We were on our way back to the Fort Lauderdale airport as our vacation was coming to an end. All week, Melissa had been talking about going to Chili’s. Why? I think she has been craving Chili’s because of all the ads she sees when I force her to watch American Football. Which, of course, I never do.
Founded in Dallas in 1975, Chili’s has over 1400 locations in 32 countries around the world, most of them in the United States. There are 14 locations in Canada, all in Alberta except for 2 in Saskatchewan and 1 in Ontaro.
We were driving south on the I-95 and our appetites were growing, so I started looking for a Chili’s location on the GPS. There are a lot of Chili’s in Florida, so I had no trouble picking one – we stopped in Wellington, Florida, a well-off village in Palm Beach County.
The location was fairly large, and despite being busy, there was plenty of seats available in the dining room, and even more in the bar section. The atmosphere is meant to be very friendly, fun and carefree, marketing to families and young adults. Noisy, but not too loud. The place, with it’s Southwesternish decor, was very clean and lots of staff were roaming around, double teaming tables everywhere.
We had barely sat down in our booth when our first waitress very forcefully asked if we wanted chips and salsa. We were too afraid of her to say no and kind of hoping they would be free like at Chinco Rhino, we said yes. They weren’t, but at $2.99, that’s not really overpriced.
It took no time for us to receive a basket of deep fried Tostada Chips with a big bowl of salsa, which they claim is house-made.
The salsa, I have to say, impressed us. They did not wimp out on the spices (or salt!!), it had a nice bite to it. It wasn’t, however, a chunky type – it was in fact quite runny. Nevertheless, enjoyable, mostly for the bite. (There are some copycat recipes out there that you can check out.)
The corn chips were deep fried – and some were so deep fried they were transparent. Thankfully, they weren’t all like that, most of them were thin and crispy. The bowl of chips, despite being bottomless, was more than sufficient as an appetizer for the two of us, so we didn’t get a refill.
To chase down the chips and the spicy salsa, I ordered Chili’s signature margarita: The Presidente.
Sauza Conmemorativo Tequila, Patrón Citrónge orange liqueur and Presidente Brandy, shaken and served in its own shaker, it was pretty good. And there was plenty of it, therefore there was no need for me to order another one later. Respectable.
Melissa, being a good mother and a responsible driver, settled for Strawberry Lemonade. This weird concoction was bottomless, and she was even offered a refill to go as we settled the bill.
But of course, the main attraction was the food. We both discarded their Mild or Wild menu, Chili’s current promotion. It didn’t seem wild enough to deserve that qualifier, and why go mild anyway?
At first, I figured since I was at Chili’s, and since there were signs everywhere stating EAT MORE CHILI and similiar slogans, I should order Chili. Here, they call it Terlingua Chili (slow-cooked chili with beef, onions and chiles, topped with cheese), named after the famous Texas town, host of two famous chili cook-off – the Chili Appreciation Society’s International Telingua Chili Championship and the Annual Original Telingua International Championship. I got cold feet though, afraid of a disapointment, and took a pass on the chili.
I kept looking, and spotted the ribs. Ah, yes, Chili’s famous babyback ribs, with it’s famous “I want my babyback babyback” jingle (performed here by Nsync in 2002!). Chili’s claims that their ribs are slow-smoked in-house over pecan wood. I had some doubts, and I found out later that it is not quite how they are done – the truth is that they are pressure-smoked during prep in the morning, refrigerated, and then finished on the charbroiler when ordered.
I ordered a full rack of the Original babybacks ($16.99). Other options were Honey-Chipotle, Shiner Bock BBQ Sauce or Memphis Dry Rub. But I decided to stick with the original, hoping I couldn’t go wrong considering Chili’s marketing of their ribs.
Yes, Chili’s is very proud of their ribs, and there are a lot of copycat recipes on the web. It was definitely a nice size rack of ribs. The meat was falling off-the-bone, with very little effort. The meat was very tender, but the smoke wasn’t really present – it had only a subtle presence.
The ribs weren’t marinated at all – it is clear that they add the flavour at the last minute, smothering the meat with the sauce.
Talking of the sauce, Chili’s Original BBQ sauce was a bit sweet, a little acidic, with minimal spices – it is clear that this was created not to offend. Brown sugar, tomato paste, vinegar, garlic powder, paprika. The basics. I can’t say it was a bad sauce, but it wasn’t extraordinary. Certainly not BOLD as the menu boasts. But it was correct, didn’t mask the meat flavour, and wasn’t trying to steal the show.
The babyback ribs are served with cinnamon apples and french fries. The fries were forgettable, but the apples were good enough. But it seems to me that something like a coleslaw would have complemented the plate better.
Melissa hesitated. She was tempted to go with their Chicken Crispers, Chili’s chicken filet breaded and deep fried, offered in 5 declinations: sweet & smoky, honey-chipotle, honey mustard, sweet maple BBQ, or extra crispy. But I reminded her that she regularly gets that back home, and that maybe she should explore a little.
She explored down the menu and ended-up ordering the Country-Fried Steak ($11.29). She would get the breading, she would get the spices, she wouldn’t get the chicken.
I had a feeling she was ordering it partly because it came with a slice of bread, corn on the cob and mashed potatoes on the side, although I was totally unsure how she would handle the black pepper white gravy.
Now usually, a Country or Chicken Fried Steak is a cube steak pounded very thin. This one wasn’t pounded thin at all, yet the meat wasn’t chewy or dry. The breading reminded Melissa of KFC’s, it was spicy and crispy, no puffyness, no doughyness, no soggyness despite the hearty helping of gravy. The steak itself was tasty and cripsy but heavy.
And the gravy didn’t make it lighter, far from it. The black pepper was clearly visible in it, and the gravy was indeed peppery. In my opinion, it went better with the mashed potatoes, which were also topped with it, and they had added a touch of paprika, mostly for colour. The big disapointment of the plate was the corn, which was overcooked and mushy. The seasonning would have worked, but the texture ruined everything.
All in all, Chili’s wasn’t a big bust. The food was correct, with glimpse of good stuff, and some failure, but nothing major. The service was great, almost too great as we were constantly interrupted by one of the two servers who were checking on us. But I’d rather complain about that then the opposite.