My first impressions on walking into a new neighborhood bistro on Sawyer called Chili's were soured when the peppy hostess couldn't find my reservation. No matter, with a wink and a 10-spot we scored a primo table in the bar area — the better for scoping out the chic lounge crowd, which at this lunch consisted of a couple guys in trucker hats and a woman who looked like Susan Boyle.
We were offered some cards for what I assume was a locally-sourced menu del día (or perhaps just the lunch specials), but we had the inside scoop on a special deal — two entrees and an appetizer for $20.
While I was chagrined the options didn't include the Awesome Blossom, an avant garde food sculpture of fried onion from the mind of a Wylie Dufresne acolyte, we settled on the fried cheese and the crispy onion and jalepeño stack. (Yes, technically we did four for $40.)
Though fried cheese is the everyman of appetizers, always solid but never exciting, there was a split over whether the ramekin of thin marinara was sufficient for dipping. I, for one, liked how the chef didn't overthink or oversauce the dish, really letting the cheese speak for itself. The jalepeño wedges packed flavor but the slender onion sticks fell victim to the onion vs. breading ratio, offering a lot of crunch but not much flavor.
The entrees were overall more successful. The margarita grilled chicken had a tang of lime and a relatively juicy consistency under a bed of fresh pico de gallo. The baby back ribs were advertised as having a Shiner beer barbecue sauce, but the result tasted no different than a classic barbecue sauce. Not that that's a bad thing. The ribs were succulent and the perfect portion size for cleaning one's plate and leaving sated but not uncomfortable.
And then there was the classic Chicken Crispers, the physics of which have never ceased to baffle me. I've eaten plenty of fried chicken in my life, but I've never found another version where the breading becomes its own entity, like a crunchy, breaded lobster shell. And yet the Chicken Crispers are not even the crispiest Crisper option.
There's also the Crispy Chicken Crispers, whose redundant Platonic-ideal crispiness I will have to leave to the imagination because my ordinary Chicken Crispers, when dipped in gravy, are simply the bomb. And the crispiness is nothing to sneeze at. The fries are OK, too.
The only let down was the quesadilla explosion salad, which sounded like a festive mix of lettuce, grilled chicken and black bean and corn relish. Instead it could have been called simply queso explosion, since the cheese was a heavy, omnipresent force covering every inch of the salad, followed by thick wedges of fried bread — resembling more a dense pita chip than any tortilla concoction. And the lettuce? Iceberg. That's just not OK.
The real issue I have with the 2 for $20 deal isn't that the food on it isn't good — it's pretty middle-of-the-road decent. My issue is that if I ordered the onion strings, quesadilla explosion! salad (I prefer it with added punctuation) and the crispers, for example the bill for the three would have run me about $23.
You can choose a little wiser to get a better value — a guacamole, cajun chicken pasta and fried shrimp combo would shave closer to $8 off the bill — but it just doesn't seem like a must-have-it deal, unless you are already planning to order something off the 2 for $20 menu and want some free chips or something.
Or you could just go to a Mexican restaurant where they'll just give you the chips, no strings attached.