Friday, January 15, 2010

Family Dining Chronicles - Cheddar's

Where to begin with Cheddar's(in the Oak Park Mall parking lot along 95th St.)? When they were building the place, I was like Chimpotle and thought I'll never eat there. Then the commenters on his post really persuaded me to give it a shot because it was different from all the other fast casual restaurants. I knew from reading about the place in other cities that they supposedly had really good chicken fingers (which is NOT a reason to go to a restaurant).

We packed up the kids one night a couple of nights after they opened and got there about 5:15, hoping to avoid the crowds. We were afraid the all of Johnson County would be there, the way they were with the Mimi's 100 yards away when they first opened. Luckily, we got there and were able to be seated right away. Immediately, the kids were completely engrossed in the giant fish tank at the front of the restaurant in the waiting area. It made for some nice entertainment for the kids while we waited to order and get our food.

Our service was pretty prompt in helping us and we ordered enough fried food to kill a navy. Stella got a fried shrimp platter, I got a chicken finger platter* and we ordered chicken fingers from the kids menu for the kids and an onion ring tower for an appetizer. Then we waited. For my money, one of the keys to being a family friendly restaurant from a parent standpoint is to be quick about getting the food out. We, as parents, only have so much time before things go south and the kids get bored or start fighting or any number of things. Cheddar's didn't quite meet this test. If it weren't for the fish tank to entertain the kids, things could have gotten ugly. Cheddar's is kind of loud so your kids being loud isn't going to draw a lot of attention to you. The booth we sat in was raised which also gave us kind of an island effect where I felt that we were somewhat isolated from the rest of the restaurant which took away some of my anxiety.

*I firmly believe that no one over the age of 18 should order chicken fingers in a restaurant. If you can't find something a little more adult to eat, then maybe you should go with a hamburger. I only ordered the chicken fingers because I read they were a house specialty (clue that you're eating crappy food; chicken fingers are a house specialty).

The onion rings came and they were quite tasty. I did get about a week's worth of sodium in each ring and I probably flustered the waitress because she had to keep refilling my drink. The dipping sauce that came with the rings was another super salty southwestern style concoction. It was best to just stick with some ketchup. When the main courses arrived it definitely was enough to kill a navy. I had 4 or 5 really big chicken fingers and a solid helping of fries. Stella had at least a dozen butterflied shrimp and the kids meal had 3 big chicken fingers. Stella shrimp were butterflied in such a way that each half had a complete coating of breading around them so that they were more like 2 fried shrimp connected to one tail. I had to admire the ingeniousness of getting that much breading on fried shrimp. I'd never seen it before. The adult chicken fingers were different from the kid's chicken fingers which I found odd. My fingers had a breading that looked a little like extra krispy KFC while the kid ones had a more standard flour breading. I've got to say, my chicken fingers were pretty decent. The kid ones, though, were pretty bad and the kids didn't even really like them. The fries were genuinely awful, I was only able to eat a couple. You can get other sides to go with your meal and I'm pretty sure I would order parking lot snow sludge as a side before I ordered those fries again.

I'm not a health food nut and my kids eat all manner of crap, from frozen chicken nuggets to mini tacos to frozen pizzas. We counterract that with plenty of running around, playing and walks (when the ground isn't covered in snow). I grew up eating all manner of crap, but I played baseball every day that it was warm enough and I didn't weigh 110 pounds until I graduated from high school. What I'm saying is, I think that moderate exercise can pretty much make up for whatever kids are eating. But, I really don't think, in good conscience, I could subject my kids to eating at Cheddar's more than once or twice a year. It's like the Hardee's of the fast casual concept. Stella took my 4 year old girls back last week for lunch while they were waiting on new glasses. Stella got a bacon cheeseburger that had 8 pieces of bacon on it. She had to play 3 straight hours of Rhythm Parade on Wii Fit just to work off half that burger.

We weren't able to eat all our food, so we brought home about 5 chicken fingers and 5 shrimp and at least one serving of french fries. But, the food is so heavily breaded and fried that it doesn't microwave that well (I probably should have put it in the toaster over). The kids definitely didn't like the leftovers the next day, so all the extra food doesn't make Cheddar's that great of a value. Our tab was about $35 for the appetizer, 2 entrees, one kid meal and 3 drinks. I can't recommend the kid meal. If you have 3 or more kids, just order an entree for them to share. Any less than 3 kids, share your entrees with them. You simply won't be able to eat all the food anyway and it doesn't keep well enough to have the leftovers. The food is good enough at Cheddar's, but I'm a firm believer that it's pretty hard to have bad tasting fried food.

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