It’s a simple question with a complicated answer: Why do people like chain restaurants?
And more specifically, why are so many people devoted to Bandera? With a single location locally, it’s recognized by many as one of the most respected and beloved chains in a category we’ll call upscale-casual dining serving American-style cuisine.
It’s not because it’s inexpensive. There’s a $33 steak some might think eats like a $22 steak, and a $32 prime rib dinner that, while big and bold and delicious, is not a bargain.
It’s not because they blow you away with the cooking, the creativity or the wealth of menu options. There’s one fish entree, a rotating seafood special, a couple of steaks, baby back ribs with slaw, fire-roasted chicken, an enchilada doused in spicy sauce, and something called the “macho salad.” There’s a tasty chip dip, a refreshing ahi poke and not a lot more. Most of the cooking is accurate, though some of the food is overcooked and, on rare occasions, a bit clumsy or rushed.
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Bandera is one of the most consistently crowded restaurants in the area, once known as a pickup spot, but it has settled in as a bustling place appealing mostly to friends, loved ones and business clients. On a recent Monday night there were people out front willing to wait 45 minutes for a table.
Are they easily impressed? Hayseeds? Hardly. From my visits, the demographic at Bandera appears to be largely middle-class, educated professionals.
Oh, and suburban. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I grew up in suburbia and know it well — swim lessons, lemonade stands, bikes with baseball cards, the whole thing. Many people seek a community that’s tidy, safe and well planned, if not purposely predictable. Is there a correlation between their living preferences and what they gravitate toward when they go out to eat? In many cases, it seems that way. Me? I sometimes feel like an outsider looking in.
Concerned that I might be skeptical about the culinary value of Bandera, my friends who love this place insisted I get the macho salad. That would prove to me that this place is the real deal. It was healthy and somewhat appetizing, but it was about as macho and interesting as televised poker — with shredded Romaine lettuce, dollops of goat cheese, wedges of avocado, tomato slices, a smattering of chopped dates and creamy, balanced dressing. Still, you can get it nearly anywhere.
Other friends urged me to try the roasted chicken. It’s juicy and tender, they said. You’ll see. It’s chicken like no other. One friend likes to get the whole chicken as takeout, so I did. It was chicken, all right; plain, ordinary chicken, plump and juicy, with nicely browned skin, basic seasoning and nothing more. It’s good chicken similar to what you get at many places. The ribs are amazing, except they’re not. They’re indistinguishable from those at scores of middle-brow chains and barbecue eateries.
And the so-called Hawaiian steak. Tender, meaty and well cooked, to be sure, tastes like it was marinated in gummy bears and, when plated with optional sautéed spinach , made for an uninspired visual experience.
Bandera is not a great restaurant by any stretch of imagination, yet it enjoys a great reputation. How?
First, the people who work there — unlike the macho salad or the ribs — are, indeed, amazing. They’re well trained, courteous, attentive. They work as a team. It’s a well-oiled, synchronized system. And they do all the little things such as smile and say goodnight that make you feel special. That, for one, makes the food taste better and the experience feel richly satisfying.
On occasion, they’ll overdo it, as one server did when I ordered the halibut special. He volunteered it was his favorite dish and that I had shown great wisdom in zeroing in on that option. When he brought the dish, he looked at me, practically batting his eyes and said, “I’m so jealous.”
OK, that was so weird. I wish the kitchen paid as much attention — the halibut was overcooked and dry.
Second, from conversations with friends and acquaintances, I have concluded that Bandera is loved by people who order the same food nearly every time. I’m not here to judge that, only to offer that the practice doesn’t necessarily allow one to see food and flavors in new and exciting ways.
Third, Bandera keeps the lights low and focuses it on your table. It’s a clever use of light; it makes the room feel exciting and sophisticated, energizing its rather tired, clubby feel with its wood and brick and red-vinyl booths.
Since I was baffled by a restaurant’s popularity, I invited friends to get me to see things their way and convince me of what I’m missing. The couple who joined me have been married for years and Bandera is one of their favorites. But their convincing was less than convincing. When they put critics’ caps on, their tune changed slightly.
My female companion concluded that the enchiladas were so thoroughly soaked with sauce that you couldn’t taste the subtle flavors of the butternut squash and white cheddar. Excellent observation. Her husband felt similarly about the barbecued pork ribs. Sure, they looked impressive, stretched across the plate and served with mashed potatoes with cabbage. They were tender and flavorful enough, but he was at a loss to explain what made these ribs better than a typical offering anywhere else.
In addition, they noticed that the dessert options were too limited. There was banana cream pie, an ice cream sandwich and key lime pie. All big and sweet and relatively ordinary. So far, they weren’t making a great case for Bandera’s greatness, but they found the process revealing.
So we returned. Again, the mildly seasoned ahi poke was light, fresh and tasty, as it should be, with plenty of plump, tender tuna throughout. And that ubiquitous macho salad just isn’t that great for anything other than having some flavor and crunch without packing on pounds.
We also shared a rather clumsily assembled heirloom tomato salad. Interesting use of yellow watermelon, sliced into cubes and assembled alongside the tomatoes, but the tomatoes were not prepped with precision. In a salad featuring quality tomatoes sliced into wedges, we shouldn’t be looking at wedges with parts of the white core showing. This was the night when I tasted the $33 Hawaiian ribeye and found it syrupy sweet and a major disappointment. For $33, this was a big miss.
Another reason people love Bandera is because they can bring their own wine. This has always felt awkward to me, as restaurants pay the staff and the bills in part with money they make from wine and spirits. But many people do like to bring wine, and Bandera has no corkage fee, meaning you can use its rather clunky stemware for free. Most comparable restaurants charge $15 to $20 for this. At Bandera, it does not seem to be considered bad form to bring a bottle that’s on the restaurant’s list, or to bring a bottle you nabbed for $8 at Trader Joe’s. Many people find this absolutely wonderful.
I am not one of them. And while I learned plenty from my friends about what they liked, what they thought they liked and maybe what they came to realize they liked less, my experience was more like being on a field trip, attempting to comprehend a world that, while safe, upscale and refined, seems less comforting than it once did.