HuffPost Food recently went on a tour de force of some of America's major casual dining chains. Regardless of your taste in cuisine, chances are you've found yourself at a casual dining restaurant before, whether one is your go-to Friday night spot or a road trip-only meal. These national chains pride themselves on creating a menu that can appeal to a wide variety of eaters. But are these calorie-heavy appetizers worth it? We pitted eight appetizers from eight casual dining chains against each other to find out. Week 1: Buffalo Wings.
What originally turned us on to evaluating the most common fare at the biggest restaurant chains was a surface level understanding of how many major casual dining restaurants work. In some of these chains, food is often pre-prepared in a central kitchen, and then frozen to be shipped and re-heated across the country. We read fascinating tales of this process, such as the section on Applebee's in Tracie McMillan's "The American Way Of Eating" or the discussion of Chili's in David Kessler's "The End Of Overeating."
Perhaps the viral review of an Olive Garden in Grand Forks, North Dakota proved just how much casual dining can resonate with the American audience.
In our evaluation of American casual dining food, we chose eight prominent chains that serve similar American fare across the country: Applebee's, The Cheesecake Factory, Chili's, Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, Red Lobster, Ruby Tuesday and T.G.I. Friday's. Although locations and number of outlets vary, we felt that all eight epitomized the casual dining experience, perhaps best evidenced by the amount of dish overlap on all menus. In choosing which dishes to evaluate, we stuck to what we deemed the most sought-after appetizers.
As we kept eating our way through the various menus, we were surprised by the huge range across the food categories. While certain chains overall performed better than others, the more appropriate comparison was really about single dishes, rather than a restaurant as a whole. All spinach dips are not created equal.
For our first installment, we look at one of the most well-known American appetizers: Buffalo wings. All eight of the chains we frequented served Buffalo wings as an appetizer. But there was a huge disparity between texture, spiciness and meat quality. Overall, this category performed decently -- none of the wings were awful, but several restaurants need to learn how to evenly sauce! The recipe for Buffalo wings may be simple, but execution can leave a lot to be desired.
Check out the results below (high score: 5, low score: 1), and check back next week for Chain Food Showdown, Vol. 2: Nachos.
"Unremarkable, soggy." "Soggy and slightly medicinal." "Taste okay but soggy." "Oddly harsh sauce, oddly flabby meat."
"Solid, could be spicier." "Good crispiness but completely dry outside. No buffalo flavor and no spice." "Looks like plastic. Bland and almost gamey." "Not enough sauce." "Not enough flavor." "No sauce! Dry."
"Dry, no sauce." "Sauce had good tang, but wings were mostly cartilage." "Good flavor but not enough heat." "Tough, stringy low quality meat."
"Decent crispiness but undersauced. The flavor is fine but not remarkable." "Not spicy enough, sort of flaccid and pale." "Nice vinegar zing in the sauce. Not crunchy enough coating, but still enjoyable." "Just very standard. Nice crispy skin though." "Nice tanginess and chicken flavor, but no exterior crunch."
"Saucy and spicy, meat a little dry." "Good, hot, sticky, spicy." "Solid, good spice." "The spice masks the actual salty taste of the chicken." "Not bad, decent spice, crispiness." "Nice, tangly, a little salty."
"Good and spicy." "Sauce was nice but meat was so dry." "Spiciest of all the chains." "Nice crispiness, way too salty though."
"Spicy! Good amount of meat." "Spicy, not sinewy -- couldn't be much better for this type of place." "Really good and nice heat." "Spicy! Spot-on texture."
"Just enough kick and still tasted good when they cooled down." "Very tangy and saucy -- not very spicy. No crunch, but the meat was very tender and moist." "Good amount of spice, cooked well." "These are the right idea but could be spicier."
Editor's Note: We dined at all chains anonymously -- no restaurant knew that we were evaluating the cuisine. The chains we visited were all located in the New York metro area.