The cheeseburgers are heavenly at Buffett's place

Some fare doesn't live up to the idea of paradise

August 11, 2005|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When you eat at Cheeseburger in Paradise - or write a review about it - you're bound to get the Jimmy Buffett song stuck in your head. So let's deal with it at the start and all sing together: "I like mine with lettuce and tomato, Heinz 57 and french-fried potatoes."

The Pasadena location, which opened in March, is the first Maryland restaurant in the growing chain, but others are expected to follow soon in California, Md., and in Waldorf.

The bigwigs behind Cheeseburger in Paradise - a partnership between Buffett's Margaritaville Holdings and Outback Steakhouse - have their work cut out for them trying to convince Cheeseburger patrons they're in paradise, not a shopping center on Ritchie Highway.

Their efforts seemed to be working with the crowds waiting outside on a recent Saturday night, many wearing tropical-print T-shirts. Even before you get past the front desk, there are brightly painted chairs, beach blankets on the walls and palm trees growing out of the concrete floors.

Before the live music kicks in around 9 each night, the sound system plays plenty of Buffett, reggae and mellow boomer rock. The walls are painted with scenes of vibrant sunsets, and some booths feature faux windows that give the illusion of looking out over the water.

The bar, a focal point of the giant space, is draped liberally with palm fronds, tiki lights and even life vests. And in case you still can't achieve the "changes in attitude, changes in latitude" you so desperately seek, the enormous drinks can help.

The signature cocktail is a frightening-sounding concoction with layers of pina colada, rum runner, margarita and strawberry daiquiri in the same cereal-bowl-sized glass. If the alcohol won't do you in, the calories might.

I opted for the safer pina colada, a sweet froth with chunks of real pineapple and, thankfully, not as much alcohol.

The menu, while not extensive, is pretty much what you'd expect. Obviously, there are cheeseburgers, as well as some items intended to convey a "paradise" feeling, including blackened tilapia, grilled Caribbean chicken, barbecued ribs and Peruvian pulled pork.

Buffett may have supplied the title and the theme, but the day-to-day running of the restaurant apparently has fallen to people who are even more laid-back about the details.

That's why the blackened tilapia was overcooked, the Thai chicken and steak appetizer overly salty and the "bed of field greens" beneath it actually a mound of iceberg. And that's why our poor waitress announced at 7:30 on a Saturday night that she had been at work since 10 a.m.

Yet, for all its faults, Cheeseburger in Paradise does deliver a heck of a cheeseburger. Fat and juicy, served on a deliciously chewy roll, it's probably the best thing on the menu, and it's served with terrific salty, skin-on shoestring fries.

The burgers also come in a smaller size and can be had as a platter of six for an appetizer or two for a child's meal. These smaller versions looked suspiciously like hockey pucks but were not quite as tough as I anticipated. Still, I recommend sticking with the full-sized version.

Chicken-wing and chicken-tender appetizers were acceptable, but an appetizer of Thai chicken and steak on skewers was so salty that the meat was almost inedible. Blackened tilapia, usually too salty, was instead bland, and it came with an odd side dish of baby carrots swimming in an overly sweet cinnamon-flavored broth. The best thing about this particular plate of food was the bracing onion and pineapple relish served alongside the fish.

Desserts at Cheeseburger mostly feature ice cream and seem entirely skippable, but I had to try the Key lime pie to see if it was made with real Key limes. Turned out it was, and it wasn't half bad - sweet-tart and creamy, with a graham cracker crust and a dollop of whipped cream on top.

Not everything about Cheeseburger in Paradise is heavenly, but some things come close.

Cheeseburger in Paradise

Where: 8026 Ritchie Highway, Pasadena

Call: 410-761-1004

Hours: 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Thursday and Friday, noon to 1 a.m. Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. Sunday

Prices: Appetizers $3.75-$12.95, entrees $7.75-$15.95

Credit cards: All major

Food: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Service: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Atmosphere: *** (3 stars)

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