into their mouths.

    Sorry, food snobs just remind me of pooping.

  3. Elyse permalink
    January 27, 2011 6:04 pm

    Now, Sophia- tell us how you really feel!

  4. January 27, 2011 8:07 pm

    Hear hear! I totally agree.

  5. January 27, 2011 11:42 pm

    I used to feel strongly about this issue, falling on the side of chains=the devil’s workshop. Then I got some kids- one with a dairy allergy- and had a lot less money/time, and started realizing that if it’s toddler friendly and affordable and not every item on the kids’ menu is cheese, I don’t care if it’s a chain. They’re getting older now so we can branch out, but Chipotle and Panera both got a lot of my business. Thanks for the link, btw.

  6. Bob W. permalink
    January 28, 2011 11:53 am

    “Sorry, food snobs just remind me of pooping.” Thank you, Sophia, for the laugh to start my morning.

    Truth be told, there was a period of time when the missus and I ate at chains (Panera and Bugaboo Creek, specifically) quite a bit. Like, at least once a week. And the food was fine..certainly nothing to write home about, but it was consistent and met a need those nights when dining was more a reaction to “I don’t want to wash dishes, let’s be lazy and eat out” than an event.

    Now, with kids, we rarely dine out. So, when we do, it is an event and we want to go someplace special (and special runs the gamut from someplace like Garden Bistro 24 to Ralph’s on Central — depends on what our taste buds are demanding). Not that I have anything against the chains, but most of what I find there I can recreate at home and that is not special.

    All that said, my most irritating meal ever was the time a group of us went to NYC for the day and the fussy members of our group insisted on lunch at TGIFriday’s because they didn’t want “anything weird.”

  7. Ellen Whitby permalink
    February 1, 2011 11:56 pm

    I don’t have strong feelings either way about chains restaurants. I’ll go if it seems like the best thing to do in the moment. But not to Denny’s. Never again to Denny’s.

    I’ve never actually been to Hooter’s and I’m surprised to learn that they serve breaded chicken wings. If anything, I would have guessed they’d serve lightly breaded chicken breast.

    Stay warm, everyone.

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