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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Fast Food Follies

From the Food-Review Archives Dept.: When I review restaurants these days, I rarely give an all-out assault on a place. If it's a bad experience, I give it another chance. If it remains lousy, I usually don't write about it. Places like that can go under without any prodding from me, and I believe it's more important as a critic to offer constructive commentary – even though that denies the mean-spirited a chance for vicarious vitriol. But here's one from the archives that I find amusing. It's kinder than the place deserved, given the level of incompetence my wife and I witnessed. But the restaurant went out of business shortly thereafter, and I doubt my contribution to its demise was significant. The place was its own train wreck.


D’Lites, 35 North Pearl Street, Albany, 463-1808. Fast-food service from 7:30 AM-6 PM Monday-Saturday. A cash operation.

Food: ★
Service: ★ ★
Ambience: ★ ★

A couple of summers ago my wife and I watched as our across-the-street neighbor labored over a barbecue grill on his porch, a forty-five minute process that ended with white coals and a shimmer of air current. Then he plopped a bunch of fat burgers on the rack, turned them, scraped them off, and disappeared inside.

“He'll be back,” Susan predicted.

He was out again in no time, this time to stand by impatiently while the meat cooked through.

We were reminded of this during a recent visit to the brand-new D’Lites in Albany, a fast-food joint with pretensions of class.

Opened by a one-time Wendy’s manager, the D’Lites chain seeks to cash in on consumer faddishness by playing up the “lite” aspects of a meal, affecting a nutrition-conscious attitude that pays significant lip-service to a style of eating much easier to preach than to practice.

Fast food came on the scene at the same time Eisenhower decided that superhighways were where travelling Americans belong. It was an amusing marriage. Cars got bigger while food was stripped down to components of meat, bread, sauce, and potatoes. The concept of the eat-in fast-food place is comparatively recent, complemented, of course, by the “drive-thru” window.

D’Lites tries to dignify road food by surrounding it with oak and brass, but you might just as well try to make a Yuppie by placing a farmer in a Volvo.

Fast food has fooled folks twice over. They take hamburgers seriously, and they think the stuff should be ready in an instant, so you have the microwave mentality of the aforementioned neighbor.

D’Lites takes this pettifoggery further by suggesting that the damn things can be served in “Lite” form (like the atrocious beer styling) with salubrious results – about as effective as only smoking half of your cigarette.

The new Albany store is on North Pearl, dressed in the requisite brass and glass, artifical plants providing a chilling complement to the emphasis on salads. It’s “lite” this and “lite” that on the menu, enough to take the fite out of any orthographist. The menu starts on the burgers route, throws in a variety of potatoes, offers a few other sandwiches and suggests the salad bar.

The salad bar was closed when we visited in the late afternoon: closes at 2:00, we were told. Too bad – that’s supposed to be a strong selling point, although I’m getting tired of laundered vegetables (all crunch, no flavor).

Sandwiches “are served on your choice of higher-fiber, lite white sesame seed bun or high-fiber, lite multi-grain bun.” Higher-fiber than what? White bread? Wonderful. We were spared the choice; nobody asked.

I had a burger with cheese (excuse me: “lite cheese”) that tasted like any other steamed burger with American cheese. Rather than letting employees wrestle with the toppings, there is a little ice table with sliced tomatoes, onions, ketchup, mayo et. al. with which I swathed the patty.

Susan had a “litely dusted chicken filet,” eading her to suggest that the only dusting it received was to remove shelf dirt.

Baked potatoes are a nice idea: to serve them a la fast food means to hold them in a steam table longer than a spud can stand. And the so-called cheddar mine was topped with came out of a nozzle.

Cheese consistency was also a problem in the Wisconsin Cheddar Soup. Susan decided that it came from a concentrate to which someone forgot to add water, leaving her with a kind of cheese pudding with bacon bits.

And “Mexi-Skins” combine a couple of silly fads: that which passes for Mexican food (generally a matter of dumping cumin and jalapenos on anything) and the strange notion that fried potato skins are a foodstuff. Despite the many low-sodium claims the D’Lites chain makes, the ground-beef mixture that was poured over the skins was lip-puckeringly salty.

“Just What America Needs” is the smug motto of a place that stresses its “emphasis on nutrition and a choice of more reasonable calories.” More reasonable calories? Do calories differ? Would I recognize the bad ones on a police lineup?

We figured we could end this on a good note with a serving each of “creamy natural soft-serve frozen yogurt,” but nobody knew how to work the frozen yogurt machine. Maybe we just didn’t come at the rite time.

Dinner for two, with tax, tip and beverages, was $12.

– Metroland, Jan. 22, 1987 

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