Saturday, February 2, 2013

sic transit

Shameful as it is to admit, I sometimes eat at chain restaurants. Mostly when I'm pressed for time, so I rarely eat of my own volition at sit-down chains (Applebee's, TGI Friday's, etc.); if I'm going to take the time for a full meal, I'd rather go somewhere unique if I can find one. And I avoid the low-end fast-food places; in my youth, I found Jack-in-the-Box and Taco Bell actively nauseating, and I haven't been back in decades. I would rather not eat than be faced with a place like that. If absolutely desperate, I will eat chicken nuggets at McDonald's; as I once wrote, they taste as if they might once have been in the same county as an actual chicken. But that's as far as I go. Some of the other burger places are tolerable.

What I mostly look for if I'm pressed for time is a place with bone-in chicken. There's a limit to how much processing can screw that up, though I've found a couple chains in the midwest that succeed at being inedible. KFC [which no longer stands for anything; isn't that weird? They're afraid of the word "fried"] I find tolerable, but there are others I like more, which I first found on trips elsewhere and which subsequently followed me home, sprouting up in this area where they had not previously been. El Pollo Loco from LA in the mid 80s, I think; Popeyes [which, in the absence of an apostrophe, I pronounce "pope-yes"] on a trip to Florida a few years later; and Boston Market, whose astonishingly tender rotisserie chicken assuaged me from hunger when I was stuck in otherwise desolate Worcester, Massachusetts, for a convention around 1995.

Though I was pleased by its appearance here soon afterwards, I was a bit alarmed at the rapidity of its expansion. Were they overextending themselves? Companies have a natural life cycle, I guess, because I drove past the one in Palo Alto yesterday and found that it had closed. (At least they took the signs down.) This was annoying; I've often used it for a hasty dinner when I'm at Stanford all day, don't have time for anything slower, and the on-campus eateries are either closed, crowded, or I'm just tired of them. Their remaining outlets are much fewer now, and further away.

I might have guessed that Boston Market was struggling for consumer attention when they recently introduced sauces to go over their chicken. This was poorly-judged: the sauces don't go well with their way of cooking chicken, and only make the food messier to eat than it is already. (Let us pause now to remember the tasty but very messy chicken at a long-gone small chain called Koo-Koo-Roo, which may have died from customer irritation at their implacable stinginess at giving out paper napkins.)

At least, though, Boston Market's chicken and sides were both still good at last encounter: the chain didn't enter the death spiral of trying to cut costs by diminishing quality, which drives more customers away, which results in more quality-cutting. This has been the fate of Fresh Choice, the original local soup-and-salad buffet. In the mid 80s when it was new, it was one of my favorite places - I would even take visitors there when they said they wanted good California food - but I recently ate at one for the first time in years, and was shocked at how much the quality of the food had declined. The food counters were poorly maintained, and it had the desolate air of a seedy neighborhood coffee shop. Now I hear that the firm has gone into bankruptcy, and I can't say I'm surprised.

But why hadn't I been to one in so long? Because it's lost the evolutionary fitness struggle in its ecological niche to something called Sweet Tomatoes. That's another one that followed me home from LA, where it's called Souplantation. B. and I first found one in Pasadena around 1989, and, even though that was still Fresh Choice's heyday, we thought this was better. And it still is. Somehow Sweet Tomatoes has maintained its quality and is flourishing, full of bouncy employees and happy customers, and the price is still reasonable. This is the right track. Their clam chowder in particular is the best I've found anywhere around here, and it's stayed good.

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