Munch goes to the Cheesecake Factory

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Ask and ye shall receive. Munch has been getting e-mails for months now, asking, "Munch, when is The Cheesecake Factory going to open?"

It is open now, and apparently it is a much-loved institution. And why not?

   

The Cheesecake Factory is at 415 S. 27th St., South Side (412-431-7800). Say, kids: E-mail Munch with comments or suggestions at munch@post-gazette.com.

   

People appreciate a cold room with wide booths, a fat slab of dairy, those vibrating buzzers that notify you that your table is ready, a menu that takes 20 minutes to read, including the pages with advertising for South Side businesses. People appreciate all-pleasing, uber-chain choices that range from Thai-ish vegetable saute to meatloaf to a chicken avocado sandwich built on American Indian fry bread.

Like cream cheese across a hot pan, The Cheesecake Factory has skidded from its original L.A. location into half the states of this nation over the past decade. Finally, this popular emporium of pan-American comfort food has come to Pittsburgh.

Yay? Duty buzzed like the table-minder in Munch's back pocket: must visit.

Munch recruited two friends who weren't already sold on the charms of The Cheesecake Factory but had heard enough advance chatter from noshy South Siders to be interested in a meal there. We went.

Turning from Carson into the new SouthSide Works is like detouring into the Waterfront without crossing the High Level Bridge. Though the malls and theaters surrounding the restaurant aren't finished, it's a pleasant setting. The restaurant rises, pale and new, grand in scale, tiled and colonnaded, set back from the road in a wide square. A teasing fountain squirts in front. Kids dash through it. The friendly landscaping will look full and green by next summer.

Inside, all is glossy marble, high ceilings, etched glass. Munch and co. stood in the bar, leafing through the endless drinks menu: daiquiris, funky punches, funny martinis, fruity margaritas and Robert Mondavi Cheesecake Factory merlot. Someone smoked a stogie. The odor made Munch weep.

After 30 minutes, we were seated in a cozy booth and fell to the monumental task of reading the menu. It was agreed: The best bet is to go with whatever strikes your fancy first. Otherwise you waste valuable minutes of your life poring over 15 different chicken choices.

Munch chose simply: the classic burger. It was fat, pink, sloppy with grilled onions, slippery pickles and tomatoes -- a good burger. Fries for four covered the rest of the plate, thin, sweet and lukewarm.

FOM chose well: The pasta with pesto, chicken and mushrooms was garlicky and flavorful. Our waitress leaned over and gave it a liberal grating of parmesan from a fist-sized block. That's the way to do it.

FOM No. 2 ordered the meatloaf trencher: thick slabs soused in gravy, a pint of mashed potatoes and a pile of sauteed vegetables.

The Cheesecake Factory's food is respectably good, though not special. The portions are massive. In the way of all chains, you get the bill, and your meal was just a little more expensive than you expected.

Nevertheless, we felt compelled to sample the cheesecake. So the mind-blowing wheel of choices spun on: There are more than 30 varieties of cheesecake, including a low-carb version made with Splenda, fresh banana cream, chocolate chip cookie dough, dulce de leche and Godiva chocolate decadence.

The desserts appeared, dressed in six-inch-high frills of whipped cream. Why? Why not? Plain cheesecake, topped with glazed strawberries, was thick and smooth, a touch lemony, cupped in a soft graham cracker crust. Factory mud pie was a dense block of chocolaty goodness. Either dessert would have fed four people.

There is suffering in the Munch universe. Two weeks running, soulless forays into Chainrestaurantland convince Munch that it's time to hit the road to seek an indie gem, to restore the balance. Om.



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