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I hate chains...but every now and then something just surprises you.....................

As the title says I cannot stand most chains I despise the pre-made microwave friendly menu items most serve and will do everything in my power to avoid eating at them at all costs.

Every once in awhile though you find something at one of them that really impresses you…my example I discovered a little while ago but just had it again last night which prompted me to post this. Houlihans has a Ahi Tuna salad with banana’s and cashews that sounds like an absolutely repulsive combination. But in actuality with the ginger dressing it all combines for a delicious salad combination that I truly enjoy.

So what are some of your surprise chain dishes that you find to be a refreshing alternative to the nature of most chains menu options?

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    1. I went to Olive Garden this weekend... BF's family was in town and that's where they wanted to go (his dad loves it and they don't have it where they're from). So, after some internal grumbling in my head, I went. I had a grilled chicken dish with lemon herb sauce, served w/ fusilli. I actually thought it was pretty good. It wasn't ground breaking or anything of course, but tasty. I also liked that they have the option of having wine in the 9oz carafe, versus just choosing from a glass (not enough) or the entire bottle (too much unless I want to be carried home). Probably also helped that the waiter accidentally left the rest of the bottle on the table and forgot about it, it had about another glass and a half worth left in it. Maybe I was a lil tipsy by the time the entrees came out so I thought it was better than it was :-D

      I didn't like the appetizers or the breadsticks, too salty. I was also surprised at their prices. My dish was ok at around $11 or $12, but BF had chicken marsala that I believe was $16... sort of a lot I thought.

      1. TGIFridays used to have a tuna sandwich that was so good... it had celery, pineapple and chow mein noodles on it. Sadly the discontinued it years ago and I have only eaten there once since.

        1. We don't eat at chains often - probably "Ruby Tuesday" & "Glory Days" are the ones we frequent locally the most - but what continues to irritate me is that so many of these chains seem to change their menus as frequently as most folks change their underware. I swear that we've NEVER had the same menu at "Ruby Tuesday" twice. Never.

          So if you find an item that you really, really like, the chances of finding it on the menu the next time you visit are extremely slim. Sad. I know they want to keep things charged up in order to lure in new customers, but eradicating everything else every month or so is NOT going to bring regular folks back.

          1. I had never been to Olive Garden until recently. Being well aware of the hype in their commercials, I wisely chose the chianti braised short ribs with portabello risotto. It was really quite good.

            1 Reply
            1. re: mucho gordo

              Yes, that's what I ordered when I've been there. it's good. and a full plate, too. I only ate half and took the rest home.

            2. Being in Orlando we have chains up the wazoo! lol

              So here is my list.

              Bahama Breeze (Darden Chain) - Fish Tacos, only served during lunch

              Cantina Laredo - Table side guacamole

              Olive Garden - Portabella ravioli in sun dried tomato sauce

              Seasons 52 (Darden chain) Goat Cheese ravioli with mixed vegetables

              Jersey Mikes - #13 Original Italian Mike's Way

              BJ's Brewhouse - Stuffed baked potato and Pizookie

              PF Changs - Lettuce wraps

              Bonefish grill - Bang Bang shrimp taco

              Panera bread - vermont white cheddar mac and cheese

              Brio - Lobster and Shrimp ravioli

              Denny's - Moons over my hammy.


              4 Replies
              1. re: Sandwich_Sister

                We have a Jersey Mike's in Bonita Springs (I'm in North Naples)...though I ditched lunchmeat LONG ago, sometimes I just gotta have a sub...(since I am from NJ originally)...and I DO like Jersey Mike's small subs...they are JUST the right size for little me at $4.99 or something? great deal once in a while for this Jersey girl!

                1. re: Val

                  I used to live near about 10 Jersey Mike's...then moved to where there are none around. SO miss their turkey breast sub prepared Mike's Way!!!

                  1. re: Val

                    I love the small subs also...perfect size.

                  2. re: Sandwich_Sister

                    Seconding the #13 Original Italian (Mike's Way) at Jersey Mike's!

                    Houston's/Hillstone has the best veggie burger I've ever had anywhere.

                    Stonewood Grill has great soft pretzel breadsticks.

                    Einstein's Bagels has a delicious gourmel bagel with green chiles (not jalapenos!) and some kind of cheese baked in.

                    California Pizza Kitchen has a few really good pizzas (BBQ chicken, chipotle chicken) and these panko-crusted macaroni and cheese nuggets. Guilty pleasure for sure!

                  3. PF Changs for lettuce wraps and the crispy green beans. [Never, ever get their dim sum. I made that mistake at a Happy Hour, truly appalling.]

                    Qdoba does a good queso burrito. They also have surprisingly good chips. The thing that makes them good is the they use real rice not converted.

                    I haven't had a burger but 5 Guys does have really good fries. Probably the best chain fries I've ever had. I'm not a shoestring fry guy and these are just about the right shape and I like them fried in peanut oil.

                    Veggie Grill has a sandwich called Papa's Portobello that is really good... if you like that mushroom. For the side get the chili or upgrade to the sweetheart fries. It's a vegan fast foodish chain but pretty good and offers some pretty tasty healthy options.

                    The chicken at Chicken Now is really good. The sauces aren't particularly good but the chicken is fresh and they batter and fry after you order. For a chain this is probably the best fried chicken breast I have tried. The fresh fried makes it much more like something you would eat at home. I've just tried the chicken tenders but that seems to be the strong point. The other stuff is basically the tenders in bread or a wrap. The basic tender is good.

                    13 Replies
                    1. re: knowspicker

                      I had to go to PF Changs for dinner last night, my first time, and was glad I had seen your post about the lettuce wraps. They were quite tasty. The szechuan style asparagus was also really good, as was the mongolian beef which has been mentioned on other threads.

                      1. re: knowspicker

                        5 Guys=worst fries I've ever had. They get limp, being steamed in the serving cup thing.

                        1. re: wyogal

                          There's a Five Guy's next to my workplace but I've never been. I must be the only person on the planet that actually likes limp fries, as long as they are freshly cut.

                          1. re: James Cristinian

                            I don't mind limp fries as long as they are warm.

                            1. re: James Cristinian

                              :) I just don't like them. We just got 5 Guys here, everyone was gaga over it. We went. Hamburgers taste like Mom's, "beefy," cooked in cast iron (I know that's not how they cook them, but it tastes like that), not bad. But, the atmosphere is horrible, way, way too noisy. and those limp fries.
                              I haven't tried the hot dogs yet.

                            2. re: wyogal

                              They will get limp if you get them to go. If you eat them at the restaurant, you can pour them out of the cup, smother them with salt and vinegar and enjoy fresh, crispy fries.

                              1. re: 4X4

                                Sorry, but, no. Ate them at the restaurant. They were horrible.

                              2. re: wyogal

                                I have to agree about their fries. Barely cooked, greasy as can be - just awful. And this is at every 5 Guys I've tried, not just one outpost.

                                1. re: Terrie H.

                                  Exactly. But, I've only tried the one location.

                                  1. re: Terrie H.

                                    I agree...but asked for it extra crispy and not burnt, and they"'re pretty darned good.

                                  2. re: wyogal

                                    That's strange - I'm not a fan of French fries period. But Five guys has the second most palatable fries I have ever had, you can order them crispy and get the Cajun style. I would also suggest that you never try In-N-Outs fries, those are some seriously limp and disgusting things - belch.

                                    1. re: wyogal

                                      Hubby and I were in Williamsburg VA on a driving trip and saw therefore had our first ever and last ever FGB&F.
                                      We were taken aback by the noise, it was deafening. There were peanut shells everywhere on the floor some places do serve peanuts though and when you're awaiting your order, it is good to munch while you wait.
                                      The burgers were good, we will say that. The fries were awful. We do mean awful. If you love what you consider an awesome food in a perfectly made french fry, these aren't them.

                                2. I thought Biaggi's "Chicken Pietro" was quite good... to the extent that I found a "clone" recipe online and have made it at home a couple of times. (No Biaggi's in New Jersey where I live, so I've got to make my own!)

                                  1. Boston Market: Rotisserie Chicken Carver. Rotisserie chicken with dijon mayo, cheddar, tomatoes and greens on a white or multi-grain roll.

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: olyolyy

                                      They had a wonderful chicken tortilla soup that disappeared when scallions had salmonella issues. Recently, there's a bowl with 2 sides topped with chicken, turkey, or meatloaf and some sort of gravy.

                                    2. Roy Rogers. Awfully good chicken. Not nearly as over salted, and processed tasting as most big bird chains. Biscuits are a cut above as well. Roast beef sandwiches, and the wonderful Double R Bar burger.

                                      5 Guys. Big greasy burgers.

                                      Baja Fresh. Better than Chipotle for my money. No great shakes, but a quick and reasonable way to satisfy a Tex Mex fix without having to stoop to the Bell.

                                      3 Replies
                                      1. re: laststandchili

                                        Good to know about Roy Rogers. There are some on the NY Thruway, and I've found them so repellant I have to shift to the left lane as I go by.

                                        1. re: sr44

                                          I'd avoid the ones on 95 or the BWI airport. Their locations in Frederick, Westminster, and Southern Maryland are worth a stop though.

                                          1. re: laststandchili

                                            and don't forget their fries. i think they're the best out there.

                                      2. I went to Denny's for breakfast yesterday. I think I went to Denny's once before, but it was not for breakfast. I have to say that all I knew about Denny's was that it was the butt of jokes and thought to be really unhealthy.

                                        To my surprise, I got the Fit Slam breakfast and not only was it a very healthy option but it had excellent flavor and everything in it was extremely fresh. My egg whites were perfectly cooked with very nice spinach and halved grape tomatoes. Good color on the veggies, too. The side of fruit was very fresh, the banana slices and grapes were very flavorful, too.

                                        I even liked the coffee. And I never like coffee in chains.

                                        I could not have been more surprised. I was dreading going in there.

                                        I would say that the other surprise I had was at McDonald's in the spring. It was the only place for miles and miles to eat. I had the premium grilled chicken club sandwich and was surprised at how good it was (even without mayo). Very flavorful and lots of fresh veggies (maybe because it was in Florida, I don't know).

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: Manassas64

                                          There's a Denny's in Key West that is open 24/7 so we always make it our last meal in KW and the breakfast is always good. As a Northerner I enjoy the grits and biscuit that come with the senior slam and have had some really fresh fruit there as well.

                                          1. re: Manassas64

                                            McDonalds, haha, I can't understand why people like that chicken mcnugget junk, though their chicken selects (chicken strips) are fairly good.

                                          2. I seldom eat at fast food chains but I forgot my bag lunch yesterday so I joined in the daily lunch ordering crowd and got a Baja Chili salad from Wendys. It was not bad at all. Far better than I was expecting.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: tcamp

                                              I *love* this salad. Their guac is really quite good, as is the pico de gallo on it.

                                            2. Ruby Tuesday has a marinara over spaghetti squash dish that tastes great, and doesn't leave me feeling like I need to go work off all the calories.
                                              Also, their crab cake and their mashed cauliflower are surprisingly good.

                                              2 Replies
                                              1. re: jmcarthur8

                                                Mashed cauliflower? With garlic, roasted- how is it prepared?
                                                Crabcakes, eh that I'd prefer at a seafood place. Or in Bal'mer...

                                                1. re: BuildingMyBento

                                                  BMB, I found some 'copycat' recipes online for RT's mashed cauliflower. It seems to have a little onion powder, garlic powder and some heavy cream.
                                                  When I make it at home, I steam it, mash it, then add sour cream and/or cream cheese, garlic and parmesan.

                                                  Agreed about the crabcakes, but when we are on road trips, sometimes there is nary a seafood place in sight, nor anything that looks like the cooking may be decent. If I must go to a chain, I'll go to Ruby Tuesday because I can get those particular dishes that aren't loaded with fat and a gazillion calories. And that mashed cauliflower.. I really do like that.

                                              2. MOS Burger, the only fast food chain I'd go to more than once in a year. Although, sometimes I want a BLT when in China, so Subway has to be that shining 星.
                                                McDonald's- I don't ever eat there, except for in China, where even there I only order an ube pie. Would be an issue if I started to encounter those in Chinatown (s)...

                                                1. While looking for a quick lunch at the mall a few months ago, a server was offering samples of Charley's Philly Steak chicken California sandwich. I liked the sample so I went ahead and bought one. Really excellent. Basically a thinly grilled piece of chicken with various toppings (I chose mushrooms, peppers, onions plus their standard ranch dressing) in a lightly toasted bun.

                                                  Sweetener was that by completing an on-line survey, they provide a code to write onto the back of the receipt which is good for a free small order of fries and a small (16 oz) soft drink with the purchase of any size sandwich. Although the fries are obviously frozen and may have a light corn starch coating, they are cooked to order and were thus equal to the best of the frozen fries offered at other chains.

                                                  I've now repeated the cycle three times in three months and each visit has fully met / exceeded my expectations.

                                                  1. La Parrilla Suiza is my fa vorite chain, it originated in Mexico City. Here's their "about us" quote from their web site-
                                                    "About Us
                                                    We serve authentic Mexico City Cuisine that’s a delightful alternative to other Mexican Restaurants.

                                                    The exquisite cuisine of Mexico City is almost a world apart from northern Mexican food. All our tacos, meat and cheese dishes are cooked on charcoal or grilled. We serve fresh handmade corn tortillas and authentic Mexico City salsas.

                                                    Most of our dishes were created and have been served by La Parrilla Suiza since 1969. We continue serving them in our more than 25 restaurants in Mexico and the United States. "
                                                    I think their only US restaurants are in Arizona, but thank the good Lord there's one within a mile of my house, and I'm pretty sure it was the original US location. It's always wonderful, prices are very reasonable, and the salsas that come with house-fried tortilla chips are the best. There are salsas as good, but none better. I know I sound like one of their PR people, but I'm not.
                                                    They "Americanized" their menu a few years ago to include things that most Americans expect to find in a Mexican restaurant, but their core dishes are still there and I am a real fan of the place.
                                                    If you're a chain snob, by all means avoid La Parrilla Suiza- it will make the prine time wait shorter for me, other Tucsonans, and all the visiting Mexican Nationals that love the place too.

                                                    1. I'm not usually a chain person either- but whenever Wendy's changed their hamburgers- sometime in the past couple of years- they have come out with something that beats most burger places. It is incredibly fattening (like over 800 calories for a regular cheeseburger) but it is very tasty, grilled and buttered bun, very juicy burger, fairly fresh tasting lettuce and tomato and onion.

                                                      1. Carraba's has a dish called Chicken Bryan that my husband and I both love. We get a side of spaghetti pomodoro (which is good, if a little greasy) and suffer through the chain-y stuff (white, frozen caesar salad, giant groups of Dew-swilling birthdayers snapping pictures, the constant up-sell). They've even introduced a smaller portion size for the ladies. I've ordered a few other things there, but this one is consistently pretty great.

                                                        2 Replies
                                                          1. re: olyolyy

                                                            Chicken, goat cheese, sundried tomatoes, garlic, butter, wine, lemon juice....
                                                            There are lots of recipes out there on different websites, an original (not copy cat, from Carrabas) that should show up first on a google search. "Carrabas Chicken Bryan"

                                                        1. Mussel soup and salad at Olive Garden. Truly enjoyable, not a guilty pleasure.

                                                          1. I like the veggie sub at Subway. It's just fresh veggies on fresh bread. If I forget to bring lunch it's a cheap, reliable option.

                                                            6 Replies
                                                            1. re: plasticanimal

                                                              I understand their use of very cheap quality cold cuts to keep costs low (will never be mistaken for Boars Head quality), but having eaten just a few times at Subway, I could never get past their disgusting breads - my vote for the worst rolls ever.

                                                              1. re: Clams047

                                                                I can't even walk into a Subway due to the smell of that bread baking. For some reason, it just disgusts me.

                                                              2. re: plasticanimal

                                                                Similar to those who already posted......I use to enjoy Subway until someone pointed out to me....where are the deli slicers? Where do they cut the meat, cheese etc. If you notice everything come pre-packaged from a central facility. So the "fresh" sub you think your having could have been in a warehouse or trucking facility for who knows how long. It was sad but true. I tend to stay away now I prefer to be able to see them slice my meat, cheese etc.

                                                                1. re: jrvedivici

                                                                  Stopped at Arby's the other day, noticed them slicing the roast beef to order. I guess one could say I was pleasantly surprised.

                                                                  1. re: Custardly

                                                                    I haven't been to Arby's in perhaps over 10 years but back then my younger taste buds loved a good roast beef sandwich and the chicken fingers were also quite good. I just haven't been because there haven't been many around, but I spotted one the other day and would definitely give it a try.

                                                                2. re: plasticanimal

                                                                  I also like this, it's my go-to "spending a day in a mall or outlet center and need a quick lunch" option. Their veggie patties also aren't bad. Sometimes I'll get that on a salad and feel like I had a pretty decent lunch.

                                                                3. I was pleasantly surprised when I recently went to Wendy's and saw that they have bottles of malt vinegar with their other condiments. I love vinegar on fries and it's nice to see a fast food chain with decent fries provide that.

                                                                  2 Replies
                                                                  1. re: 4X4

                                                                    I love malt vinegar on fries, as well!

                                                                    1. re: 4X4

                                                                      1+ it depends on the type of fry but with certain types, I can't eat them without a good dousing of malt vinegar. It's nice to see that this British practice has jumped over the pond and has been adopted by more chains.

                                                                    2. I have had a serious craving for pizza for weeks now, but have been holding out given the lack of good delivery options in my area and the laziness which accompanies a pizza craving which means little motivation to make it at home or go pick up something only slightly above what's offered at standard delivery chains. Well, I bit the bullet and caved into the Papa John's. I have to admit that it really hit the spot and was quite tasty...or perhaps I was just hungry, but I wouldn't hesitate to order from them again in the future even though for many years I was none too impressed with their pizza, perhaps something has changed.

                                                                      1. I learned on CH that the crab cakes at Ruby Tuesday are pretty good, which they are, but near me in FL is a local family restaurant that does them even better (she is from Maryland).
                                                                        I ate often at the Houston's restaurant in Addison, TX, where everything was impressively good, especially the beef tenderloin with blue cheese, and the roast artichoke appetizer.

                                                                        1 Reply
                                                                        1. re: Veggo

                                                                          I really like the Ruby Tuesday crab cake. That with the salad bar makes a pretty decent meal.

                                                                        2. Unlike many on these boards I enjoy a wide range of chain restaurants. There are higher-end places I consider as good to great, such as The Palm, Smith & Wollensky's, Capitol Grille, Ruth's Chris and even Morton's.

                                                                          At the same time, I enjoy many offerings from low-end chains, such as McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, Au Bon Pain, Panera, KFC, Taco Bell, Subway, Jimmy John's, Arby's and the like.

                                                                          Even bad pizza, like those made by Papa John's, Domino's, Pizza Hut, Little Caesar's, and similar, aren't horrible. Pizza can't be terrible.

                                                                          In my medium-sized city there are dozens of solid local chain restaurants that are good options for dining in or take out.

                                                                          I don't quite understand the hatred heaped upon chain restaurants by the chowhound community. Some dishes at places even like Chili's and Olive Garden aren't terrible.

                                                                          5 Replies
                                                                          1. re: MonMauler

                                                                            +1 Agree entirely. I don't love chains - I will never fight to the death defending Applebee's or praising the McRib - but this thread is about the dishes one might find there that are good - even surprisingly so. There are plenty of threads for chain-bashing.

                                                                            I also live in a medium-sized city and some nights a chain (or franchise) is just easier than fighting the crowds downtown or paying to park. And when traveling it's certainly easier to pull off the interstate and grab a Whopper than search through a little unfamiliar town for a local sit-down meal. Chains also can be much better about accomodating large groups.

                                                                            I support small local businesses as much as I can, but there's nothing inherently wrong with chains - and as many have stated above, they occasionally find great meal at one.

                                                                            I've heard that bad pizza is like bad sex. It's still pretty good. :)

                                                                            1. re: MonMauler

                                                                              I'm with you, even moreso now that there isn't a non-chain restaurant other than a super duper overpriced Chinese place and expensive bar and grill that's attached to a Country Club/Golf Course within a 15 minute drive of my house. I live outside of Brighton, Colorado, if anybody is familiar. There's some decent Mexican, an Italian place with pretty bad reviews, and one bar and grill in town that serves chain-type food (ie mostly pre-frozen) about 20 minutes away. Oh and there's a Long Horn Steakhouse in town but if we're going that route, I'd rather drive to the Texas Roadhouse that's a bit further away in another town. Downtown Denver is about 30 minutes away without traffic, so not a great option on weeknights. The bar we frequent is 30 minutes away. I can usually find something decent anywhere.. and if nothing on the menu looks good, I order either a club sandwich, chicken tenders, or a burger, both of those are pretty hard to screw up. Even a so-so burger is still OK. Olive Garden is about 25 minutes away and that's where BF's family from Wyoming wants to eat every time they visit. I manage to find decent stuff there. It's not the best thing ever, but not the worst either.

                                                                              But, we have Chili's, Buffalo Wild Wings, Applebee's, Taco Bell, Chik Fil A, McDonald's, Sonic, Del Taco, and Good Times (which I actually really like, Colorado chain) and Pizza Hut & Domino's within 10 minutes.

                                                                              I had the "chains are icky" attitude when I lived in Chicago and could get great food on every corner, but it really is eye opening once you move away from a larger city. Sure, I'd love to support local businesses and I love good food. Unfortunately where I live, those two things don't really go together, other than the Mexican places.

                                                                              1. re: juliejulez

                                                                                Well obviously your options are limited to what is available in anyone's immediate area. When visiting family in a small Virginia town there is nothing for a 20 minute drive to the nearest "big" town and there are only chain type restaurants there and that's fine. It all depends on what options are available to you. One southern chain I do like is K&W Cafeteria.....don't know if they are out west but I do enjoy going to them when we are in the south.

                                                                                I live in central NJ and we are inundated with chain restaurants. Far to many for my liking.....however there are a lot of independent places as well and for me that's where I prefer to spend my money.

                                                                                1. re: jrvedivici

                                                                                  Oh of course, if I had an option of going to a chain, or going to a locally owned place, then I would definitely prefer locally owned. My dad was a small business owner who ended up losing business because of bigger companies coming in and lowballing jobs. So even if it costs a bit more I prefer to go to the local guys, as long as their food/service is still good. My point was that some of us don't have good access to locally owned, or if we do, the quality is about the same as the chains.

                                                                                  1. re: juliejulez

                                                                                    Yes - quality will always be the bottom line.

                                                                                    We happen to really really enjoy the "Fish & Chips" at our local "Glory Days Grill" (chain), which comes either as a platter or as a sandwich. The fish is thick-cut, batter crisp & greaseless; & the seasoned "chips" are just right. And malt vinegar on the side.

                                                                                    Last month we visited a long-standing independent local "Irish pub" that we hadn't been to in several years, & the Fish & Chips couldn't have been worse!! Greasy fish, & chips that were not just overcooked - they were burnt. As in BLACK burnt. They were also $9 more than at Glory Days.

                                                                                    So in this case, we'll stick with the chain.

                                                                            2. Just this week I had stuffed mushrooms and the lettuce wraps at the Cheesecake Factory, they were really good!

                                                                              1. yep > the Roast Beef sandwich with tomatoes and Ortega chilies from Carl's Jr. WITH a large bag of their (back then 'back in the day') fries.

                                                                                when I got home from the hospital after giving birth I guess my husband expected me to make dinner ~ WHAT? I told him I was starving (duh) and he offered to go get something - my order = the above :)

                                                                                sooo good, but alas, so gone ;-(