Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Chain Restaurants

Yesterdays "mission" posting brings up an interesting situation with me. I like (some) chain restaurants.

There. I said it.

I know that some people think that a true Chow Hound would eschew the chains, but in reality, they have their place. If the chain is one that I'm familiar with, then I usually know before I set foot in the door of any new incarnation more or less what my experience will be. There's something to be said about this predictability as opposed to walking into a "mom and pop" restaurant for the first time.

Yeah, your typical wait staff at the chains will be the high schooler or kid working through college who has been indoctrinated into the chain's overriding philosophy, but that isn't much different anywhere else. After all, everywhere has its own way of doing things; it's just that at the chains, this is more pronounced.

Near my house, the city of Methuen, MA seems to be a haven for the chains. In an area of about five square miles, you can find an Outback, Texas Roadhouse, Bugaboo Creek, Friday's, Macaroni Grill, Not Your Average Joes, and an Appleby's (not to mention the various fast food places as well). The last five on that list are all within a half mile of each other (in and around The Loop off Rt. 213).

My family tends to go to a chain restaurant about once or twice a month. I'll give a rundown of the places near where I live and a few thoughts on each. (Note that these are merely my own observations and opinions.) In the future, I'll do "full scale" reviews of these restaurants.

Chili's (Salem, NH)

I used to go here with my family more than I do nowadays. They changed their chili from their meaty "bowl of red" to a mixture that adds beans and vegetables, most likely as a way of keeping the cost down. The result: I won't eat it anymore, and it used to be my favorite thing to order! My wife likes the Lettuce Wraps, and the kids have their own favorites here as well. Down side is service; it seems to be a given that if you are sitting at a table, you will be sitting for a while with an empty drink or wondering where the wait person has gone to. (This has happened so often that my wife now associates that place with poor service. Too bad.)

Texas Roadhouse (Methuen, MA)

Good food, and good barbecue. My youngest daughter simply LOVES the Country Fried Sirloin, and the side dishes (most entrees offer two) are the best of any chain around. Service is usually pretty good. Down side is the fact that tables (as opposed to booths) are very rare and usually taken up by larger parties. Since my family prefers tables, we usually avoid the place unless we know we are coming in at an off-time when seats are available.

Friday's (Methuen, MA)

Probably the best all-around menu of the chains. Instead of specializing in a particular cuisine, it's mostly American fair at this place. The food ranges from fair to very good; most people should find something they like. Seating is plentiful, and service is usually quick and attentive. My favorites: Pot Stickers (they now have two varieties) and the recently-added Bruschetta Chicken Parmesan.

Macaroni Grill (Methuen, MA)

Italian Food and a nice atmosphere. This is a family favorite, and I only avoid going there TOO often is so I don't get to the point where I get sick of going too often...! They have a Create Your Own Pasta feature where you can choose your pasta, type of sauce, and up to three additional ingredients plus extras like meatballs, sausage, or shrimp (without a doubt, my favorite!).

The Chateau (Andover, MA)

With only five restaurants, this is just at my definition of "chain," but it's a local chain in Massachusetts. There's a large lounge, which is convenient for watching sporting events, and a pretty large dining area as well. The food here is mostly Italian, although they have American steak and seafood menu items as well. My favorite: Prime Rib (Fridays and Saturday evenings while it lasts). My wife and kids like the Toasted Ravioli, and my wife simple loves the Eggplant Milano (an appetizer, but she orders it as an entree). Their Buffalo Wings are different than most; the spice is in the batter, not a buttery coating, which makes them less messy to eat.

I'll add my thoughts on other chain restaurants in a future posting. Until then... take care and bon appetit!

Monday, July 30, 2007

Mission: Shrimp New Orleans

Last year, Sandra and I visited an interesting chain restaurant called Bubba Gump's Shrimp Co. while we were on our second honeymoon in Cancun, Mexico. At that restaurant, I had a delicious dish called Shrimp New Orleans, which is described as "an authentic spicy recipe from our staff in the French Quarter featuring lots of shrimp sautéed in butter, garlic, and spices with jasmine rice." Almost a year later, we found a Bubba Gump restaurant at Universal Studios in Orlando, and after having the same dish prepared the same way, I was hooked.

The problem with trying to reproduce this dish at home is that there isn't any Bubba Gump restaurants close by for "research," so I did the next best thing... I searched the web to see if anybody had a recipe for this or something similar.

I got lucky. I found some web sites that claimed to have the recipe:

  • A TV station in Minneapolis apparently got the recipe from a chef at the local chain.

  • This site claims to have reproduced the recipe (or pretty close).

  • An interesting exchange on this site also claims to have the recipe from "Dave Trombetta of the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co." along with other variations on it.

The problem was that all the recipes were different—there didn't seem to be any definitive recipe. What's a guy to do? Well, I checked the recipes, and stood over my stove and did my best. I think I took some ideas from these three sources (which are now in my personal collection in case the sites disappear), and then created my own:

Shrimp New Orleans

Total Time:25 min
Prep Time:10 min

1.5 lbs medium to large shrimp, peeled and deveined (frozen is okay)

4 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon cajun seasoning

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/2 tablespoon Old Bay seasoning

1 teaspoon lemon/pepper seasoning

1/2 tablespoon garlic powder

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1/4 cup broth (clam broth or chicken broth)

3/8 cup white wine

1/2 tablespoon fish sauce

1 fresh baguette

1 cup cooked Jasmine rice (optional)

lemon wedges (optional)

Cut french bread into thin slices. Place on cookie sheet into 400°F oven for five minutes to warm. Increase oven temperature to broil, and broil an additional 2-3 minutes to toast slices. Set aside and keep warm.

Melt butter, and add cajun seasoning, minced garlic, Old Bay, garlic powder, and pepper. Stir to mix. Saute shrimp until pink. Remove shrimp from butter.

Stir in worcestershire sauce, broth, white wine, and fish sauce into seasoned butter. Saute until reduced by about a third.

Serve shrimp with toothpicks (for serving), along with Jasmine rice. Put sauce into a ramekin and serve with French bread slices for dipping and lemon slices for garnish.

Finally... when I made this for the first time, my daughter Chardonnay was also making Garlic Knots for the first time; my brother-in-law (who owns pizza parlors on Long Island) was teaching her how to prepare them. Garlic Knots and Shrimp New Orleans are a match made in heaven! Fortuosity!

Welcome to ChowStuff... lar3ry's blog on food

Here is what I'm planning for this blog...

  1. Recipes, along with attributions from sites when I find some good ones
  2. Restaurant reviews from places I visit (mostly Northern New England, since that's where I live, but I'll add other places as I visit them)
  3. Random thoughts on food
I'm a simple person, and while I love to cook, I also love to eat. When I don't feel like cooking, there's usually a good restaurant or two to fill in the gap.


I sometimes assign myself a mission. It can run the form of finding the best at a local restaurant (best chili, best French Dip, etc.) or trying to figure out how to reproduce a recipe that I had someplace else (Bubba Gump's Shrimp New Orleans is a good example). When I go out on a mission, I'll be happy to report my findings on an ongoing basis.

Finally, I welcome input from people who have found this little place. I want to know what YOU think!