published Thursday, August 28th, 2014

Cheddar’s packs quality, surprises on price

Bourbon-glazed salmon is served with a choice of sides, such as sweet baby carrots and broccoli-and-cheese casserole, at Cheddar’s.
Bourbon-glazed salmon is served with a choice of sides, such as sweet baby carrots and broccoli-and-cheese casserole, at Cheddar’s.
IF YOU GO

■ Where: Cheddar's Casual Cafe, 2014 Gunbarrel Road.

■ Phone: 423-805-2233.

■ Website: www.cheddars.com.

■ Hours: 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Friday- Saturday.

■ Price range: $10.29-$14.49

I would almost rather gnaw off my arm than pick my way through the glob of traffic that is East Brainerd. That being said, there are some things that will turn my hand. Like a visit to Ross Dress for Less. Or Cheddar’s.

I LOVE good deals. And good food. Cheddar’s offers both.

THE MENU

A glance over the menu will yield everything you’d expect at a chain restaurant and then some — except when it comes to the price. Cheddar’s offers prices you wouldn’t expect even at chain restaurants. Please note that for me to make a trip to a chain restaurant, there has to be a good deal, not just good prices. I have a running list of happy-hour specials, but when it comes to food, a deal means a relatively high level of quality for a low price.

I cannot often be found at chain restaurants.

I have now made two — and counting — trips to Cheddar’s. I am still baffled by how they manage to price almost everything on the menu under $10. And that’s coming from a girl who loves deals.

The max menu price is $14.89, which will get you a full rack of baby back ribs or a 12-ounce rib-eye. For $14.49, you can pair a half-rack of ribs with a sirloin. Nearly everything else — appetizer trio, freshwater catfish, Key West chicken and shrimp, chicken and waffles, country-fried steak, shepherd’s pie and more — is under $10. And that’s not including the things like the dinner portion of grilled salmon or the New Orleans pasta, which combines shrimp, chicken, smoked sausage, penne and homemade Cajun Alfredo sauce, that are right around $10.

THE ORDER

We started with spinach dip, a classic staple at most Americana restaurants. I remember thinking Cheddar’s was not really anything to write home about, but it is what you would expect: sinfully creamy, maybe even more so than the usual. There were enough very lightly salted fresh chips to help us eat the whole thing, which we did. So maybe that’s why I wouldn’t write home about it.

To make myself feel better, I went with grilled salmon for my entrée. I’m not sure what the difference is between the lunch and dinner option except $2.70, but the dinner portion was enough for two dinners; I’d say 10 to 12 ounces of fish. For $10.99. You can choose to have it simply grilled or get it blackened or bourbon-glazed. Upon our helpful server’s recommendation, I chose bourbon-glazed. He didn’t ask me how I wanted it cooked, but it came out perfect: flaky yet still moist. And the glaze gave it a subtly sweet flavor. I didn’t even really need the serving of what I presume was the same sauce included on the side.

The fish is served on a bed of rice and comes with your choice of two additional sides. That makes three sides. For $10.99. Again, to make myself feel better I opted for the sweet baby carrots and went with our server’s recommendation, which this time meant broccoli and cheese casserole. It’s hard to mess up sweet baby carrots, but broccoli-and-cheese casserole is another matter. Cheddar’s includes hunks — not puree — of broccoli held together by real cheddar cheese and crusted with bits of crackers. Again, there was no overly salty flavor, just broccoli, cheese and cracker, in that order. Per the restaurant’s website, things are made in-house, from scratch.

After all my efforts to make myself feel better, I couldn’t resist. I ordered the “legendary monster cookie” ($4.79). I ate more than half … and I would write home about it. Nestled in what looked like an 8-inch-diameter cast-iron skillet was a cookie, smothered with scoops of flavorful vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and a cherry, that would make Grandma take notice. The crust was delicately crisp, the cookie still soft and the chocolate oozingly melted.

THE SERVICE

Our server, Brandon, was personable, witty, attentive and quick. I never had to ask for anything, and he answered all my questions, even offering some of his own suggestions without being prompted. When he wasn’t sneaking my next glass of ice water onto our table, he was taking pictures, cracking jokes, wishing a happy birthday, sympathizing and connecting over elbow injury stories, and otherwise taking great care of the half-dozen or so other tables in his section.

I’ve been a server. I wish I’d trained under him.

THE SPACE

Part of Cheddar’s quality extends to its décor. Butcher-block tables, an exotic-looking fish tank, a sophisticated color palette, a pulley system of wicker fans and stacked stone coupled with wainscoting lend an elegant feel to the restaurant. It’s like shopping at Nordstrom, but with Ross’ prices.

THE VERDICT

If you find yourself stuck in East Brainerd traffic, or have the gumption to willingly take it on, Cheddar’s should be your reward. I’ll have half a monster cookie waiting for you.

Contact Jennifer Bardoner at jbardoner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6579.

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