Cheddar’s chain more about value than cheese
If you head to Cheddar’s for the first time thinking you’re going to chow down on a smorgasbord of cheeses, think again. Yes, you can get queso with chips, cheesy quesadilla, baked potato soup with grated Cheddar, a grown-up grilled cheese sandwich and a smokehouse burger topped with Cheddar.
But cheese, it turns out, has little to do with Cheddar’s, which recently opened its fifth Florida location, this one near Gulf Coast Town Center south of Fort Myers.
Despite wasting considerable time on Google, I could not ferret out the origin of the chain’s name. Maybe the owners had a dog named Cheddar — who knows? All I could ascertain online is that the concept began in 1978 in Arlington, Texas, has expanded to 80 locations primarily in the South and Midwest and continues on a growth spurt, according to its corporate website.
How, at a time when the economy is barely in recovery? I think the key to success for Cheddar’s is that it delivers decent food in large quantity for not much money. The wide-ranging menu falls into that cliché dreaded by restaurant critics, “something for everyone,” yet we must remember that “everyone” is looking for better value in their food spending these days.
Hence the overflowing parking lot and line of diners waiting at 5 p.m. on any night of the week at the Cheddar’s off Alico Road at Ben Hill Griffin Parkway. That’s about when we arrived and were told that the wait for a table would be 15 minutes. It was shorter than that, but the influx hadn’t abated by the time we left. The restaurant operates with brisk efficiency that keeps the flow of patrons coming and going without making service feel rushed or unfriendly.
My companion, who had dined at a Cheddar’s elsewhere, said the interior appeared to be about the same: lots of stone and brick and wood, exposed-wood rafters and potted plants — generic enough to fit in pretty much anywhere. The interconnected rooms probably seat a few hundred in almost 8,000 square feet, which creates quite a din. Fortunately, our high-backed back-b corner booth buffered the noise ofo numerous families with children and partiesp large and small.
Cheddar’s offers an extensive cocktail tt list that leans heavily on margaritas while giving short shrift to wines (supermarket varieties) and tap beers (Bud and Coors). I started with a pomegranate margarita ($5.50), while my companion sipped a bottle of Heineken ($3.79). The cocktail was big for the price but dominated by sour mix, not pomegranate or tequila.
Cheddar’s prides itself on fromscratch food made on the premises, and our appetizers did not contradict that claim.
One of the house specialties — perhaps “oddities” would be a better word — is “Spasagna,” a trademarked dish of spaghetti baked with cheeses and sauce. Not wanting to commit to a whole plate, we opted for the appetizer version, Spasagna bites ($5.99) that are breaded and fried. I’ve tasted deep-fried macaroni and cheese before, so this wasn’t a huge novelty. The breading crisped up nicely, and the filling sort of melted together in a cheesy mass the size of a golf ball. They were paired with a garlicky, herbed marinara sauce that added considerable flavor.
The Crescent City shrimp and crab dip ($6.99) was loaded with crabby flavor and tiny cocktail shrimp as well as chunks of real and faux crab (probably to add volume). We dipped tortilla chips in and scooped up bits of seafood laced with rich, creamy cheese that stretched in spindly strings.
We were close to overloading on apps when the main course arrived and saved us from certain overindulgence.
Cheddar’s offers an array of sandwiches and entrée salads for less than $8 if you’re in the mood for something light. Seafood offerings of catfish, salmon, tilapia and shrimp might float your boat, but the real focus seems to be on meat — seven chicken dishes, a handful of half-pound burgers, comfort classics like shepherd’s pie and roast beef as well as grilled steaks and smoked ribs.
The Dijon chicken with mushrooms and rice ($8.99) sounded like the most interesting of the poultry selections. When the plate came out, I was surprised to see a whole breast, not the split half that most restaurants serve. The meat was tender and juicy, but the tangy mustard sauce was too salty for my taste. The dish comes with two side choices; the steamed broccoli was overcooked and watery, but the cole slaw was fresh, crisp and not overdressed.
Fred Flintstone would have loved my companion’s full rack of ribs ($13.99). Smoked for four hours, the hefty bones were plenty tender and painted with a sweet, silken glaze that enhanced the flavor of the pork. Too bad the green beans were overcooked to a limp, flavorless state and the French fries were not hot.
You win some; you lose some.
The same was true when it came to dessert. Cheddar’s usually offers a trio of 99-cent minis including Key lime pie, chocolate trifle and strawberry cheesecake, but the kitchen had run out of them, we were told. At 6 o’clock on a weeknight?
We soldiered on with a massive, dense serving of croissant bread pudding ($3.99) that was studded with just enough chocolate chips to add richness without going overboard. It was topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, caramel sauce and slivered almonds. We took half of it home along with half of the ribs and chicken.
No one will leave Cheddar’s hungry. In fact, diners are likely to leave with enough food for another meal. ¦