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Dining Depressed at Rainforest Cafe

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I knew better. We both did. As anyone with young children can tell you, though; it's not at all uncommon to sacrifice your taste buds to tease a beatific smile from the face of a four-year-old, smitten with animatronic elephants and the thrill of indoor "thunderstorms." For that reason, my wife and I found ourselves being ushered through the indoor jungle of Rainforest Café and greeted by our pleasant young waiter, George. Yeah, I know.

We decided to treat the kids to a late lunch at Tilman Fertitta's safari-themed eatery inside the Galleria, after plans for a different outing had fallen through. It was so much worse than I ever could have expected (they'd been bugging us for months, ever since a classmate of my second-grader raved about the place).

As my wife and I perused the menu, filled with kitschy dishes like Lava Nachos and Raging Thunder Buffalo Wings, I offered a bit of wisdom. Go for something simple, I said. Burgers, salads, and grilled items tend to be safe enough bets, even at places where your meal is interrupted every 30 minutes by flashing strobe lights and simulated thunder. My wife chose the Rainforest Burger, while I opted for the Paradise Pot Roast. The kids both chose Python Pasta with Alfredo Sauce.

To start, we ordered some queso, and I opted for a glass of Sam Adams seasonal on draft. That beer was by far the high point of the meal. The queso was expectedly mediocre, tasting almost literally of nothing, and with the consistency of grainy library paste. It cooled and congealed quickly, leaving us to chisel, rather than scoop, the glop onto stale, oily chips.

My decision to go with the pot roast was not made without deliberation. My logic went that pot roast is a dish largely improved by inattention and cheap meat. Take the toughest, most connective-tissue riddled hunk of beef you can find, throw it in a pot with some braising liquid, and forget about it for hours -- it's bound to be a pretty damn good pot roast. I figured that this formula might win out in a restaurant where food is clearly an afterthought.

I was right on one count. I'm not sure what cut was used for my pot roast, but it was one tough, gristly hunk of cow. The texture managed to be both baby-food mushy and boot-leather tough, with spots of unbelievable graininess, mingled with large veins of totally intact collagen for that much-sought-after rubber-band element. Unfortunately, the cheap-meat portion of the pot roast equation only works out when multiplied by the long-cooking portion of the equation.

The "natural juices" with which it was served tasted like a heavily salted, yet thin, reduction of canned beef broth. The vegetables, a scattering of under-cooked carrot and celery slices, were the best part of the dish. At least they tasted as carrots and celery are meant to taste. My wife swore the potatoes were instant, and I didn't disagree with her opinion.

My wife declared her burger equally miserable, both bland and cooked well beyond the requested medium-rare. The kids didn't say much about their Python Pasta, but they didn't have to. The piles of stringy-sauced penne left on their plates told the story well enough.

All in all, I am confident in saying that this was the worst meal I have ever had in any restaurant, anywhere. Of course, I'm sure it doesn't help that it will forever be linked in my memory to the fact that I was hit by a particularly nasty case of flu later that evening, and ended up revisiting the meal a few hours later. That horrific pot roast wound up being the last actual meal I had for nine days, as I was bed-ridden and incapable of keeping down anything more substantial than Gatorade and microwaved rice. Talk about adding insult to injury.

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