Thursday, December 3, 2009

T.G.I. McFunsters

If you've ever watched an episode of No Reservations, you'll know that Anthony Bourdain is quite vocal about his dislike for chain restaurants like TGI Fridays and Chili's, collectively calling them "TGI McFunsters".   In general, the qualities about these restaurants that earn his derision are usually things that should be well avoided.  He famously dislikes themed restaurants, as they are poor imitations of authentic ethnic cuisine.   He has commented several times on how the food at Chili's masquerades as Mexican food, and laments the fact that real, authentic Mexican food appears to be unavailable to the general populace.  He has called Chili's "a thing to be feared, marginalized, and kept at a distance at all costs".   For the most part, I agree with him.   Heaven knows that I complain with equal vehemence when I wander to the mainland and find Chinese food or Hawaiian food interpreted with anything less than the utmost authenticity.   The moment that I encounter something like "Hawaiian" pizza or anything that calls itself Hawaiian because of cooked pineapple, I instantly sneer.   But the thing is, I've never really considered Chili's a "Mexican" restaurant, faux or otherwise.   In fact, it never even occurred to me to even consider Chili's a Mexican restaurant, as I never considered any part of their menu to be, well Mexican.   Sure there are things like nachos and fajitas, but I've never really considered those to be Mexican dishes, in the same way that pizza isn't really Italian, and fortune cookies aren't Chinese.   To me, Chili's is an "American" restaurant, that serves "American" food.  When you look at it from that aspect, their food isn't bad at all.

Living in Hawaii is very different from living on the mainland (probably the biggest understatement of my whole blog).   When you're on the mainland, these large chain restaurants are all over.  They dot the landscape along the never ending stretch of highway.   Driving those vast distances is acutally quite disconcerting the first time for any islander, as is not looking over your shoulder and being able to see the ocean to orient yourself.   On our little island, the few locations that we have of these big mainland chains are what gives us a feeling of connection to the rest of the country.   Eating at one of those places, is like eating an exotic foreign food to us.   Indeed, having a saba bento or a gau gee mein is often more familiar than having the a chicken fried steak or buffalo wings or southwestern chili (especially without rice).  In my mind, "mainland food" is compartmentalized as simply another country's cuisine, like Indian food, or Thai food.   Without those restauraunts that Bourdain so adamantly scoffs at, we would lose representation of American food, the same way that we lost our Indonesian food presence when Bali Indonesia closed.   I had never even heard of an Applebee's before living on the mainland for college.  Watching the commercials on major network TV, I often find myself wishing I could go to Olive Garden for a never ending bowl of pasta.   But they simply aren't available to us.   Bourdain would probably remark that we're not missing out on much, but that is coming from a viewpoint where this type of food is available to the point of excess.  Conversely, the absense of this type of food, makes it seem unique and desireable.

When we did have a TGI Fridays, I did enjoy their cuisine on the rare occasions that we went there.   It was located directly across from the Blaisdell Concert Hall, so it was the ideal location to visit after any performance at the Blaisdell.  You could just stroll across the street and eat all kinds of intersting salads, burgers, steaks, and pastas.   My wife and I would wander in after seeing a travelling Broadway musical, and have some creamy chicken pasta, or a cobb salad.   I really love going to places like Fridays or Chilis and having an appetizer sampler.  Buffalo wings are my favorite, whereas my wife adored Fridays' bacon and cheddar topped potato skins.  While commonplace on the mainland, there aren't many restaurants that serve them here (well anyway), and to me they've always been tasty elements of a cuisine not our own.  But my absolute favorite thing at Friday's were the milkshakes.   Particularly, their mint chocolate milkshake, was thick and creamy.   The icy coldness of the milkshake brought out the minty flavor, which of course blends so well with deep rich chocolate.  Now since they've closed, I just can't find anyplace that has such fantastic thick cheesy potato skins or frosty mint chocolate milkshakes anymore.  Bourdain can mock all the TGI's in the world, but when they've disappeared you really notice how much you miss them.

Chili's is still around, with several locations in Hawaii.   We used to frequent the location in Kahala Mall, but while my dad initially loved their food, he got a little tired of them and we've been going less often now.  While Bourdain scorns their faux-Mexican dishes, it's actually kind of difficult to place their cuisine.  The fajitas and grilled items are decidedly California and the Southwest, whereas the chicken fried steak and ribs are more of a Southern thing.  So to me, Chili's simply represents all American cuisine.  My favorite things there are the chicken fried steak and their chicken crispers.  The chicken fried steak is a greasy, very salty, gravy smothered slab of batter-fried, beaten and hammered steak, that you'll find from Texas to Virginia.   It's terribly bad for you, but it's hearty and manly food Southerns can't get enough of.   The chicken crispers have this interesting, kind of oily, juice when you bite through the crispy batter, that I just haven't tasted anywhere else.   Although they come with honey mustard, I much prefer dipping them in thick ranch.   While those are my favorite things there, often we like to go for just a nice soup and salad.

Baked Potato Soup at Chili's
The baked potato soup is my wife's favorite.   It honestly tastes like a liquified baked potato.   The shredded cheese that they top the soup with melts and forms nice marbled ribbons within the soup.   It's not quite as good as having the potato skins at Friday's, but it is more warm and filling on a cold day.

Chicken Enchilada Soup at Chili's
My dad's favorite, and subsequently mine, is Chili's chicken enchilada soup.   This may be one of the menu items that Bourdain scorns at as faux-Mexican, but honestly it tastes really good.   It tastes like the slightly spicy, cheesy, slightly tomatoey filling inside an enchilada from a Mexican fast food place.   Of course it's not authentic, but it tastes good and is a different interpretation from the real thing.

Buffalo Chicken Salad at Chili's
The other thing that we like at Chili's (and Fridays, and many other mainland chains for that matter) is their variety of salads.  To be perfectly honest, salads aren't really part of Oriental cuisine.   In China for example, you would never eat uncooked vegetables.  In the Chinese culture, and for historical reasons, uncooked vegetables were seen as unclean.  So Chinese will even cook lettuce (something I actually enjoy a lot with ha mai and egg).  I remember the story of a man who in China got sick after eating the bed of greens that his dish was served on.  But the restaurant was a little dumbfounded, because they never expected him to eat the uncooked greens, as they were simply a garnish and no Chinese patron would have eaten them.   This cultural difference is one of the reasons that I'm not a big salad eater, but at the same time I really enjoy the fancy, complex salads at places like Chili's.

Southwestern Cobb Salad at Chili's
I like the buffalo chicken salad for it's tangy spicy buffalo sauce, but somehow I prefer the original buffalo wings dipped in bleu cheese more.  The contrast of tangy spicy buffalo sauce and cooling creamy bleu cheese is a great flavor combiantion.  But my favorite salad at Chilis, is undoubtedly their southwestern cobb salad.    It's a little different from the traditional cobb you'd find at Fridays, sporting things like pico de gallo, and corn.  But the slight variations aside, it is just a beautiful spread of different ingredients that make an ordinary salad into a worthy meal.

The mainland chains aren't really faux-ethnic cuisine, but are rather true Americana, as much as the various ethnicities have become American citizens.  As foreign as the cuisine is to the islands, they are what connect us and make us feel like a part of the rest of the country.


  1. but, when i'm at home I like feeling isolated. =p if i wanted american food, i'd cook it myself and it'd be better than the chain. i agree w/ anthony bourdain.

  2. Hey brah,

    Thanks for the perspective! We live just 1 mile from a Chili's in California, and haven't been there in literally years. Perhaps I will go again when I return from this trip to Waikiki, which I am finding to be most wonderful. We dropped four bills at the TGI McFunster "Nobu" last night and while my wife and her sis loved it, I was overwhelmed by the super-trendy effects, weak cocktails, and tiny portions. Not something you have to worry about at Chili's!

    1. Oh, and those Nobu girls should eat something every so often... Waaay too thin... :-) Maybe I am part Pacific Islander deep down; I like my ladies "healthy"