Big Al's Bites: Chains that don't deserve the reputation

When it comes to eating out, people have strong yet fickle opinions. On the one hand, we have those who will only eat at places they know. My wife, love her as I do, tends to lean toward this category. While she has branched out a great deal, she represents the majority of the American public. They have 10 dishes they like at five restaurants, and are reluctant to break out of their function-like ordering habits.

The flip side of this coin is myself. If I’ve seen more than one location, I generally assume it’s going to be average at best. While my wife and I are relatively moderate with respect to these two views, there are many who fall toward extremism. Some would say that all chains have bad food. It’s overly processed “meat” with a semblance of vegetables, microwaved and then wrapped in cellophane. All chains do this. If there is more than one location, then this is automatically the case.

It’s this latter faction that I wish to speak to today. I am a food columnist/critic and am capable of the highest snobbery. While I would agree that most of the best food comes out of prestigious kitchens graced with either Michelin stars or obscurity, there are some fine restaurant chains that are perfectly good enough to grace our weeknights. I submit, for your review, four exceptions to the chain restaurant reputation.

Alberto’s is a fast-food Mexican chain local to Utah. Offering fresh ingredients and courteous service, Alberto’s is a happy alternative to Taco Bell. For those of you familiar with local cheap Mexican food, think Beto’s, minus the inevitable dysentery. I would recommend the adobada (marinated pork) or the chile verde, while my wife’s favorite is the shredded chicken burrito.

Tonyburgers offers one of the best burgers I’ve ever eaten. Blending sirloin, brisket and ground beef, their burgers are some of the most flavorful I’ve come across. Add to that patty loads of fresh produce and original sauces, and you’ve got a recipe for success. Tonyburgers won the 2013 Best of State award for best local burgers, and it’s no secret as to why.

Cafe Zupas swept the Best of State with awards for their soups, sandwiches and salads in casual dining. The freshness and flavor of the salads are fantastic. My favorite mix includes fresh romaine, berries, mango and cinnamon almonds with a poppyseed dressing. Their sandwiches and soups are my favorite by far. A Milano panini includes ham, tomato and muenster cheese mixed with a pesto spread and grilled to perfection. Pair that with any of their soups and you’ve got an award-winning lunch for sure.

Cafe Rio was awarded the Sandelman Award of Excellence, which is regarded by some as the Oscar of quick-service restaurants. The freshness and quality of this establishment is unparalleled by any other quick-service restaurant. With succulent meats, fresh sauce and salsas, and delicious vegetables, you might forget that you’re eating what could be considered “fast food.” I recommend the award-winning sweet pork burrito, while my wife can’t get enough of the cilantro-lime ranch chicken salad.

Chain establishments get a bad reputation, but not all of them deserve it. If you need more proof, check out one of these four suggestions above.

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