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 3: Mozzarella Sticks.
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 third installment, we examined mozzarella sticks. The main problem with the bad ones was the cheese -- there either wasn't enough of it, it tasted like nothing or it wasn't evenly spread throughout the breading. While some breading was better than other, that was never the make-or-break factor. But give us rubbery, tasteless cheese and it's game over.
Week 1: Buffalo Wings
Week 2: Nachos
Check out the results below (high score: 5, low score: 1), and check back next week for Chain Food Showdown, Vol. 4: Potato Skins.
"Rubbery. Gross." "Nice breading but cheese was plastic-y and disappeared in the crust pocket." "Where's the cheese?" "The breading is nice and crisp but the cheese is skimpy." "Tasteless cheese."
"Standard but with a bad fried flavor (seafood-related?)." "Perfectly fried and cheese not too melted." "The parmesan-parsley flavor really brought it home." "The marinara sauce tasted of chlorine." "Very strange. Tasted very fake. Unimpressed." "Rubbery and off-tasting."
"Like a deep fried piece of string cheese that didn't melt at all." "Exactly what mozzarella sticks should be." "Good, thick batter that was slightly sweet."
"Near perfect." "Well-executed." "Everything I want in a mozzarella stick." "No fan of marinara sauce but sticks are nicely done." "Really good but slightly salty." "Full of melty cheese. Crunchy outside."
"Appreciated that they were presented differently than other I've tried." "Love the triangular shape! Tastes like 'real' mozzarella and tasty breading." "I didn't know that a mozzarella stick could actually taste good." "Is it possible for mozzarella sticks to be too cheesy? Too much shaved Parmesan on top." "Put other versions to shame."
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.