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 2: Nachos.
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 second installment, we look at the quintessential Tex-Mex food: nachos. Six out of eight of the chains we frequented served nachos as an appetizer. The nachos that stood out had cheese that actually had flavor and chips that didn't fall apart. There was an extremely clear winner in this category thanks to T.G.I. Friday's inventive take on nachos, and creative use of beans.
Week 1: Buffalo Wings
Check out the results below (high score: 5, low score: 1), and check back next week for Chain Food Showdown, Vol. 3: Mozzarella Sticks.
"Not enough cheese, too much lettuce. "Chips are a little brittle. Could do without lettuce." "A little too beefy but overall they were nicely loaded and a good chip." "Ground beef is like elementary school tacos, in fact the whole thing is like elementary school tacos." "Want beans." "Where's the cheese? Oh, found it."
"Not much better than in a dorm room microwave." "Cheese is plastic-y." "Needs more spice but chips stayed crunchy after all the toppings." "Good, greasy, could use some salsa." "Good portion and level of ingredients but cheese has no flavor."
"Good, fresh guacamole. Chips were fresh." "Nice solid chips that don't break, but the toppings were bland." These were 'play it safe' nachos. Really boring actually." "Really crisp, good thick chips with fresh guacamole and good amount of cheese." "Points for great fresh guacamole, good pico de gallo and sturdy chips. Points off for inadequate cheese coverage that got hard quickly."
"Got soggy fast, but good refried beans." "Nicely stacked with equal amounts of topping per chip, but got super soggy." "While the concept was good -- an individual pre-topped chip -- the execution was lacking." "Didn't pack a punch."
"Classic smooth yellow nacho cheese sauce is tasty but chips are brittle and they lack a spicy element, and beans." "The shrimp did nothing for me but otherwise good/standard." "Nice and spicy with a good nacho cheese. The shrimp had nothing to offer." "Could do without the shrimp, but the nacho cheese is spot on. The chips are soggy." "Really tasty cheese." "Homemade flavor."
"Love the quesadilla-nacho hybrid with refried beans in the center." "Whoever it was that reinvented this nacho is a genius. A pretty great take. Live it!" "Smartly packaged to be fully loaded in every bite, and still crispy." "Amazing nacho pockets!" "Very inventive."
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.