Popular Chili's is at the top of the junk-food chain

RESTAURANTS

November 12, 1993|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Restaurant Critic

Most people have a favorite junk food restaurant. Mine is Chili's. I mean that as a compliment: When food critics eat junk food, they want it to be the best junk food. If our family is in the mood for hamburgers, fries and milkshakes, no place does them better than Chili's. If we want southwestern food, I'm as happy here a anywhere.

Unfortunately, Chili's is everybody's favorite junk food restaurant. They don't take reservations, so we've stopped going except at off hours. Then you can get in without too long a wait and eat without being surrounded by screaming kids. (This isn't primarily a family restaurant; Chili's calls itself a bar and grill. But it does offer a little something for everyone, including a dirt-cheap kids menu.) At an off-hour you can enjoy the southwestern decor in relative peace. It's remarkably tasteful for a chain restaurant, with its decorative tile tabletops, plants and comfortable brown leatherette booths. You can sip a margarita that tastes like frozen limeade but packs a bit more punch.

I thought Halloween would be an off-night, what with the rain and the fact that kids would be otherwise occupied. We called and were told the place was empty. By the time we got there, some 15 minutes later, it was filled to overflowing, with a 10 minute wait. "They all came in at once -- just before you," said the rabbit who was taking names. This is typical at Chili's; only the costumes made the evening unusual.

Back to the junk food. Surely the ultimate example is something my teen-ager tried for the first time called an Awesome Blossom, which is indescribable. But I'll do my best. The kitchen starts with an enormous onion, cuts it so it "blossoms" in innumerable little spikes still attached at the bottom, dips the whole thing in batter and deep-fries it. Now here's where the junk food really kicks in: You dip the fried onion spikes in a sauce that I would guess is russian dressing jazzed up with horseradish. It should ,, be dreadful, but it tastes better than anyone with a supposedly sophisticated palate would want to admit.

Chili's has Danish baby back ribs, meaty and juicy and topped with a bit of barbecue sauce -- not serious ribs, but then they aren't pretending to be. It has fine smoked turkey quesadillas made with soft flour tortillas.

You can get soft tacos filled with chili, cheese and lettuce. The spicy pinto beans on the side are better than I've found at any Mexican restaurants in the area.

Chili's fajitas, too, are as good as you'll find anywhere around here. Get the combination, steak and chicken, with lettuce and tomato, grated cheddar, sour cream and guacamole. I can't, however, say that Chili's guacamole tastes as if it's made from fresh avocadoes.

To my shock, my favorite junk food restaurant has a new menu, and a new section on the menu is called the "Guiltless Grill." A Guiltless Chicken Salad was packed with flavor -- mixed greens, charbroiled chicken strips, kidney beans, green onions and a spicy, fat-free southwest dressing. Not bad for only 3 grams of fat. Oh, well. You can make them up with a square of Chili's new carrot cake or a Chili's sundae in a cinnamon-coated tortilla with hot fudge.

Chili's

Where: 600 E. Belvedere Ave.

Hours: Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.

Credit cards accepted: AE, D, MC, V.

Features: Southwestern food, hamburgers.

Non-smoking section? Yes.

Call: (410) 323-5773.

Prices: Under $10.

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