The last time I went to Chili's was with my parents and future wife, not long after they were introduced.
I remember the food being good, but I had other things on my mind at the time, so it didn't make much of an impression. This time around, it did.
There's a new Chili's restaurant in Paso Robles, in the bustling Target center on Theater Drive, and it's a great place for American-style cuisine including, of course, baby back ribs.
The interior is standard Chili's --generally low lighting with neon by the bar, large billboards showing off artist conceptions of popular items, that sort of thing. It's inviting, if very cookie-cutter.
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The place was bustling and boisterous on a Thursday evening just after 7 p.m., but the seating was swift and the service was attentive. It might be best to visit during offhours on busy nights as Chili's doesn't take reservations.
Our meal started with a couple of appetizers, the Southwest Eggrolls and the signature Awesome Blossom, both $7.50. The "eggrolls" (they're actually stuffed tortillas) were filled with smoked chicken, jalapeo Jack cheese, black beans, corn, red peppers and spinach. The spicy flavors of the eggrolls were enhanced by a cup of cool avocado ranch dip.
The Awesome Blossom was the better of the two appetizers, although it was just a big mound of breaded and fried onion strips rather than an impressive whole onion blossom. But if the presentation was a disappointment, the taste sure wasn't. The onion strips were breaded so thoroughly that I thought a chicken finger or two had been mixed in by mistake. It's a total guilty pleasure, but definitely worth it. The blossom could easily serve four or five people; for two it was a stretch to finish, especially with dinner on the way.
And it was quite a dinner. First there was the mix-andmatch rib combo ($15.50), two half-racks of baby backs with a couple sides.
I tried the Kentucky Bourbon and the Carolina styles. Both had plenty of tender rib meat. The Kentucky Bourbon variety was the better of the two with its prominent bourbon flavor. But the Carolina ribs were also quite good, basted with a thick, pepperysweet sauce.
The sides were a little less impressive -- the smallish mound of mashed potatoes wasn't exactly smothered in cheese and bacon, and the sauteed mushrooms with bell peppers and onions were a little bland.
I also sampled a platter of mushroom Jack fajitas. The chicken was juicy and had a per fect grilled flavor. The platter was served with a generous topping of Jack cheese, mushrooms, bell peppers and onions ( the same mix that came with my ribs).
For an extra dollar, I got a side of black beans and rice. The rice was especially good -- sweet with a citrus undertone and mixed with corn kernels.
No thanks, I'm stuffed
The meal was so filling that there was no room left for dessert, but the Molten Chocolate Cake caught my eye. It's a small chocolate cake filled with fudge and topped with ice cream and a chocolate shell. Next time I'll lighten up on the appetizers and leave room for a sweet finish.
* * *
2001 Theater Drive, Paso Robles 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday through Saturday
The scene: Pleasant and busy chain restaurant
The cuisine: Grilled sandwiches and barbecue with a Mexican influence Expect to spend: $8 to $16