Even the finickiest eaters should be satisfied at the Factory, if they're willing to wade through the menu, which is bound like a child's picture book.
There are three pages of appetizers alone, followed by five pages of specialties, ranging from burgers to pasta to seafood to steak. Then come eggs, omelets and the Sunday brunch offerings.
Finally, on pages 17 and 18, are the desserts, including 35 varieties of cheesecake, made daily in a central bakery in Los Angeles that turns out 25,000 cheesecakes a day for the chain's 85 locations.
Sadly, the portions of the preceding foods are so big that many customers never get to the cheesecake.
One way to save room for dessert is to skip the entrees and order the Factory Appetizer Favorites ($26), which consists of eight different starters, served two-to-a-plate. It's enough food to feed a family of four.
The egg rolls are the highlight of the assortment. They contain chunks of perfectly ripe avocado, mixed with slightly warm sundried tomatoes, red onion and cilantro in a delicately deep-fried, paper-thin Chinese wrapper for dipping in a tamarind-cashew dipping sauce.
Also beyond the ordinary were slightly sweet corn-tamale cakes, a marriage of Southern and Southwestern flavors with the consistency of spoon bread, stuffed with a thin swirl of cheese and topped with sour cream, salsa and avocado.
Rounding out the assortment were buffalo wings in spicy fried wrappers; chicken pot stickers (chicken is served two dozen ways at the Factory); Vietnamese shrimp rolls; a spinach and cheese dip; quesadilla with a choice of chicken or vegetables; and lightly fried calamari.
Having bypassed the entrees, we dove face-first into the cheesecake, and even then two of us took some home. The banana cream, in a vanilla wafer crust, had the consistency of pie, while blueberry, cherry and pumpkin, a seasonal special, tasted more like traditional cheesecake. The plain version, made with an Atkins-friendly artificial sweetener, was as tantalizing as the sugar-laced original.
On that next visit, we skipped the appetizers and sampled the entrees, which were uniformly filling and satisfying, but lacking the wow! factor of the appetizer tray.
The most popular seafood dish, a spicy Cajun jambalaya pasta, combines shrimp and chicken, sautéed with onions, tomatoes and peppers over linguine or rice.
The Factory does not use the word "jumbo" lightly, so the jumbo chicken chop lived up to its name. A chicken breast was pounded out in the shape of a veal chop, encrusted in Parmesan and covered with a light cream sauce flavored with bits of Tasso ham. The chop is an example of the Factory's attempt to please all tastes.
Two other entrées did not fare quite as well.
A filet mignon, at $27 the most expensive item on a menu where the average food check is $16, was a better-than-average steak, but it was ordered medium and served medium-rare.
The sauce on Pad Thai rice noodles, a mixture of tamarind, green onions, garlic, tofu, egg and crushed peanuts, was too thick and pasty, detracting from the usual airiness of the dish, which came with a choice of chicken or shrimp.
Another diner was puzzled by the choice of sourdough French bread on a burger, which might have been better on a regular bun.
One way to get around the gargantuan size of the entrees is to select a lunch-sized portion, available on many dishes until 5 p.m. It's also easier to get a table early. On a Monday, a traditionally slow evening, the wait was already 45 minutes at 6:30.
The wait is made a bit easier by the surroundings. The Factory is in a $5 million building on a site that originally was planned as the site of a Lord & Taylor department store. As other businesses move in, it will be connected to the main part of the shopping center.
Inside, the eclectic décor includes gold Egyptian columns, hand-painted light fixtures fashioned after papyrus reeds, Chagall-like murals that float beneath the 18-foot ceilings, California pastel walls, Italian marble floor and cherrywood booths.
The restaurant seats 323, including a small smoking area adjoining the bar, and employs almost as many. A takeout counter sells whole cheesecakes, its delicious passion-flavored ice tea and such Factory merchandise as toy bears, T-shirts and caps.
The Cheesecake Factory was started by a couple from Detroit who moved their cheesecake bakery to California in 1971, where they opened their first restaurant in 1978. The chain is the envy of the industry, with the highest average gross in the business. And the company has never advertised. Its fans take care of that. S
The Cheesecake Factory ($$-$$$) Short Pump Town Center 364-4300, No reservations. Lunch and dinner: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-12:30 a.m., Sunday 10 a.m.-11 p.m., Sunday brunch: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. www.thecheesecakefactory.com
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