Wretched excess

The Cheesecake Factory, Inc.

Arden Fair Mall, 1771 Arden Way
Sacramento, CA 95831

(818) 871-3000

I don’t get The Cheesecake Factory. Why is everyone so excited that it’s landed at Arden Fair like an obscenely calorie-dense spaceship? It’s a chain restaurant, people. Yes, it’s big and splashy with giant slices of cheesecake, but Sacramento has chain restaurants by the truckload. Why don’t we save the excitement for when a great new local place opens?

Unfortunately, I couldn’t answer these questions without a visit to The Cheesecake Factory. I waited a while, hoping that the fuss might have died down, and went on a blustery Sunday night, when I guessed things would be quiet.

Not so much. We could barely push through the crowds to the host station, where we were given a pager and told our wait would be 35 to 50 minutes. We repaired to the bar, where a similarly Darwinian struggle was required to order an overpriced margarita, and began the long wait.

The Cheesecake Factory, like any large corporate operation, may be best understood by its numbers. So, I tracked some vital stats from our evening. The totals:

• Cost of valet parking (even though the restaurant is in a mall): $3.

• Minutes until we were seated: 54.

• Number of non-dessert menu items: more than 150.

• Total minutes from being seated to appearance of appetizers: 25.

• Minutes from clearing of appetizer plates to onset of stomachache: seven.

• Staff renditions of “Happy Birthday” heard during our visit: eight.

• Minimum number of varieties of cheesecake on offer: 35.

• Number of unnecessary but well-meant apologies from our very pleasant server: 13.

• Total time from entering restaurant to making a merciful escape: two hours, 37 minutes.

And what a time it was. The restaurant is extremely loud and crowded. The lighting is dim enough that you can barely see the food, but the ostentatiously tasteless gold décor manages to be visible. The menu is an exercise in overreaching. Every cuisine you can imagine (and several you shouldn’t) seems to be represented or combined in some perverse fashion. There are pastas and salads and steaks and burgers and sandwiches and omelets and Tex-Mex egg rolls and Thai chicken pizza. (The best strategy for avoiding a completely schizophrenic meal is probably to choose a theme.)

The appetizer list is dominated by fried items. We ended up with one straightforward item, mini crab cakes, and one oddball, avocado egg rolls. The crab cakes were mayonnaisey and wetly mushy throughout, except for the odd bit of shell. The avocado egg rolls were bizarre, with huge chunks of unctuous hot avocado flesh, limply greasy wrappers and a sweetly flavorless dipping sauce. The chewy bits of sun-dried tomato inside were just weird. (I thought we were done with sun-dried tomatoes at this point in American culinary history.) I ended up nibbling on the garnishes of shredded red cabbage and puffed fried-rice noodles.

For a main dish, I decided on something straightforwardly American: grilled pork chops. The big plate of food looked tasty enough, with nicely browned chops and an enormous mound of mashed potatoes. These were lumpy and clearly fresh, not fake. But the thin chops were dry, the potatoes over-salted, and the chunky applesauce far too sugary. The barely wilted, tender spinach seemed like the best thing on the plate, but several bites were crunchy with grit. It can be tough to get spinach clean, but washing the food adequately should be the most basic desideratum for a restaurant kitchen.

My husband had the Symphony Salad, which, despite its stupid name, was the best thing we tried: a meadow-sized pile of greens, radicchio, vegetables and chicken, dressed with fresh-tasting balsamic vinaigrette and sprinkled with plenty of Parmesan. It was over-the-top, but it tasted pretty good.

It being The Cheesecake Factory, we felt compelled to get cheesecake. I have not yet recovered from a bad experience this past summer, when I made a three-tiered cheesecake for a cousin’s wedding. (Let me tell you, there is nothing like buying 10 pounds of cream cheese to put you off cheesecake for a while.) So, I picked seasonal pumpkin-pecan, which promised to be different from plain-vanilla cheesecake. It was, but the pumpkin part was oddly sour, and the bottom layer was like an extremely sweet, sticky pecan pie. My husband had a chocolate-mousse cheesecake that didn’t really taste like cheesecake at all but was tasty. The serving size could have been halved and still made a decent dessert. Don’t get me started on the amount of whipped cream on each slice. Why? Cheesecake is a dairy-based dessert to begin with.

At the end of the meal, as we staggered out—having left more than half of our food uneaten—I thought about the experience. The Cheesecake Factory seems to encapsulate everything that’s wrong with America: the excess, the super-sizing, the coast-to-coast bland sameness that’s taking over the country. Still, it does a few things right. The service was solicitous and friendly. Despite the nod to manufacturing in the name and the huge standardized menu, much of the food seemed to have been made on-site. The problem, though, was that the food wasn’t very good. You get a lot of it, and you get a lot of choices, but if they’re mostly kind of yucky, what’s the point? Several thousand calories later, I guess I still don’t get it.