Sunday, July 20, 2008

Road food

This jag has been brewing for 5 weeks now and I just have to say something about our country. No, this won't be as controversial as my rant on religion, but it does frustrate me to the same degree. Perhaps they are the same issue. Hmmm....

One of the goals I had when I left Denver was to avoid all chain restaurants. It was a small goal, but one that I felt reasonably certain that I could achieve. Now that I have traveled almost 5000 miles on highways and byways between Denver and Texas, Texas and Florida and Florida to Rhode Island, I have a greater understanding how utterly ridiculous that goal really was.

From Denver through Texas the only other options than a chain restaurant was mexican food. From Texas through... hell, I am not going through all the states to say what might be "non-chain" food is. I have traveled along single lane roads into the smallest of towns and the one common denominator is that the mom & pop restaurants have been run out of town. There are very few left from what I have been able to tell and I find this to be a sad situation. I call it the "Invasion of the Plastic Food". The worst state by far was Texas. Sure, once you got to a major city there were non-franchised restaurants, but unless you knew where to go you were out of luck finding something that wasn't plastic food. Very rarely was I able to find a suitable place to eat that wasn't a chain in Texas. In the smaller towns everything now is  McD's, BK, Subway, Wendy's, Taco Bell, Whataburger, etc... Those are the main offenders, but hardly the worst. 

Those are what I call first tier plastic food, then you have the second tier plastic food which are the Bennigans, Chilis, TGIFridays, etc... Those restaurants allow you to get in sit down for a beer and some food, perhaps even feel good about your meal and allow you to think you are better off than the fast food joints because the percentage of food that isn't as processed.

The third tier are the greatest offenders of all. These are the Olive Gardens, Applebees, Sizzlers, Armadillos, etc... These restaurants are guilty of allowing some people to think that a Ceasar salad is supposed to have that Kraft Mayonnaise based dressing and that the shrimp scampi is a cream sauce instead of butter garlic. The food at these places is a poor rendition of real food and personally, I would prefer to eat at Taco Bell before Olive Garden. This tier of restaurants is evil. I truly mean that. There is nothing good about them at all. The reason that third tier restaurants like Olive Garden are so evil is the very real possibility that people who don't know any better might walk away from them thinking that this is what a plate of shrimp scampi/fettuccine Alfredo/spaghetti Bolognese is supposed to taste like.

There is a fourth tier to these chain restaurants and I can't really touch those because the food is typically good. They are the Ruths Chris, McCormicks, Chart Houses, Morton's, etc... These restaurants have determined that they want to be fine dining and that is their corporate mantra. All these restaurants maintain high standards (and high prices). You can expect a good meal here any time and be assured that it will be scratch ingredients. You can also be guaranteed that it will cost you some scratch to get out of there without doing dishes.

Why is it that America is turning plastic? Our food, our boobs (well, not the guys... well, not any that I know) and our cars to name a few. Quality is being replaced by mediocrity and image takes precedence over wisdom. We seem to have bought the advertising and left the substance in our past. Clara Peller was right, "where's the beef?" Every restaurant has a similar dish that is inspired by a quality meal from a renowned chef that never seems to hit the mark - it always leaves you wondering why. There is no variety among these chains either. Chilis is like Applebees is like Friendlies is like... It doesn't even matter what state you are in. 

You know what the funny thing is? The food is the same, but the people are remarkably different. Their needs are different, their beliefs are different, there politics are different. Why do they want and gravitate to the same food? Sure, each region has a local food style, but those styles don't translate to the chains. You will find those in stand alone restaurants.  There isn't even an inflection of flavor that might translate from the different parts of the country. 

I have found that a certain part of the country is prone to this and others aren't as susceptible. It truly seems as if the red states are more into the plastic food and the blue states have their own identity. I also have a theory that the red states are a bit thicker than the blue states, but that is another jag. Mind you, there are exceptions to this and they are usually individuals bucking the trend. New Orleans is a delightful city that keeps its identity. Savannah is another that remains true as does... I had to go all the way up to DC before I saw others that had their own style.

As much as I abhorred Massachusetts, I found that they were almost without ANY plastic restaurants. I think that I saw a Subway store somewhere. I never saw anything else that I recall (I am sure they are there). I only saw independent-stand alone dining choices and it was refreshing. That has continued north and I can't explain it. Perhaps the people are just a bit more sophisticated than their southern brethren. 

Can anyone tell me they have had a memorable meal at one of the tier 1-3 chains (other than food poisoning)? 

With all that said, as much as I tried to adhere to my rule about chains, I had to break it with Subways, Quiznos, Schlotsky's and Chilis (only). I found that they were the least objectionable and everywhere seems to one. Fortunately things loosened up around Savannah and I haven't had to be subjected to the crap food since. I am back on the goal and I don't think there are any other places that subject their people to this phenomena.

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