For a variety of reasons that seem stupid now, Chow, Baby thought it would be a good idea to visit some of the area’s popular chain restaurants. For one, it had already dreamed up that neat headline.

Also, eating at chains was Chow, Baby’s pre-Thanksgiving crash diet; cutting back on flavor and excitement the week before would make Paw-Paw’s oyster dressing taste all the more yummy on the big day. And then there’s the recurring “Is it me or is it them” question – Chow, Baby is eternally baffled as to why, when we have all these great Italian restaurants, so many people would rather go to Spaghetti Warehouse. What is Chow, Baby missing out on?

Well, it ain’t the tiramisu ($3.99), which was clearly made by and for people who have never tasted even a bad version of the real thing. This was church-basement white cake dribbled with chocolate goo. At the other end of the meal, however, Spaghetti Warehouse’s fried calamari ($6.99) was worthy: thin slices of squid in a nice peppery batter, crispy-fried and sprinkled with parmesan. As long as Chow, Baby kept its eyes shielded from the “décor” – fake-olde signs adorning the walls, barbershop pole in the corner, trolley in the middle of the room – it could pretend it was in a real restaurant. The Turin Trio ($13.99), full-sized portions of soylent-green-stuffed lasagna, tv-dinner-style chicken parmigiana, and impotent fettucini alfredo, certainly lived up to the second part of Spaghetti Warehouse’s motto – “The Taste of Old World Italy with American Abundance” – but flunked the first part badly. The cooks here must think ragù is a brand name and al dente is what happens when you bump into a Fiat.

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Cowtown boasts some of the best family-owned Mexican restaurants north of the border – so why does Pancho’s Mexican Buffet have such a loyal following? Now Chow, Baby knows: It’s the sopapillas, deep-fried donuts like beignets but with butter and honey instead of powdered sugar. Sweet Leilani (great service here; everyone was nice) brought us fresh-cooked batch after batch; luckily, we had saved room after trying everything on the buffet ($6.99). FYI: The beef enchiladas are actually edible. For everything else, there’s a pretty good salsa bar for doctoring. Chow, Baby now understands why people like this place, especially the Jackboro Highway location next to Thrift Town: An Eatery near a Thriftery gets double points.

Applebee’s was a huge surprise on two counts. First, the hostess was not fake-chirrupy. Second, the food, which Chow, Baby had figured would be standard American Chain mediocre, completely sucked. It was astonishing. From the part of the menu devised by Celebrity Chef (a royal title that is really starting to grate on Chow, Baby) Tyler Florence came a dry chicken breast ($9.99) crusted with supposedly seasoned bread crumbs and topped with limp arugula and the kind of “fresh” mozzarella sold in bricks by Polly-O. The “grilled to perfection” (argh) sirloin ($9.99) was the worst steak Chow, Baby has had since its 2004 visit to River Oaks Steak House: tough, juiceless, and with a raw spot at one end. (If you’re going to freeze your meat, the least you can do is thaw it completely before cooking.) Maybe Chow, Baby just hit Applebee’s on a bad day – but isn’t the whole point of chains the comfort of knowing it’ll be the same every time? Chow, Baby remains baffled.

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