Gotta have soul

Photo By David Robert

First things first: This restaurant sports a big disclaimer that states it is NOT affiliated with the Chicago Express restaurant in Sparks. This place does not serve pizza. The menus may be startlingly similar, even with the same house black bean soup with sausage, but it is not the same thing. OK? Got it? Good.

Having said that, we may proceed to review the experience as a separate entity. My husband Tony and I decided to check this place out after seeing it from Interstate 80. This was, in its prior life, Le Grand Café. Not much has changed architecturally, with the exception of a new wall that cuts the place in half. Kim Lee’s Sushi operates the other half independently. A collection of police uniform patches nearly covers the wallpaper on all the walls, and the vintage 1970s orange vinyl booths give the place the feel of the Brady Bunch living room. Just not as happy.

Well, you can’t tell a book by its cover, right? We were escorted to a booth and began to read the menu. It is fairly large and includes breakfast items, sandwiches, wraps, burgers, pastas and country-style dinners.

I excused myself for a trip to the restroom to wash my hands. Normally I don’t comment on my potty breaks, but in this case, there was no soap available for hand-washing and no paper towels. I hate that.

From among the all-things-fried appetizer selection, we got an order of onion rings ($2.95). They were pretty standard golden brown, with a side of ranch dressing for dipping.

Then came the rest of the food. Tony ordered the B.L.T. wrap ($6.25). It contained the standard fixings of bacon, lettuce and tomato, with the addition of avocado. Wrapped in a large flavored tortilla, it was pretty big. Unfortunately, the bacon tasted stale and rubbery, and the remaining ingredients were coated with too much mayonnaise. What sounded fresh and light was unctuous and bland.

I wish I could say I did better with my barbecue bacon and Swiss burger ($4.75), but alas, no. The too-soft bun did not have the wherewithal to withstand the small, sticky ocean of barbecue sauce and … mayo? A generous amount of white goop made the burger slip around in the bun, making it almost impossible to eat. While I am a fan of messy sandwiches, they need to at least be palatable. This was not. It didn’t help that I had to shoo away several flies that kept pestering the table. It made me decidedly crabby.

Our server was well-meaning, if a bit lackluster, but seemed to have a defeated shrug about her as she cleared our still-full plates. It wasn’t her fault. We tipped her for the service anyway.

A second visit was in order to make sure that the place wasn’t just having a bad night. This time I took Kelley Lang, the RN&R’s Arts & Lifestyle editor. Even though the restaurant was entirely empty, it took several minutes for us to be noticed and get seated. When I opened my menu, a dead fly fell out. I brushed it aside wordlessly so I would not alarm my guest.

Thank goodness we were having a fun conversation, because the food did not improve much. Kelley’s spicy chicken gyro ($4.75) was slightly dry and had a soulless, flat taste that left it filling without actually being satisfying. It offered nothing memorable for her evening. I had a chicken Caesar salad ($8.75) that was overdressed for the wrong occasion. The lettuce was wilted, and the pounded-thin seared chicken had the taste and texture of a cardboard box.

There are only 21 meals in a week—don’t waste them here. Have eating experiences that nourish body and soul.