Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Kicked in the Onions

Steeplechase Grille & Tavern
306 E. 2nd. St.
Vidalia, GA
Visited Sept. 16, 2010

A drive through Vidalia, Georgia provides all the evidence I need to prove America’s love-affair with mediocrity.

From Arby’s to Zaxby’s, every single chain fast food concept America has ever thought up can be found on the two mile strip from downtown Vidalia to Lyons, the next town over yonder.

Honestly. I don’t think they are missing a single one.

I mean, Vidalia, Georgia? It’s not even that big of a town. Not to sound too judgmental (as a fast food connoisseur by necessity myself) these folks must consume more high fructose corn syrup and monosodium glutamate than any other town in America per capita.

The entire stretch of Highway 280 as far as the eye can see is a line of dozens and dozens of 25 foot high signs beckoning patrons for various versions of corporate fast food dreamed up in board rooms from Chicago to Louisville to LA.

A crazy thought came to my mind as I scanned the neon landscape – how about a restaurant concept dreamed up right here in Vidalia?

I wouldn’t think that would be so hard. After all, the town is named after a local food product, right?

Well, maybe it is the other way around.

Yes, if the name Vidalia sounds familiar to you, that is because it is home to its famous name-sake vegetable, the sweet Vidalia onion -- made even more famous by weatherman Williad Scott who would demonstrate their sweetness on camera by eating them raw – just like an apple.

Years ago, local farmers got the federal government to certify that no onion can claim the title “Vidalia Onion” unless it was grown in the local sandy South Georgia soil here in a 20 county region.

You’d think with federally boosted local pride like that, there wouldn’t be too much trouble finding a local diner or joint to serve up the sweet delicacy, right?

Maybe some sweet onion soup, steaks or burgers topped with thick local slices or at the very least, some hand-dipped gourmet Vidalia onion rings? Yeah, I could definitely go for that. Perfect for my next Suits in Strange Places post.

No such luck.

The only non-corporate-chain restaurant I could find in the entire town was the Steeplechase Grille and Tavern, the kind of local, small town place where natives can splurge on a decent steak dinner or meet up with friends for a casual lunch.

Gossipy Southern housewives, polo-shirted businessmen and families alike were out in force for lunch at what appeared to be a favorite local gathering spot.

Unfortunately, my quest for some innovative culinary take on the town’s most famous export died the moment I opened the menu. Standard steaks, sandwiches and burgers. The only Vidalia Onion mention was the option of “Vidalia Onion Rings” as a side option with the burger.

So that’s what I ordered.

Unfortunately, the onion rings were some of the least inspiring I’ve ever tasted.

How inspiring can onion rings be, you might ask?

Well, I’ve been inspired by specially seasoned onion rings, fancy dipping sauces and even onion rings hand-dipped in gourmet batter. Best of all are those supper thick sliced onion rings that come stacked in a foot high tower – providing the ideal onion-to-batter ratio for a mild, sweet onion like a Vidalia.

Heck, speaking of big corporate chain restaurants, onions don’t get much better than Outback’s Bloomin’ version.

But sadly, Steeplechase’s rings didn’t resemble any of those.

They were thin microscopic rings, covered in over-fried batter and virtually no onion taste. I’ve had onion rings at Burger King that tasted better.

The burger itself, on the other hand, wasn’t that bad. I mean, I wasn’t about to do a dance in a Vidalia onion patch or anything, but it was an above-average burger, helped immensely by the avalanche of three kinds of melted cheese.

But overall, the lack of Vidalia onion celebration put a damper on my lunch.

As I drove out of town on my three hour Georgia back roads drive through the cotton fields to Valdosta, I noticed that Outback Steakhouse had somehow overlooked Vidalia.

As much as I hate to admit it, those corporate boys down in Tampa could teach the good folks of Vidalia a thing or two about their own onions.

Rating: Wouldn't Wear Shirt If They Paid Me.
Steeplechase Grill on Urbanspoon

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