Braving three on-fire Salinas franchise restaurants that opened in the last month and a half.
Thursday, May 10, 2012
Part of it is the 5-foot-4-inch pink pig mascot hamming it up in the entryway at Famous Dave’s. Part of it is the wait for a table at BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse: Even though the place has roughly half a million tables, the delay can rival that of a ride at Great America. And part of it is the general lemme-at-some-good-American-beef-and-potatoes pandemonium at brand new Five Guys Burgers and Fries. In sum, the takeaway at the new Salinas outposts that have opened in the last month or so isn’t so much taste, texture or attentiveness as it is the sensation you’re at an amusement park.
Sure, there are niblets of good grub to be had, too, but in this three-part big-box food boom, even the most seductive aromas are overtaken by the brisk scent of business.
At BJ’s, which opened last month, there are 7,500 square feet, seats for at least 265 and banks of 100-inch plasma screens. There are 10 tall, plank-like pages to the Bible-of-a-menu book, and each page is stuffed with as many as 23 different chicken lettuce wraps ($10.25), angel hair toscanas ($13.75) and seemingly infinite Pizookie spin-offs ($5.95, or $18.95 for the Pizookie Party Platter!). But the most telling number is this: Upon walking into a scrum of a waiting area on a Thursday night at 7:30pm, one quick glance around counted no fewer than 17 employees in sight.
This is a factory that has figured out what the majority of America wants: soft, buttery, deep-dish pizzas ($10.75-$24.25), USDA steaks ($14.95-$19.95), chicken fettucine alfredo ($10.75), mahi-mahi tacos ($10.50), New Orleans jambalaya ($15.75), clam chowder ($5.95-$7.50) and Thai chicken mango salad ($10.95). In short: everything, with a side of everything else.
The only problem: When you do so many things, you can’t do many well. That said, the garlicky Great White pizza with alfredo sauce ($20.50), Pirahna Pale Ale ($5.25/pint) and giant stuffed potatoes ($8.95) are the best of the bunch. And they’ve stocked an admirable rack of great beers like Wattekerke Belgium ($6.95) and Drake’s Denogginizer Double IPA ($6.50) to buttress their own underachievers (the Lightswitch Lager should be flipped off permanently). They’ve got thin gluten-free pizzas too, and a clear edge for my factory dining dollar over the Applebee’s and TGIF’s of the world.
And I’ll take them over Famous Dave’s, which also opened in the last month and change, in part because there’s less schtick at BJ’s. The kid in the pig costume and “Hi, I’m famous [insert server name]” in the corny radio DJ voice would be more palatable, though, if the barbecue held up to the 500 awards they tout every chance they get. But the crusts of the boneless chicken wings were chewy in a previously-frozen-kind-of way, the ribs were reputable but not winning any awards from me and the Georgia chopped pork ($13.99) needed more of the advertised juiciness. I did like the roll of paper towels on the table and the wide selection of sauces by its side – the original Rich & Sassy, Georgia Mustard, Sweet & Zesty, Texas Pit and Devil’s Spit all have aspects that recommend them. Maybe that’s the trick: Douse thyself in Devil’s Spit and everything tingles from hell to to high heaven.
The most memorable taste of the trip: the Five Guys meat bomb. The most helpful scouting advice to provide for a visit to the just-opened outlet: One burger ($5.99) is actually a double decker monster. (I imagine a “little hamburger” [$3.89] or cheeseburger [$4.79] is a single.)
After a 10-minute wait in line – where peanuts dent the anticipation and laudatory articles on the wall ramp it up – I took my bacon cheeseburger with ($6.99) with everything or, in Five Guys parlance, “all the way,” which means mayo, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, ketchup and mustard, only with hot sauce swapped for the ketchup. Another 10 later and I was unwrapping an aluminum-foil bowling ball to reveal a satisfyingly asymmetrical burger with squooshable buns, crisp bacon and straightforward never-frozen patties that gooed with the Kraft American cheese.
Red-checkered decor (which feels In-N-Out-esque), classic rock music and smell of fries and burgers create a thoroughly American experience. A kosher-style hot dog with nice charred body ($3.69) enjoyed even better flavor than the burger. The fries, a touch thicker and rougher cut than In-N-Out’s, are sourced from Idaho ranches whose hometown goes up on a blackboard.
In other words, there are things to like: the cultural touchstone that a spot like Five Guys provides. The youthful enthusiasm of the service staff at each place. The amount of jobs they’re each dishing up. The fact that Five Guys and BJ’s list calories with each dish – and that BJ’s does a happy hour with bargain $5 personal pizzas. The fact that all three are open late. And word from our Famous Dave’s server that the teenager in the pig suit recently lap danced two 30-something ladies tableside.
More importantly, there is something to admire: Each place is magic – unless you have a better word for transforming salty, fried and fatty into an experience that hordes are falling all over ourselves to bite into.
BJ’S RESTAURANT & BREWHOUSE 1730 North Main St., Salinas •11am-11pm Sun-Thu; 11am-midnight Fri-Sat • 737-1690, www.bjsbrewhouse.com
FAMOUS DAVE’S 1391 North Davis Road, Salinas • 11am-10pm Sun-Thu; 11am-midnight Fri-Sat • 422-RIBS, www.famousdaves.com
FIVE GUYS BURGERS AND FRIES 1742 North Main St., Salinas •11am-10pm daily •444-0170, www.fiveguys.com