T.G.I. Friday's cooks up new menu items: It's all about the details

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I used to work at T.G.I. Friday's -- I was young, I needed the money -- and when customers would ask me what they should order, I unfailingly advised them to stick to appetizers and cocktails: no mussy, no fussy, and no details for me to screw up. Curious to see how T.G.I.F would handle mussy-and-fussy-sounding new menu items like Corned Beef Sliders, Warm Pretzels with Craft Beer-Cheese Dipping Sauce, Korean Steak Tacos, Caribbean Rum Spiced Ribs and Salted Caramel Cake, I decided to pay a call on "ol' stripes."

I stopped in at the Thornton location shortly after 2 p.m., the slow time between lunch and dinner rushes. Only a handful of tables were occupied, and the place was about as peaceful as T.G.I.F can be, given the inexplicably loud '90s dance-party hits blaring from the sound system. I hadn't heard that "blue deeb-a-doober" song in a while, so, bonus.

T.G.I.F servers are still insane perky. They are supposed to be all shoot-from-the-hip conversational and upbeat, and mine was, indeed. I remember the various legal/illegal substances I used to use to keep up the bouncy, and was glad my liver and kidneys survived my tenure as a Friday's employee. (It's debatable whether or not my brain survived it.)

T.G.I.F has always had an ample and relatively great selection of starters: The wings, potato skins and potstickers are undeniably amazing bar food. I scanned the menu for appetizers that were actually new -- not recycled from ingredients on hand -- and decided on the Corned Beef Sliders and the Warm Pretzels with Craft Beer-Cheese Dipping Sauce. (I skipped the Langostino Lobster & Shrimp Mac 'n' Cheese, because last I knew, T.G.I.F used Stouffer's macaroni and cheese, and although that may have changed, I didn't want to pay $8.99 to find out.) I noticed that T.G.I.F no longer offers a soup/salad with entrees: It's a $2.69 up-charge now. But I skipped that option when I ordered the Korean Tacos and Caribbean Rum Spiced Ribs; the dishes both had their own sides.

The starters came quickly, and the sliders were above average, even by T.G.I.F's standards. The warm pretzel bun was all the good sort of chewy, the beef was fall-apart tender, the caramelized onions and melted Swiss cheese were in the right amounts to be complementary but not overly sloppy, and while I hadn't been wild about the combination of mayonnaise and mustard -- "mayostard" -- when I saw it on the menu, it worked. The breadsticks and beer-cheese dip were a fabricated sort of delicious: The bread looked and tasted par-baked (it comes into the restaurant already partially baked and is finished on site), and the bacony sauce not only had a distinguishable pre-prepared quality, but was so salty that it made the grains of pretzel salt on the breadsticks seem even more overwhelming than intended. Pick one, people: Over-salt the dip or the bread, but not both -- unless, of course, the goal is to get customers to cleanse their palates with massive amounts of beer. When I worked there, my biggest pet peeve with T.G.I. Friday's was that there was so much going on that details got missed -- and that hasn't changed. Little things like plate garnishes, sides, drink refills, napkins, straws, adequately clean tables and chairs and bar-drink speed of arrival would be ignored in the constant fray of activity and loud noise, especially during peak hours and weekends. But they also seem to be ignored during relatively quiet times. Letting the deets slide doesn't seem like a big deal when you're a cook or server just trying to stay out of the weeds, but from a customer's perspective, it's a much bigger deal. Case in point: My tacos came without the side of ginger-lime slaw because the kitchen had run out of it, and ditto for the jasmine rice pilaf; the ribs were missing the promised pineapple pico de gallo garnish. Although the server did offer a side salad to replace the missing slaw and rice, she forgot to bring it -- and by the time I remembered it, I was almost done eating and didn't want the salad anymore.

The Korean Steak Tacos were...weird. Not really good or bad, just odd. They were light on beef, heavy on spring mix, and the combo of corn tortillas, diced cucumber, sriracha sauce and too much stemmy cilantro created a strange mixed bag of flavors and textures that didn't jive.

The ribs were T.G.I.F's usual rack of baby back pork ribs, this time slathered with a super-sweet, almost bell-peppery-tasting sauce that didn't seem particularly Caribbean. They weren't bad, but they weren't anything special, either. And the sweet-potato fries were a tiny stack of shriveled, chilly, overly salted and peppered twigs.

My meal ended on a high note: the Salted Caramel Cake. The cake itself was rich, sweet and filled with vanilla custard and bits of salted caramel crunchies; it came topped with a hefty scoop of vanilla ice cream drizzled with butterscotch caramel sauce, and garnished with a slice of salty caramel brittle candy.

Still, that wasn't enough to atone for the disappointing entrees. I left with a to-go carton of ribs and a "meh" feeling. I should have taken my own advice: Sticking to the bar food and bar drinks is still the way to go at T.G.I. Friday's.

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