Factory Reject

Who is waiting in line at the Cheesecake Factory?
I'll tell you who: the same people who give me dirty looks and curse under their breath when I take eight items into the nine-item express line at the grocery store. The same people who roll their eyes and sigh repeatedly behind me when I take a minute to jam my suitcase into the overhead bin on an airplane. The same people who blare their horns when I take .04 seconds to see that the light has changed to green. Yet these same people are willing to wait, sometimes for more than an hour, to get into the Cheesecake Factory.

The next question, then, is why? I decided to ask some of the people I found wandering around the Tabor Center with the Factory's telltale plastic-backed pagers in their hands. (Although the place gets points for creativity, the pagers are a blatant attempt to get people to shop in the under-used Tabor Center, since the pager works only within the mall's confines.)

The overwhelming response: Large portions for a decent price.
But is more mediocre food better than less really good food?
Judging from the throngs that choke the restaurant's entryway, many would say yes. From the day the aptly named Factory opened in April, this link in a Los Angeles-based chain has been packed to overflowing during peak dining times and comfortably full even when other restaurants are dead.

We were among the many families there on a very busy Sunday night, when we went to celebrate my one-year-old's birthday. The place was noisy, crazy, filled with distractions. Perfect. We waited in line for a few minutes to get our pager. The hostess told us they could not hold the Cookie Monster cake we'd brought because "it will get lost," so we lugged the cake around the Tabor Center with us. The mall was closed, so we window-shopped for about 45 minutes until the thing in my pocket vibrated. Returning to the Factory, we were led to our seats through a nearly impenetrable group of would-be diners who had chosen to stare at other people eating rather than stroll through the Tabor Center while they waited.

Once we were settled, an employee asked if he could put the cake in the refrigerator for me. "Won't it get lost?" I asked. "Good heavens, no," he replied.

We soon got lost in the menu. Along with descriptions of more than 200 dishes and 35 cheesecakes, this seventeen-page booklet was half-filled with ads: upscaley ads from jewelers and leather-furniture dealers and art galleries. The presentation was a high-class version of bowling-alley score sheets touting "Joe's Auto Shop" and "Your Ad Here."

The difference is that bowling alleys need the extra income, and from all indications, the Cheesecake Factory does not. According to the Los Angeles Times, the eighteen-restaurant chain made $160.3 million last year.

Apparently, it did so through sheer volume--not outrageous prices. Because it's true that the Factory turns out a lot of food for a fair amount of dough. And a few things we tried were actually above average. The avocado egg rolls ($6.95) and the firecracker salmon rolls ($7.95), for example, were deep-fried delicious, with crisp wrappers and fresh ingredients put together with obvious know-how. Inside the egg rolls, the avocado was bright green and studded with sun-dried tomato bits and diced red onions, with a couple of cilantro leaves here and there for an extra boost of flavor. Inside the other rolls, the spicy salmon came surrounded by spinach, a combination that could stand up to the sweet-and-fiery chile sauce.

Our last appetizer, the roadside sliders ($5.95), were dry and tasteless--but at least they were healthier than the classic mini-burgers. So we thought, hey, two out of three: Maybe there's something to this place after all.

Then we got the entrees.
To be fair, the shepherd's pie ($11.50) was good. But they should cut each serving in half and reduce the price to $7.50, because there's no way any non-football-player human could finish this thing. Our portion was almost as big as the two-layer Cookie Monster cake. A family's worth of mashed potatoes--beautifully coated with parmesan cheese--had been spread across a stew of about a pound of ground beef mixed with peas, carrots, zucchini and onions. Compared with this, the Claim Jumper's gargantuan portions look like California nouvelle cuisine.

While the two other entrees were just as big, they were also awful. The Caribbean steak ($13.95) may have been coated in "island spices," but it tasted of nothing but flank and had been so overcooked that chewing it was like running a mouth marathon. Forget jerk--this was jerky. The accompanying plantains were fine, but the black beans, although obviously freshly cooked, had no flavor whatsoever. At least the crabcakes ($16.95) hinted of crab, even if they were more like four crab-tinged bread patties than real crabcakes.

Remember, it's not the size of the food that matters. It's what you do with it.

What the Cheesecake Factory is really known for, of course, is cheesecake. So we were surprised to find that the chocolate mousse and the fresh banana cream (both $5.50) were no better than average. Then again, a cheesecake is a cheesecake is a cheesecake--until you encounter one that's truly special. These weren't.

A return visit for lunch netted us only one keeper: the huge (of course) turkey club ($8.50). Then again, it's hard to ruin a club. Roast turkey (mostly breast), thick-cut bacon, lettuce and tomato had been layered five inches deep on thick-cut bread moistened with mayo. If only someone had wetted down the Texas-toast-thick wheat bread that came with the tomato, basil and asparagus omelette ($8.50). Although I appreciate the heart-healthy gesture of putting the butter on the table so the diner can dictate his own cholesterol count, the toast needs to arrive before it turns into something you could build a house with. The omelette itself was a styrofoam frisbee--a half-inch thick and almost as dry as the toast--that had been cooked like a pancake and then filled, taco-style, with tiny diced tomato pieces that far outnumbered the scant asparagus and basil; the cheese beneath the filling had coagulated into what looked like wads of chewing gum. And then someone had doused the whole affair with balsamic, which was all we could taste. Compared with this, Denny's omelettes look like California nouvelle cuisine.

Somewhere between the club and the omelette was the bistro rock shrimp pasta ($13.95), an okay overload of spaghettini with buttery shrimp, mushrooms, tomatoes and arugula in what was supposed to be a garlic, lemon and basil sauce with a dash of cream but was really a lemon sauce. Since we received a dinner-sized bowl, half of it was still there when the waitress came to clear away our lunch. At this point, I'd taken only three or four bites out of the omelette, and there was a quarter of the monster club left, too. And the three of us had eaten only half of two cheesecake choices (both $5.50), the hard-topped chocolate Jack Daniels and the unimpressive Key lime. (Compared with these, that Cookie Monster cake looks like California nouvelle cuisine.) At first I thought it was odd that the waitress didn't ask if anything had been wrong with our still-loaded dishes, but then I realized that she's probably used to seeing a lot of food left on diners' plates.

Later I asked a waiter if people usually take their leftovers home or if the staff winds up tossing them. "Oh, we throw a ton of food away," he said. "A lot of people hate to carry boxes and bags back to their offices, or they're going out after dinner and they don't want to be bothered. The funny thing is, men hardly ever take the food, but women always grab up everything they can."

So the final question is this: If there's a wait to get in, and then the food is only fair to middlin', and the portions are so big that no one can finish them but only half the diners want to be seen carrying leftovers out, and there are places in the area serving better food for comparable prices, then why are people going to the Cheesecake Factory?

Cheesecake Factory, 1201 16th Street, 595-0333. Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-12:30 a.m. Friday-Saturday; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday.

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