Industrialists of the World, Unite

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Unless you’re alive. Holiday shopping can leave even the hardiest of troopers
By Anthony S. A. freinberg

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Unless you’re alive. Holiday shopping can leave even the hardiest of troopers feeling nauseated, overwhelmed by the hordes of shoppers looking for festive bargains. Fortunately, there’s another way to feel queasy while holiday shopping this December: Just duck into any one of the Boston area’s three Cheesecake Factories.

The Cheesecake Factory is a national chain with three outposts in the Greater Boston area, all located in busy shopping malls—the Atrium in Chestnut Hill, the Cambridgeside Galleria and the Prudential Center, which opened last year to complete the trifecta. All of the restaurants have many attributes; charm and coziness are not among them. As the name suggests, these are vast, no-nonsense production lines designed to facilitate mass consumption (of which more later). Suffice it to say that the restaurants’ pseudo-Egyptian décor—think Valley of the Kings on crack—fools no one. The Cheesecake Factory is a temple to one thing only: food.

And, oh, what a variety of it, and what quantities. The menu is 20 pages long and the list of culinary offerings from around the globe is interspersed with advertisements for products that range from Coca-Cola to Joan’s Jewellery. (Note to Christmas shoppers: She will prefer a six pack of Diet Coke to a pair of rhinestone earrings from Joan’s. The soda is infinitely more romantic and, besides, should have a far higher resale value). Portions are similarly super-sized: A trip to the Cheesecake Factory is not for the faint of heart (literally). The Cheesecake Factory’s gargantuan portions—and customers—ensure that, in spite of the economic downturn, there should be no shortage of work for Beth Israel’s cardiac specialists.

The ways to give yourself cardiac arrest are as numerous as one would hope for from such a lengthy menu. There is a sampling of almost any cuisine you would care for, and several that you wouldn’t. Thai lettuce wraps ($9.95) jostle for room on the appetizer pages with taquitos ($6.95) while bruschetta ($6.95) vies with burgers ($5.95) (yes, there are burgers on the appetizer menu) for the customer’s attention. The lettuce wraps are very impressive: Moist chicken breasts, marinated in a sweet but tangy peanut sauce, are served with beansprouts, cucumber and shredded carrots with leaves of round lettuce which one can fashion into a sloppy natural wrap. Taquitos are crisply fried, filled with chicken and served with mammoth scoops of guacamole, sour cream and salsa. The salsa, in fact, also doubles as the tomato topping for the bruschetta: as any good factory owner will tell you, consolidation on economies of scale is an easy way to increase profitability.

Main courses are similarly diverse, both in terms of their geographic heritage and their gastronomic success. The fried shrimp scatter ($15.95), an abundance of battered shrimp (think the entire contents of Bubba’s boat from Forrest Gump dumped into a deep-frier) served with remoulade and cocktail dipping sauces as well as french fries and coleslaw, was top-notch. A Cobb salad ($11.50) was tremendous in more ways that one, a fresh and vibrant mountain of different colors, tastes and textures. Herb-crusted salmon, however, was disgustingly oversized, eerily suggesting that the fish had been raised in the warm nuclear waters off Three Mile Island. In addition, the salmon was extremely overcooked and the delicate flavor of the fish was overwhelmed by the dense forest of parsley, thyme and tarragon that covered its arid flesh. Your $16.95 might even have been better spent on that beautiful engagement ring from Judy’s.

But, of course, somewhere called the Cheesecake Factory also offers a hefty selection of desserts. There are 36 different varieties of the eponymous speciality on offer ($5.75 to $6.95), ranging from traditional favorites like fresh strawberry cheesecake to rather more esoteric offerings like “sticky chewy chocolate pecan cheesecake.” There are also a number of other dessert offerings, including a superb, if diabetes-inducing, chocolate blackout cake ($5.95). Hungry undergraduates with approaching birthdays or holidays would do well to inform their loving families that the Cheesecake Factory will be happy to deliver any of their cakes, packed in dry ice, to any location nationwide. It will feed you and your closest 25 friends for the next couple of weeks.

The Cheesecake Factory is not elegant; it is not refined. Factories are not meant to be. It is, however, superb at filling the upmarket chain niche in the Boston food market. And by filling, I mean stuffing. Industrialists of the world, unite!