I cringed at the bright orange sign that lit up the walkway like a Jack-O-Lantern on Halloween. The overtness of the signage reminded me of conversations I had with my brothers growing up, when we jokingly judged restaurants based on whether they had a neon "Open" sign. In our minds, neon "Open" signs were bad news. I couldn't help but wonder what La Grande Orange's ostentatious display meant. While I have dined at the original location in Phoenix, Chelsea's Kitchen, and knew the food was up to par, as I walked through the front door, I began to feel as though I was about to commit a serious foodie crime: eating at a chain restaurant.
The scads of families settled around several of the tables near my girlfriends and mine did nothing to assuage the uneasy sensation that was quickly descending upon my body. Families eat at chains, I thought warily, as I immediately began perusing the one-page wine list for liquid relaxation. I was pleased to see a lengthy list of wines by the glass, including some reputable names from the Santa Barbara region, but after placing my order for a glass of spicy Syrah, I was appalled to see kid-friendly trays filled with compartmentalized macaroni and cheese, fruit and fries making their way out of the kitchen. Fraiche doesn't have a kid's menu. Pizzeria Mozza doesn't have a kids' menu. This did not bode well for the future satisfaction of my belly.
The menu was further disconcerting. It read like it could have come from any American bistro in Anytown, U.S.A. The chicken nachitos, burgers, taco platters with rice and beans, NY strip steak, Dixie pan-fried chicken with mashed potatoes, and prime rib seemed to mock me with their ostentatious displays of foodie mediocrity. I wanted to crawl under the table and die a little, but reminded myself that I had been to the Phoenix restaurant before. It was good. My brother, a former NYer, even liked it. He raved about the brussel sprout salad with manchego cheese, dried cranberries, and bacon, and the swordfish tacos like he was raving about the gnocchi at our favorite Italian trattoria, Supper, in the Village. I took a sip of my hefty glass of Syrah and forced myself to think like the glass-half-fuller that I portend to be.
Upon seeing platter after platter of the deviled eggs appetizer emerging from the kitchen, my friend Brooke suggested that we order one as well. "With bacon?" I asked hopefully. She nodded with enthusiasm and the mental image of greasy fried pork strips calmed my apprehension. Minutes later my two friends and I were chowing down on the silky deviled delights. Because I spent the first 21 years of my life avoiding eggs like they contained anthrax, this was my first encounter with the '50s house party favorite. I don't have anything to compare them to, but I loved the two eggs I slurped down like I would slurp down oysters if I ate them. It was a fun dish, and my spirits were immediately lifted.
I followed up our egg-cellent (heh heh) appetizer with the now ubiquitous short ribs entree ($23) that came with tender new potatoes, asparagus and other indecipherable veggies. Topped with a fried egg, and surrounded with a red wine jus, it was the epitome of comfort food. I loved the textural contrast of the soft egg with the hearty shreds of surprisingly lean meat, and devoured the entire plate without hesitation. As I scraped up the last bit of jus, my friend turned to me and said, "Wow! You cleaned your plate! You must have really liked it." I nodded sheepishly, and watched her and our other friend feast upon the rest of their NY strips steaks with fries and sauteed asparagus.
Despite my desire to dine exclusively at local hidden gems, and to always challenge my palate with bold flavors and different tastes, La Grande Orange provides discriminating tongues with a different option. Affordable, simple food that is prepared well. It's a comfort to know that when/if I procreate, I can take my kids to a restaurant that will not require me to offend my mouth. (Just my eyes with that darn bright orange sign.)