Letter from Bennigan’s

1214252003Don’t get me wrong: I’m a food snob at heart. Nothing whets my appetite more than the prospect of taking a delicately crafted plateful of precious farm-fresh, heirloom, artisanal morsels and scarfing it down in seconds. If the menu includes the first and last name of the farmer/forager/clamdigger who personally wrested said ingredient, hours earlier, out of the soil/forest/swamp, so much the better. To my mind, O Ya and Clio are regular hangouts, not once-a-year splurges—a dangerous habit on a food writer’s salary.

What with all the rarefied feeding frenzies at the city’s most exquisite botes, who has time to give casual-dining chains the time of day? My budget-conscious grub crawls tend to involve ethnic hole-in-the-walls, not Cheesecake Factory and Applebee’s. Life’s too short to suffer generic food that’s been whitewashed for the masses. Right?

Well, right-ish. Over the years, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to stray from the straight-and-narrow of the, um, organic skate-and-marrow. Yes, most of the food served at national chains is pretty abysmal (I’m not talking local chains like Legal Sea Foods or Boloco…). But there actually are a few rare, hidden gems amid the chipotle-southwestern grilled chicken and mandarin-orange fajita nonsense; you just have to pick and choose.

So…with my foodie credentials precariously on the line, I will attempt to go where no Chowder posting has gone before. Here are a few chain dishes worth slumming for:

(1) The Northern Style Spare Ribs at P.F. Chang’s.

When the subject of P.F. Chang’s comes up, staunch defenders trot out the Chicken Lettuce Wraps as some sort of miracle of molecular gastronomy. I guess they’re OK (chicken chopped up into pieces the size of confetti, mixed with a sweet sauce, and loaded into clinically engineered, bowl-shaped leaves of iceberg lettuce), but, IMO, they’re mostly just inoffensive.

A dish that keeps me up at night, however, is the Northern Style Spare Ribs. These things give true Southern baby backs at Lester’s or Blue Ribbon a run for the money. Seriously. Braised in a wok until fork-tender, they’re roasted ’till charred and served with bone-dry exteriors (no cloying, messy sweet sauce like most Chinese ribs). The clincher is this: They’re served with a small ramekin of super-salted five-spice powder (a blend of star anise, fennel seed, cinnamon, cloves, and Sichuan peppercorns), for dipping the dry ribs.

(2) The Buffalo Wings at Bennigan’s.

The Cajun Shrimp Skewers are heinous. The Southwest Egg Rolls are a trainwreck. The oversized, Kool-Aid-like cocktails make Red Lobster’s “Lobsterita” look like a nuanced gesture of precision mixology. What your clueless (trust me) waitron won’t know enough to mention is that the casual-dining chain’s Buffalo Wings are a hidden gem.

They’re not the classic unbreaded numbers you’d find in this bar food’s upstate New York hometown. With a fairly thick yet crispy fried coating, the Bennigan’s wings are tossed with a perfectly calibrated Frank’s Hot Sauce-addled butter sauce. Better yet, unlike numerous more “authentic” versions, the meat on these wings are cooked just until they can be pulled off the bone in one fell swoop—sort of like a chicken lollipop. A chicken lollipop doused with a tangy, creamy dollop of respectable blue cheese dressing. (Better on these than on the restaurant’s dreadful salads, I can assure you.)

(3) The Southern-Style Chicken Sandwich at McDonald’s.

Yes, you read that right. This ubiquitous Scottish (?) resto has figured out that America goes ape for chicken (less icky than gnawing on other animals, apparently…), so they offer the deep-fried stuff in “nugget” form, “tender” form, and “McChicken Sandwich” form, as well as a more luxuriously mcswanky form of the McChicken that let’s them charge a few extra bucks (get it??) for the upgrade.

All pretty dreadful but, to be fair, better than most of the “beef” options. In the last few months, however, McDonald’s has been promoting a new “Southern-style” form of chicken sandwich. Born and raised in South Carolina, I ordered one up (it always helps you up the snarky dismissal of something if you’ve actually sampled the item). Much to my surprise, this may be the best fried-chicken sandwich I’ve ever tasted.

Dredged in a thin layer of seasoned flour, the thick chicken breast fillet (not a cutlet) is deep-fried until lightly crisp, then served on a soft bun with no mayo, no lettuce, no tomato. Only a couple of sour pickles, the acidity of which cuts through richness and salt admirably. The best fried-chicken sandwich I’ve ever tasted since… since… since… Hey, wait a second: This is vaguely reminiscent of (read: exactly identical to) a Chick-fil-A sandwich, only without the dollop of religious fervor. (The chain, mostly found in Southern malls, is famously closed on Sundays.) Now if only they could mimic the In-N-Out burger next….

(4) The Italian Sampler Platter at the Olive Garden.

I didn’t have high hopes when I ambled into this much-maligned Italian chain, so imagine my surprise when…. Only kidding: No matter how many times I’ve tried to choke down the sorry fare at this symbol of mainstream tastelessness, it’s always dreadful. Even the salad-and-breadsticks dyad—once the secret survival technique of foodies forced to dine here with clueless colleagues—have ceased to retain their reliable (albeit limited) charms.

It’s like there’s an anti-flavor force field around every last one of their outposts. That “cooking school in Italy” where Olive Garden chefs allegedly go to learn the secrets of drowning chicken cutlets in ladlefuls of boring? Should be sued for fraud.