Good Food at Bad Restaurants

I'm not talking about bad restaurants as in "that dumpy place down by the shipping lanes that Uncle Johnnie once saw a rat in" or "that place charges $50 a person and looks down their noses at you while they serve boring hotel food." I'm talking about places you eat when you know there are better alternatives available, no matter where you are: Chili's, Red Lobster, Hooter's.

Chain restaurants. Bland chain restaurants, at that. But we eat there anyway. Why? I can't account for other peoples' reasons, but I can account for my own. There are certain dishes at these restaurants, that -- no matter how much your friends may tease you -- you can't resist. Dishes that you know are terrible for you, but seem to be spiked with crack. Dishes you shouldn't eat as an adult with high cholesterol, but draw you in with memories of simpler times in high school or college.

I polled some of the other Houston Press staffers for their favorite "good foods" at bad restaurants (it doesn't hurt that a lot of these chain restaurants will be open Christmas Day), and the list follows below.

Cheddar Bay Biscuits at Red Lobster

Lennie Ambrose isn't alone in his Christmas-time love for these cheese-saturated, garlic-studded, buttery, flaky biscuits from Red Lobster: There's a reason, after all, that it's one of the most popular of the "Top Secret Restaurant Recipes" in that cookbook your mom brought home excitedly about a decade ago.

Skillet Queso and Paradise Pie at Chili's

There was a point in time at which these two items served as my entire dinner, much to the imagined chagrin of my parents. That time was called "14-years-old with the metabolism of a hyperactive howler monkey." Those days are long gone, and although I can no longer eat these items with impunity, I still dream about them in all their fatty glory. The meaty queso with a hint of spice on those paper-thin tortilla chips, that super-sweet pie with its layers of coconut, caramel and chocolate chips with ice cream on top... Excuse me. My keyboard is getting wet.

Soup, Salad and Breadsticks at Olive Garden

Admit it. Just admit it. There are times when unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks for less than $10 (including tip!) sounds pretty damn good. If it didn't, Olive Garden wouldn't be packed every hour of every day. And when you've had a shitty day at work and lots of bills to pay, that's a pretty inexpensive dose of comfort to buy during your lunch hour. Who doesn't like indulging in buttery garlic breadsticks and crunchy iceberg lettuce every one in a while? Snobs, that's who.

Blooming Onion at Outback

Oh, God. This. This. Is terrible for you. I mean, it has over 2,100 calories in it. That's a whole day's worth of calories in one appetizer. Seriously, if you're going to order one, at least do so with friends. But be prepared to fight them for every last deliciously greasy piece of onion when you do. Because do you know how you can tell that a food is enduringly and mind-blowingly delicious despite the fact that it may kill you and despite the fact that it's a mere appetizer at a chain restaurant? When it has its own Wikipedia page, that's how.

Macaroni and Cheese at Golden Corral

I am definitely not saying it's worth a trip to Golden Corral specifically to get a plate full of macaroni and cheese. I'm just saying that if you happen to end up there -- and who among us hasn't been placed in that predicament at least once in our lives? -- the mac and cheese is damn fine stuff. You shouldn't be ashamed to stuff your face with it. You should, however, be ashamed that your Aunt Linda has talked you into eating here for the fifth Christmas in a row. Y'all need to branch out.

Cobb Salad at California Pizza Kitchen

This salad is so wonderful that I requested my mother make it at home for my birthday dinner. She thought I was kidding; it took me three days to convince her I was serious. But it has almost everything I love most in the world, all chopped into convenient bites that allow you to put them all into your mouth at once: beets, bacon, blue cheese, avocado, tomato and eggs. Let's not kid ourselves here, though. This salad is in no way "healthy." Dressed and in its full-size glory, you're looking at over 1,100 calories. But it sure tastes good on its way down to my hips.

Soft Serve at Jason's Deli

This is how you get little kids to eat a "healthy" meal. Or, at the very least, get them to shut up long enough for you to wolf down a sandwich and soup while they squirm like baby mice in your booth. Free soft serve at the end of the meal. Hell, even adults love it. Jason's Deli is smart; they know how to keep patrons coming back for more...free soft serve.

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Katharine Shilcutt