Tag: chains (Page 1 of 2)

Chain Restaurant Reviews: Ike’s Love and Sandwiches

They’re tasty but repetitive and expensive.

Ike’s Love and Sandwiches is a chain of sandwich shops that started in San Francisco in the mid-aughts and which has since expanded to over a hundred locations, mostly in the western US and Florida. They popularized sandwiches made with Dutch crunch bread, their garlic aioli based “dirty sauce” and sometimes unusual ingredient combinations. They opened a location in San Leandro in late 2023, and we’ve had them several times. Their sandwiches, while expensive, are substantia, good for a couple of meals and pretty tasty – though I feel they all taste pretty much the same. They do have plenty of vegetarian and vegan options featuring fake meats. Unfortunately, they’ve gone up on price, about 12% over six or seven months, though that’s true of restaurants in general.

It’s easy to order online and you can customize your sandwiches, but they don’t have a “make your own” sandwich starting from scratch – so if you want something plain, you have to find the closest sandwich to what you want and then ask them to hold whatever ingredients you don’t want.

The last sandwich I ordered was the Big Lee-bowski ($17), which comes with “all beef meatballs, bacon, mozzarella sticks, red pesto, ranch, habanero.” It’s tasty enough, but all the flavors and textures of the ingredients blend together into one. At almost 1900 calories, it’s just not worth it – though one sandwich is definitely large enough for two meals.

I have tried several sandwiches by now, though most of them seem to taste very similar – I’m guessing it’s the dirty sauce. My favorite is the  Hollywould’s SF Cheesesteak ($14.50), which comes with beef slices, mushrooms, provolone cheese and dirty sauce. I loved it the first time I ordered it, it had plenty of mushrooms and I really like mushrooms, and I enjoyed the dirty sauce. I may try it again without the sauce, now that I’ve grown tired of it.

I’ve also had the Ike’s ($16), which comes with pastrami, gouda, purple slaw and “mack sauce”. It was good, if unremarkable. I don’t think I can remember the sauce being any different than the others.

I had the Nacho Boy Supreme ($17) once, which comes with roast beef, bacon, mushrooms, avocado and Swiss cheese – it was fine, given that the predominant flavors are mushroom and sauce, I prefer the  Hollywould’s SF Cheesesteak which is cheaper and has fewer calories.

Finally, I had the Damon Bruce ($17) and was disappointed by it. This sandwich comes with steak, onion rings, provolone and steak sauce. It tasted like all the other sandwiches, however, and the onion rings were nowhere to be found. OK, I did find them once I opened the sandwich and looked for them, but they are basically crushed with all the other ingredients, and they don’t really offer anything but moisture to the sandwich.

In all, as I said above, I feel all the sandwiches pretty much taste the same.

My husband has often had the Jaymee Sirewich ($13.50), a sandwich with fried chicken, pepper jack, yellow BBQ sauce and ranch. When I asked him why he prefers it, his answer is a simple “it tastes good.” He’s trying to watch calories now, so he had something without fried chicken last time he went. He liked it, whatever it was, but can’t recall what he ordered. Not surprising given that, as I said, all the sandwiches taste the same.

My youngest daughter likes her sandwiches plain, all she wants is bread, roast beef, cheese, lettuce and the dirty sauce. So we order her the Dirty Reuben ($16) and substract the purple slaw. She does like it, more than other roast beef sandwiches, a fact she attributes to the dirty sauce (apparently, unlike me, she’s not gotten tired of it).

My oldest daughter usually goes for the Helen Keller ($17), which comes with vegan steak, American cheese, onion rings and BBQ sauce, though last time she got the Jaymeetless ($14.5) with vegan fried chicken, pepper jack, yellow BBQ sauce and ranch. Like me, she feels all of Ike’s sandwiches pretty much taste the same. Like me, she orders them because my husband likes them and he’s going there anyway, but wouldn’t order one otherwise.

My husband, though, does like the sandwiches and finds Ike’s convenient. That said, maybe next time I’ll skip ordering a sandwich for myself.

Ike's Love and Sandwiches
155 Parrott St
San Leandro, CA
(341) 344-4201
M - Su 10 AM - 9 PM

Chain Restaurant Reviews: Chipotle

Can Chipotle compete with local taquerías?

Living in San Leandro, I have easy access to a lot taquerías, so it’s probably not surprising that it took me years to finally try Chipotle – which has been occupying the old Copymat space in downtown San Leandro for over a decade now. I finally did several years ago (and you can read my review of their quesadilla), at my daughter’s urging, and I wasn’t impressed. Still, she likes it, so we get it once in a while. My last order reminded me of why it’s not more often.

Chipotle has an easy online ordering system, which allows you to customize your order, and it’s usually ready before you can get to the store. Their prices vary significantly between locations – with the Chipotle in San Leandro having some of the highest prices in the nation. Alas, they haven’t gone up as much as prices at other taquerías. Chipotle has its own frequent user club that allows you to very slowly accumulate points that you can exchange for free food. After this order, I’ll be able to get some free tortilla chips. Yippy (/s).

I ordered a steak burrito ($12.50) with cheese, sour cream and tomatillo-green chili salsa. As usual, I skipped the rice and beans. I was disappointed. Not only was the burrito fairly small, but it was cold. That’s because the cheese, sour cream and salsa are all added cold and very quickly cool down the beef. I suspect the tortilla is not steamed hot before serving it either. I was able to microwave it and melt the cheese as I was eating it at home – but I’m not sure if you’re given that option if you eat it at the restaurant.

I wasn’t thrilled by the flavor either. The tomatillo-green chili salsa was very strong and pretty much overwhelmed all other flavors. The burrito was too salty as well. The meat, cut into cubes, was OK but not particularly flavorful or tender.

In all, there isn’t much to recommend these burritos, other than the fact that I can order them online – unlike the much better ones at Taquería Los Pericos, half a block away.

I also got a large guacamole ($5.90) and a regular order of tortilla chips ($2.10). There are more than enough chips in the regular order to consume the guacamole – and this way I saved 65 cents over the “large guacamole and large chips” item. Yes, I know, it’s not much, but I hate giving any extra money to large corporations.

The guacamole was quite good. It was a little salty, but it tasted quite fresh. The chips are pretty light, a tad greasy, but good as well. Still, they do seem to be on the expensive side given that taquerias usually serve them for free.

My daughter got the chicken al pastor burrito bowl ($11.75), which she gets with extra black beans, extra cheese, extra rice, extra lettuce and extra sour cream. She really likes it, and given that she’s not a huge meat eater it works out well for her. A bowl can work out to two meals if she’s not particularly hungry.

In all, Chipotle is a mixed bag. It works out for my daughter but not for me. I prefer Los Pericos and other local taquerias, but I do like their convenient ordering method. I don’t like that they prompt you to tip for a take out order – but that’s become standard nowadays.

1505 E 14th St
San Leandro, CA
(510) 667-1003
Daily: 10:30 AM–11 PM

L.A. Chow: Erewhon Tonic Bar

We tried the Hailey Bieber smoothie. Is it worth the hype?

If you are not on TikTok, you might never have heard about Erewhon, the pricy “health food” store in Southern California, which has gone viral for its smoothies. That’s where my daughter heard the super-expensive Hailey Bieber smoothie, which she sort-of-but-it’s-too-expensive-but-if-you-pay-for-it wanted to try. I was game. Sure, the 20-oz smoothie was nineteen-dollars-plus-tax-and-tip, but I figured we weren’t paying for the smoothie, we were paying for the experience. And really, an experience for three people for a fifteen minute drive and a bit over $20 is not bad.

The Erewhon in Calabazas was buzzing at mid-morning in a Wednesday. Apparently, everyone who wasn’t stuffing themselves at Porto’s, was getting some pretend healthy food and expensive smoothies here. Or, really, being seen. While middle age women shopped inside, the outside patio was filled with the young-enough-to-be-carded crowd. Beautiful people, because everyone is beautiful when they’re young.

I only had a quick look at the Erewhon market itself as my too-ashamed-to-be-with-mom daughter rushed us into the Tonic Bar at the far side of the market. The market looked like a smaller version of Sprouts. The Tonic Bar, like your typical cafe counter at any supermarket. I didn’t get a chance to look at prices, but looking at them online, they seem in line with Whole Foods or even the organic produce at Safeway.

Even the smoothie, which seemed outrageously expensive at $19, didn’t end up being so. Or rather, it turns out that all smoothies everywhere are outrageously expensive. Smoothies at Jamba Juice are $10 each – which is the same price as the 20-oz basic smoothies at Erewhon. The Haley Bieber smoothie is so much more because it has a lot of very weird ingredients, plus a famous name attached to it.

Ingredient wise, the Haley Bieber smoothie has “Malk almond milk, organic bananas, organic strawberries, organic avocado, organic dates, organic maple syrup, Vital Proteins vanilla collagen, vanilla stevia, sea moss, organic coconut creme, Driscoll’s Organic Strawberry Glaze”. The smoothie was originally released in conjunction with Haley Bieber’s skin product line and it’s suppose to help you achieve better skin – I’m guessing through its minute quantities of collagen and sea moss. Erewhon seems to keep the nutritional information of its smoothies a secret, but this one seems to have about 700 calories. With sugar from the maple syrup and the strawberry glaze in addition to that naturally occurring in the fruits, it’s also not fit for those in a low-sugar diet. It’s an unhealthy treat, and that’s how it should be seen.

But ultimately, it’s all about the taste and this smoothie is… not bad. Actually, I enjoyed it. It tastes like very light, not too sweet strawberries and cream ice cream with a ‘green’ undertone – I’m guessing from the sea moss. I liked how smooth and not-icy it was. It made me realize that what I dislike about smoothies is how icy they are, and what I dislike about shakes, is that they are too thick and not cold enough. This one had a thin, cold, smooth mouthfeel I really enjoyed. I also liked the strawberries and cream flavor and the fact that despite it having lots of sugar, it didn’t taste too sweet. Now, the colder something is, the less sweet it tastes, so that makes sense. And I liked the green flavor in the background. It wasn’t too forward but it gave it an ‘adult’ bitterness that made it feel more refreshing. I don’t make smoothies myself, but I was thinking about trying to make one by combining ice cream, milk (or almond milk), ice and some matcha powder and blending it very, very well.

Would I get it again? Not for $19 and 700-calories, but I’m glad I tried it once – and shared it with two other people.

L.A. Chow: Porto’s Bakery & Café

This Cuban Bakery is All the Rage in Southern California

Judge by the hype Porto’s has been getting in recent years, you would never guess that Porto’s Bakery has been around at its original location in Echo Park since 1976. Perhaps its expansion into six locations hit the Southern California zeitgeist at just the right time. Affordable prices at a time of high food inflation is certainly a draw. All I can say, is that when the co-founder died a couple of weeks ago this was news worthy of a “have you heard?”.

This was my second time at Porto’s. The first time I was less than impressed. Don’t get me wrong, I loved their prices but the baked goods? Not so much. Camila got a cinnamon coffee cake ($10.25 a small ring cake) that was quite good, mostly because of its cinnamon pecan streusel, and I’d had high hopes for the guava strudel ($1.25), but it turned out to be no better than what I could make myself with some puff pastry and guava jam. Later, my sister got the refugiados ($1.35) for her baby shower, which are guava strudels with the addition of cream cheese, and these were marginally better. Still, this is the one place my mother will go out for breakfast to, and I was happy to oblige her.

We hit the Porto’s in Northridge mid-morning on a Tuesday. I thought this would allowed us to beat both the breakfast and lunch crowds, but apparently everyone else thought the same, as the place was packed – just as packed as when I went for the first time earlier in a weekend morning a couple of months before. It is, fortunately, quite a large locale, so we were able to find a table to accommodate the four of us (+ newborn baby) fairly easily. This was also my opportunity to learn how Porto’s actually works.

You see, Porto’s has four different counters, and you have to go to the correct one to order what you want. At the Cafecito counter, which is located to the far left of the entrance, just next to the dining room, you can order coffee drinks, smoothies and juices – they do have fresh orange juice. They also have a small selection of baked goods. After you order, you need to hang around as they will call your name when your drink is ready.

I ordered a dulce de leche latte ($5 for a small), and I liked it quite a bit. For me, it had the perfect amount of sweetness and coffee flavor. It tasted as caramel rather than dulce de leche, however. My daughter also had one and she didn’t like at all – she thought it was too strong and not sweet enough; adding more sugar didn’t help. She is not a coffee drinker, however. My sister had the passion colada smoothie ($5.5), “mango and passion fruit ice-blended with a touch of coconut cream” and it was quite good, it did taste strongly of passion fruit.

At the Café counter, along the main wall facing the front door, you can order food, pastries and drinks. They have a breakfast menu, salads, sandwiches and main dishes as well as cold drinks. If you order a food dish you can also order any drink from the Cafecito offerings. If you just order a pastry, you’ll have to go to the Cafecito for your drinks (except for the beverages in the Cafe’s menu). The line here was quite longer than at the other counters, but they will bring your food to your table (as well as any Cafecito drink you order here). They give you an electronic device which allows them to locate you.

If you are only interested in getting pastries, then just head to the Bakery counter. The lines are shorter here and they go faster. You will be able to eat your goodies in the dining room, or any of the tables along the wall or in the patio outside.

Finally, at the end of that counter, you’ll find the Cakes counter, where you can pick up their cakes. They have some coffee cakes, loaf cakes and portioned caked desserts at the other counters, but round, decorated cakes are the Cake counter.

I wasn’t extremely hopeful about Porto’s, after my experience last time we visited, but I was willing to give it another college try. As it was mid-morning, neither breakfast nor lunch time, I decided to hit both at the same and get a little from each menu. Thus I ordered a croissant chocolate twist ($2.75) as it sort of reminded me of the wonderful torsades-aux-pepites-de-chocolat we used to breakfast with in Paris a whole lifetime ago. I won’t say it was that good, it lacked the wonderful pastry cream for one, but they were better than I expected. I appreciated the small chocolate pepites, much smaller than chocolate chips, and the dark chocolate flavor – which contrasted nicely with the mildly sweet pastry. It’s served cold, so it was better when I microwaved it later. I’ll definitely get this again.

I also got a baked ham & cheese croissant ($3.25), which I left for breakfast the next day as I wasn’t hungry enough for that and the rest. It’s also served cold so it does need to be microwaved, but it stood very nicely to the microwave and the pastry didn’t get too chewy, as often happens. I liked it even more than the ham & cheese croissant I get at my local bagel shop, and those are $6. This illustrates why Porto’s is so popular.

Finally, I got a ropa vieja sandwich ($8.7), which comes with crispy fried plantain slices. I was a little afraid when I ordered it. Ropa vieja – shredded beef cooked in a tomato sauce flavored with onions and bell peppers -, is one of my all-time favorite dishes. It’s a pain to make (well, to shred the beef), but it’s absolutely delicious. I got my recipe from a Frugal Gourmet cookbook ions ago, and I was a bit afraid about just how it would compare to the “real thing” – assuming that the ropa vieja at Porto’s would be that. And I was also afraid that Porto’s ropa vieja would just not be that good. I needn’t had worried. Porto’s ropa vieja was almost exactly like mine. It had a subtly bitter element – perhaps a different choice of wine? -, but it could have fooled me. So the ropa vieja sandwich was absolutely delicious. The soft bun had the right amount of filling and was a bit hard to maneuver, but I managed not to spill any on myself (a huge accomplishment). For less than $9, this was also wonderfully priced and oh, so delicious. I had the other half the next day for lunch, and it held up very well to the microwave. I’ll certainly be ordering this again. They also serve it as a plate, and I might do that instead.

Camila, had a chicken milanesa sandwich ($9.6), which comes with mozzarella cheese, tomato, smashed avocado, and spicy jalapeño spread, all in a Medianoche roll. She was quite happy with it, strange given everything the sandwich had inside it. But then again, this girl just loves milanesas.

My mother tried the Napoleon slice ($4.45), a cake consisting of layers of puff pastry covered with vanilla pudding and topped with puff pastry crumbs and powdered sugar. This is a pretty mild tasting dessert, which somehow manages to be more than the sum of its two parts. I think it’s because it’s comparably light and not too sweet, thus appealing to both the very young and the middle aged or older. Now, it won’t win any bakery awards, but it was pleasant enough.

My sister ordered the fresh fruit tartlet ($4.45), which was a little unwieldy and broke when she tried to take it out of the box, but she otherwise liked. It has a lot of fresh fruit, including apple slices. This is a good bet for people who are pretending to be healthier.

Given that Porto’s is the one place my mom will go ut to for breakfast, I will no doubt be returning. But I would return anyway after this experience.

Porto's Bakery & Café
19467 Nordhoff St
(818) 534-5210
Daily 6:30 AM - 8 PM
Part of a Southern California chain

Chain Restaurant Review: Popeyes Chicken

Good chicken, but skip the biscuits

I like fried chicken. As I mentioned in a recent review, I had my first taste of it at Bob’s Big Boy restaurant my first evening in America. It wasn’t at all what I expected – breading?! – but I quickly became a fan of it. My mother doesn’t eat any poultry – her father, a doctor who served a low income population was often paid in live chickens, and she has terrible memories of having to clean them -, so it was a special treat to have it when I was growing up. After we came to America, once in a blue moon my dad would bring home a bucket of KFC, and I just swooned.

Over the years, however, I stopped being as much of a fan and fried chicken buckets did not really feature in our family dinners for the last couple of decades. So when my sister, whom we were visiting, suggested we get some Popeyes for dinner, my reaction was to look into alternatives. But it was a Monday, memorial day, and I didn’t want to go through the trouble of finding a restaurant that was open, so I acquiesced. I’m glad I did.

We ordered fried chicken for us, a chicken sandwich for my daughter and chicken strips for everyone else. My usual problem with commercial fried chicken is that it’s too salty, but this one was OK. It probably hit my personal limits for saltiness, but it didn’t go over it. The chicken itself was flavorful, and the breading was nicely seasoned and mostly stuck to the chicken. I’d probably would have waned it to be thinner, but it wasn’t too bad. The chicken was very crispy and remained that way. I didn’t eat the leftovers, so I’m not sure how it microwaved the next day. I also didn’t try any sides, so I can’t comment. My daughter liked her chicken sandwich ($6).

We were all far less fond of the biscuits. They, fortunately, didn’t have that metallic flavor of the bake-at-home biscuits, but they had a similar consistency. They were too flat, too crispy on the outside and not flaky enough. They were also too salty. KFC’s are far superior.

I was intrigued by the strawberry biscuit ($2) in their dessert menu. I had visions of a drier version of the biscuits in strawberry sauce I made years ago. Unfortunately, it was a complete bust. They use the same, overly salted biscuit butter that they use for their regular biscuits and they just include strawberries inside. It doesn’t work at all. I only took a couple of bites and threw it away.

Popeyes, like most chains nowadays, has a their own app and you can get promos with significant discounts – though I think you can only use one promo per order. We got a promo for 10 pieces of chicken, 2 sides and 5 biscuits for $26. Choosing mac & cheese as a side cost an additional $1 (!). Note, however, that you can’t specify all dark chicken if you order via the app – you need to go in person for that. We did, and had the weirdest experience. We ordered at the drive, which is “manned” by what appeared to be an Artificial Intelligence order taking program. It had the voice and speech mode of an AI tool. However, if that’s what it was, it had the best speech recognition system we’ve ever used. My daughter ordered using casual language, changing her order mid-sentence and adding specifications as we went along. And yet the AI understood exactly what she wanted – it repeated it afterwards. Could it really be AI? Let me know of your own experiences.

Now that “fried chicken” is back in my mind, I’ll likely order it again some time.

7635 Winnetka Ave
Los Angeles, CA 91306
(818) 338-2502
Daily 10 AM - 10 PM

L.A. Chow: Gen Korean BBQ

A carnivore paradise for a reasonable price

I love Korean food, but I hadn’t been to a Korean BBQ joint for a couple of decades. Not only are they usually expensive, but when my kids were little, I was reluctant to take them anywhere close a hot grill – one of them still bears a scare from a very unfortunate George Foreman incident. Later, one of them became vegetarian and Korean BBQ restaurants are very sad places for those who love animals too much to eat them. So when my sister, who we were visiting in LA, suggested that we go to Gen Korean BBQ, I was quick to agree – and not only because she just had a baby and I’m being nice to her.

According to my sister, Korean BBQ joints have become very popular in LA, but most are quite expensive. Gen seems to be the exception to the rule, at “just” $30 per person for all your can eat BBQ. They do have some premium items for an additional $20 pp – and everyone at the table has to order this -, but for a first or second visit, at least, there is enough in the regular menu to satisfy everyone. Drinks are not included, and children 10 and under are half price.

The restaurant itself is pretty casual, and includes booths, tables and half-halves, we had one of the latter. In the middle of the table there is a gas grill, which they turn on when you arrive. You can order up to four raw items to cook in the grill – and really, more won’t fit -, as well as appetizers. It’s all you can eat, and they’ll keep bringing food for as long as you want. With three adults and one child, we got to try quite a few dishes. None were amazing, but several were quite good, making it a good place to come when you are just hungry. You are supposed to finish everything you order – so don’t over order – and you can’t take anything home.

I started by ordering a couple of appetizers. The deep friend mandu (pork & vegetable dumplings paired with a savory soy sauce) was actually quite good. The skins were hot and crispy and the filling nicely spiced – the soy sauce wasn’t even necessary. My nephew liked them a well.

The fried rice cake sticks with sweet & spicy sauce, however, were a bust. The ticks themselves had a weird glutinous texture (I know, I know) and no flavor whatsoever. The sauce was too spicy for my taste, so I ate one and that was that. Nobody else wanted to try them.

Later in the meal I got the Pork Riblets. These were listed in the meat menu, but I mention them here because they come already cooked. They have both “Korean style” and “spicy” riblets. I order the former but I think I got the latter, as they were too spicy for my paladar. I ate one, and it was good – though a bit too charred -, but the spiciness made it impossible to eat more. There is quite a bit of fat on these – but then again, that’s a given for ribs, so beware.

While I ate the appetizers, we cooked our first four meals. The waitress had recommended that we order the chadol, thin slices of brisket which I don’t think are marinated. This is a good call, particularly for those who don’t already know they like Korean flavors. I think this might have been my daughter’s favorite. I liked it, though only after it had charred a bit and acquired some flavor. The meats are served with a variety of pickled vegetables as well as soy sauce and flavored salt (and rice).

We also got the Gen Signature Yangyum Galbi, or marinated short ribs. This is a favorite of my sister and was quite good, she ordered it a couple of more times. Again, this benefits from some charring.

Her other favorite is the Hawaiian Steak, which is beef marinated in teriyaki that comes with pineapples. Both beef and pineapple were very tasty. As the meats are cut so thinly, they are pretty tender as well. We had seconds of this.

Finally, we had the beef bulgogi, which wasn’t as good as mine, but pretty good as well.

Among the other things we tried, was the Smoked Samgyubsal – marinated, smoked pork belly. Here, I wish the slice had been thinner, as one slice was too much of a good thing, even with two of us eating it. There was a reasonable amount of meat to fat, and it had a nice smoky flavor, but it was hard to see what was fat and what was meat after cooking it, and I did not like the texture of the thick pieces of fat in my mouth. They have several preparations for samgyubsal, but given that my issue was the texture, I don’t think I’d order it again.

Another item we tried and we’d not order again is the garlic chicken. Once cooked, this really tasted of over-roasted garlic and nothing else. It was bitter and just too one-note, no one liked it.

They had many other meats to try, but frankly, we were too full to try them, and this despite the fact that we didn’t even try the salads.

We did order the Hotteok, a Korean pancake. This was probably not worth the calories. The inside felt like uncooked batter and it wasn’t very flavorful at all.

Now, none of the meats were high quality – but as they are cut thin and heavily marinated, I’m not sure that mattered much. The grill got dark a couple of times with all the burn marinades, but they were promptly changed.

Service was great at the beginning, the waitress explained how things worked carefully, but she sort of disappeared at the end, when things got busy.

Gen Korean BBQ is a chain, with 24 restaurants throughout California, plus a couple in Arizona and Florida. The closest to me is in Fremont, and I might give it a try sometime.

Gen Korean BBQ
10151 Reseda Blvd
Northridge, CA
(818) 709-3932
Monday - Thursday 11:00 AM - 10:30 PM
Friday 11:00 AM - 11:30 PM
Saturday 10:00 AM - 11:30 PM
Sunday 10:00 AM - 10:30 PM

Chain Restaurant Reviews: Black Angus Has Gotten Expensive

Then again, so has every restaurant.

I’ve never been one to go to steak houses. Cooking a steak is among the easiest and quickest things in the world* and it’s far, far cheaper to do so at home. Still, after years of getting Black Angus flyers in the mail, I finally decided to give it a try and was surprised that I liked it. The steaks were fine, nothing special, but the advertised Campfire Feast came with plenty of other food that I was far less likely to cook, and was overall a good deal. Over the years before the pandemic, we visited the Black Angus in San Lorenzo many times, then the pandemic came and I pretty much forgot about Black Angus – as our local one doesn’t have outdoor dining.

For some reason, I’ve been having a hankering for food from chain restaurants lately. I can’t explain it, but just in the last week or so I’ve ordered from Panera and Panda Express and got a craving for Black Angus. Nothing specific, just the whole experience. I looked up the Campire Feast and was somewhat amazed at seeing that it now cost $69 ! That’s a 40% increase over the 2020 price ($49). Yes, I know that both food and restaurant prices have gotten ridiculous – but I thought this increase really exemplified how inflation has hit lower middle class Americans – the ones that will eat at Black Angus as a special treat. Salaries most certainly have not gone up by 40% since.

But I digress. I found a Groupon that had the meal for $54, and decided to head there a Thursday night in April, with my husband and younger daughter. I was not overly surprised at how empty the once viving restaurant was. In our pre-pandemic days, there was always a wait and it was always full. No longer.

I don’t think I like Black Angus as much when it’s so sleepy – I think perhaps some of the attraction of chains is the energy you get from other people -, but besides that, it hadn’t change much. Service was good and friendly, and the food was very close to what I remembered.

The Campfire Feast includes a single appetizer, two entrees, four sides, and a dessert. There are several options to choose from within each category, some at a premium, usually $2 to $10. My daughter is not a big eater, so she decided she’d share with us and only order a side salad.

We started with their warm molasses bread which is served with whipped butter (photo taken after we’d consumed most of it). My daughter is particularly fond of this and she enjoyed it as usual. I think the main thing this bread has going for it is that it’s served warm, but different strokes for different folks.

As an appetizer, we all shared the steak quesadilla ($15, $2 supplement to Campfire Feast). I think they might have changed the cut of steak they use in the last few years, it was tougher than I remembered and less juicy. But the quesadilla was fine. It no longer comes with guacamole, which is an additional $2.

I ordered the ribeye steak ($33, $5 supplement to Campfire Feast) with a side of mac & cheese and a side of au gratin potatoes. The au gratin potatoes were pretty good. They were cooked in a thin cheese sauce, and while I’d had preferred a stronger cheese flavor, there was enough of it to cover the potatoes.

As for the steak, it was on the thin side. I was expecting this based on reviews I’d read, and would have preferred a much thicker one (and it’s definitely not worth the $33 full price), but it was OK. It was cooked medium rare as I ordered it, it didn’t have an inordinate amount of grizzle, and it was pretty tasty. It made me think I should consider cooking my steaks on herbed butter (though to be honest, it can be a bit too rich). It was large enough that on top of the potatoes and part of the quesadilla, I couldn’t finish it and I took about half of it home.

Mike ordered a full slab of BBQ pork ribs ($33, $6 supplement to Campfire Feast) to share with my daughter, and two sides of broccoli (given that each one is only a couple of florettes). They both were happy with both choices, though the ribs had too much sauce for their liking. Solid food, nothing amazing.

My daughter also ordered a Caesar salad as a side ($7 as an extra side). She liked that the croutons were made from the molasses bread and overall liked the salad.

My daughter wanted the Chocolate Chip Cowboy Cookie ($9) and really, it’s delicious. It’s hot out of the even, with melting, gooey chocolate chips. It needs perhaps a little bit more of ice cream, as without it it’s too sweet. There was enough of it to satisfy the three of us – though only because Mike only had a bite. It’s more of a two-person dessert.

My daughter had the pomegranate lemonade ($5) and she liked it. It comes in a very large glass and tasted quite fresh to me.

Service was fine, and friendly, and the whole meal ended up costing around $100 after tax and tip – not bad for these post-pandemic times, but not a bargain either.

Black Angus
15800 Hesperian Blvd
San Lorenzo, CA
(510) 276-1400
M - Th 3 PM - 10 PM
F - Su 12 PM - 10 PM

* How to cook a steak: Heat up a skillet to medium high. Trim the steak. Place the trimmings on the pan, allow to melt, and then coat the bottom of the pan with the melting fat. Add the steak and cook for a minute, turn and cook for another minute. Turn heat to medium and cook for 3-5 minutes, depending on thickness. Turn and cook for another 3-5 minutes. You’re done.

Chain Restaurant Reviews: Panda Express is Fast, Good and Cheap

In the post-pandemic world, Panda Chef still delivers an affordable family meal.

Restaurant food has become crazy expensive, and we’ve been eating out a lot, so I wanted someplace cheap to go for Mother’s Day. Well, not as much go – because Mother’s Day is too crazy a day to actually dine out – but get take out from. Enter Panda Express. They have a family meal that consists of 3 family size (26 oz) entrees and 2 family size sides for $35 (some entrees were an extra $5) And they had a $5 off coupon for mother’s day. And let me tell you, 78 oz of food is a lot of food, more than enough for four people. I don’t know that you can get a cheaper meal anywhere anymore.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, they also had a deal that gave you a free bowl of your choice ($9) if you bought $30 in gift cards. You can’t use more than one coupon at the time, so I had to order the bowl separately. That required a $10 minimum purchase, so I added a $2 egg roll. All in all, for under $40 tax included, we had a pretty good meal.

Now, Panda Express food is not extraordinary – but it’s consistent and fine. This is what we got:

Orange chicken has been one of Panda Express’ most popular dishes forever. It’s highly breaded, with a thick sticky sweet-spicy orange sauce, and it’s pretty tasty. Of course, you’re eating mostly breading.

Beijing beef is actually pretty similar to orange chicken, but has a slightly less orangey taste and the pieces are smaller. it also comes with slices of onion and red pepper. It consists of breaded beef in a tangy, sticky, sweet and spicy sauce. Also pretty good, though both of them were too much.

The Honey Walnut Shrimp is, once again, sickingly sweet, but Mike liked it. It’s an additional $5 if you order this.

As my first side I got the chow mein. It consists of very thin wheat noodles, with a nice chewiness, a lot of shredded cabbage and some onion slices. In all, the chow mein isn’t very flavorful and it’s in need of something else – soy sauce? They forgot to add some to my order, unfortunately. There is also way too much cabbage. It’s a cheap filler, I guess.

The second side was the “super greens“. On the website it looked like it would be steamed broccoli. Instead, it was a combo of cabbage leaves and broccoli, heavy on the former. Yes, I know, cabbage is cheap. But it’s definitely not a super green. The veggies are steamed and made up for the very sweet entrees.

I also ordered a chicken eggroll ($2) and it was pretty good. It’s rather large, so well priced, and while the flavor is mild, it’s pretty good for an egg roll.

Not long after this order, my daughter had a hankering for Panda Express again, and given how affordable this deal is (particularly if you first buy a gift card and get a free bowl out of it), I decided to go for it.

I got the Grilled Teriyaki Chicken, and I think this will probably be my to-go choice in the future, because it does seem to be the best value. Unlike the picture in the website, this consisted of grilled chicken thigh, coarsely cut into pieces and mixed with their mandarin teriyaki sauce. The chicken itself lacked seasoning and there wasn’t enough sauce, but that was simply remedied by adding salt and more teriyaki sauce. It was good. Not great, but good for the price.

I can’t say the same about the Broccoli Beef. The dish consisted mostly of large broccoli florets with very few thin slices of beef – I think there might have been a dozen and a half in this family portion. Most importantly, the sauce was very milk and lacked flavor. You get a much better beef with broccoli from your local Chinese joint.

Panda Express
1271 Marina Blvd
San Leandro, CA
(510) 667-9585
M-Su 9 AM - 10:30 PM

Chain Restaurant Reviews: Panera has gotten worse

This chain sandwich store seems to have downgraded the quality of its sandwiches.

I discovered Panera during the pandemic, when I was looking for restaurants that offered family meals. I had heard, of course, of Panera before, but never felt compelled to try it. We had it several times during the pandemic, and I became a fan of their tomato soup and their steak and horseradish sandwiches. Still, after a while I forgot about it altogether until last week, when I got an e-mail with a free birthday pastry offer from them, and then saw them in the news for their literally killer drinks. So I got a craving and, after three years, I decided to order another family deal.

Panera has changed a bit since I last ordered. It still serves sandwiches, pastries, salads and soups, but the sandwiches themselves have changed. The prices have sort of increased as well, but it’s the quality going down that is the real problem.

Like in the past, I ordered a family deal. It’s now $36, up 24% from what it cost in 2021. It comes with 4 half-sandwiches, a salad, a quart of soup and a baguette. Pannera no longer has my favorite steak with horseradish sandwich, and instead they now sell a ciabatta cheesesteak ($15) that comes in a ciabatta roll and is served with Provolone cheese, caramelized onions, peppadew peppers and garlic aioli. Ciabatta is a very substantial roll which calls for a lot of filling for balance. This sandwich lacked it, which meant that the overall result was just too bready. Both the onions and the peppadews are served chopped and there were so many of the latter that they overwhelmed the sandwich, I could barely taste anything else. In all, I don’t think I’d order this sandwich again.

I liked the bacon avocado melt ($11) more, and it was probably my favorite of the four sandwiches I tried. It was also the one with the thinnest bread. The sandwich was very simple, but very tasty. It had bacon bits, melted cheddar and sliced avocado. It comes in sliced sourdough bread with chipotle aioli. It needed more avocado, but it was actually quite tasty.

The smokehouse BBQ chicken ($12) was just OK. The chicken itself had no flavor, so the sandwich tasted only of red onions and BBQ sauce. I liked the sauce well enough, but not enough to order it again. this sandwich also came in a ciabatta roll, and there wasn’t enough filling to balance all that bread.

Finally, we had the chicken bacon rancher ($14), which comes with pulled chicken, bacon bits, white cheddar and ranch sauce in a black pepper focaccia roll. The focaccia was good, but it really overwhelmed the filling. The chicken, again, was under-seasoned and while the bacon was able to carry the sandwich through, it wasn’t that exciting. I also wouldn’t order it again.

The tomato soup ($9.50 bowl/$26 quart) was just as good as I remember – but really not significantly better than the packaged Panera soup that you can get at the supermarket. Given that it’s just $10-12 for the 32-oz package at Safeway, it doesn’t seem worth it to get it at the restaurant (unless it’s part of a family deal as in this case). The baguette ($2.20) with a crunchy, hard exterior and a very chewy middle, is quite good.

Finally, both my husband and daughter really liked the Caesar Salad ($10.40). The vegetables are fresh and crisp and there is enough dressing to cover them all. In the past, the family meal included the more expensive chicken Caesar salad, but as my daughter prefers it without chicken, we are actually happy that they’ve removed it.

I might try the family deal again, but I’d probably try other sandwiches to see if any are substantially better.

I also got a cinnamon roll ($4.60) as dessert, given that I had a free pastry coupon. It was the end of the day, so it was hard, but after microwaving it, it loosened. It was quite tasty.


A couple of days after this meal, Panera got me again by sending me a couple of big “rewards”. One gave me 50% off a single entree and the other gave me a free drink, treat or cup of soup with a $10 purchase. Of course, the two could not be combined – only one reward per purchase. But Panera still had its “get 15% off gift cards” promo, so I got that as an additional discount. In all, I spent $21 to get 2 sandwiches and a cup of food, which isn’t bad but not super great either.

For my sandwich, I started with the bacon avocado melt ($11) but I got it in focaccia bread, and added tomatoes and caramelized onions. The results were great. I liked it better than the original.

For my freebie, I got a cup of the French onion soup ($7.60), which comes with a piece of bread, a bag of chips or an apple – though they gave me both the bread and the chips. The soup was actually pretty good, it had a nice caramelized onion flavor which was deep but not too bitter. It did need more cheese. I would have added more, but I then would have had to warm the soup – which was barely warm by the time it got home. Still, it was quite satisfactory. In all, half a sandwich plus the soup was a satisfactory meal and left me stuffed, and considering that I have the other half of the sandwich for later, it was a great deal – but only because of the promo. I did read that promos become much more stingy the more you go to Panera, so this will probably be my last time.

I also use the 50% off promo (in a separate purchase) to get a ciabatta cheesesteak for my daughter and her boyfriend. I doubled the meat (and should have doubled the extra lettuce) and half a sandwich was sufficient for each one of them for a mid-afternoon snack. The discount didn’t apply to the extra meat, only to the original price of the sandwich.

While you can make up to five customizations on sandwiches you order by themselves, you can’t customize them in the family meal. So I think I will order Panera again if I get good coupons, but not otherwise.

24133 Southland Dr
Hayward, CA
(510) 732-0279
M-SU 7 AM - 8 PM

Chain Restaurant Reviews: Habit Burger


Habit Burger, like sister companies Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut are on the boycott list, as their parent company, Yum brands, invests in Israel. Please help stop apartheid and genocide by Israel by not doing business with companies that financial benefit from the killing, torture, maiming and oppression of Palestinians and who de facto support crimes against humanity.

More information as to why you should boycott Yum brands.

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