I have a culinary confession. As a kid I was obsessed with Red Lobster. Grownup me—the adventurous eater and Andrew Zimmern acolyte—avoids fast casual chains, although the local Applebee’s where we’d smuggle in tacos and Difaras pizza—was once my watering hole. There’s one chain I’ve been curious about for some time though, The Cheesecake Factory. Chalk it up to scarcity—not love of cheesecake. So when the first Factory opened in New York City earlier this month at Elmhurst’s Queens Center I had to check it out. Spurred on by a media frenzy started by Eater, our threesome—consisting of myself and Queens finest barbecue Pitmasters Big Lou Elrose and Robbie Richter—visited during restaurant’s opening week. “Joey, if we can’t get in we’ll go to Shake Shack,” Robbie said. I nodded, thinking to myself, “No, you’ll go to Shake Shack, I’m going to the Factory hell or high water.”
The Cheesecake Factory sits across the street from an Olive Garden and down the road from a Joe’s Crab Shack and a Longhorn Steakhouse. The vista of these fast-casual chains each evoking a particular vibe—Texas, Key West, Italy—calls to mind the Simpson’s Fast-Food Boulevard. I’m not sure what locale the Factory with its sunny decor is supposed to evoke, but wherever it is, it’s a place where ordering a thousand plus calorie sandwich followed by a 1400-calorie slice of cheesecake somehow feels classy. To say the Cheesecake Factory ’s menu is vast is an understatement. “It’s on page 17,” Big Lou said of his entree choice. “Dude you have to get the avocado egg rolls,” a friend texted when I told him we were at the Factory for the first time. So we did. The sextet of crispy bias cut rolls featured sun dried tomato—fancy—and—a tamarind cashew dipping sauce—how exotic! At the time I didn’t notice the cashews. The boys and I thought it was a pretty good dish, but agreed that the sauce verged on cloyingly sweet.
Since the Factory chose to open in the World’s Borough we rounded out our course of fried apps with two international selections: chicken samosas and crispy cuban rolls. Even though they were more like fried wontons in terms of the thickness of the wrapper the samosas, filled with savory ground chicken, were surprisingly good. And the crispy Cuban rolls—think Cubano meets egg roll—were quite nice too, though I was beginning to question whether we should have ordered so much fried food.
The Factory’s roster of specialties runs to about two dozen and includes such comfort food classics as meat loaf and chicken with biscuits and gravy, both of which I briefly considered ordering. When I asked our waiter for a recommendation he sung the praises of the Bang Bang Chicken and Shrimp, a dish that presumably channels Thailand by way of Middle America. Since we were walking distance from some of the most exciting Thai food in the entire U.S. I couldn’t resist ordering what the menu described as “A Spicy Thai Dish with the Flavors of Curry, Peanut,Chile, and Coconut.” “Wow that is a boatload of rice,” I thought when the waitress placed the platter on the table. As expected it barely tripped the bang bang meter, but the sweetness was borderline diabetes inducing. To be sure there was no trace of fish sauce and barely any acidity. Nor should there have been, for the Factory is at its heart and soul an American restaurant that takes some culinary risks but it in the end presents an eclectic menu that still appeals adventure seeking aunties from Omaha.
On a return visit I went with a decidedly American sandwich. No, not one of the Factory’s 10 Glamburgers, but a pit beef dip sandwich, which the menu notes is a “Baltimore classic.” That was news to me, but a roast beef au jus sandwich happens to be a longtime favorite. I hadn’t had one in years. Piled high with roast beef, melted fontina, and caramelized onions, it was a lovely sandwich. The salty beef jus was perfect, my one complaint would be that the horseradish lacked zip and that there was a ton of butter on the bun.
At the end of the day The Cheesecake Factory thrums with an energy and abundance borne on a tidal wave of sugar and fat. And sometimes that’s not a bad thing. In case anybody’s wondering I did have cheesecake on both visits. The first was a wedge of salted caramel cheesecake that weighed in at 1190 calories and the second was a chocolate hazelnut crunch cake that clocked in at 1350 and featured Nutella. Both were tooth achingly sweet. All I can say is bring your insulin and your fat pants.
The Cheesecake Factory, 90-15 Queens Blvd., Elmhurst, 718-699-1212