Chain of a Different Hue

Surprise! There's more to Toby Keith's I Love This Bar and Grill than red Solo cups

Just about everything about Toby Keith's is big. Big room, big tables, big chairs, big drinks, big portions, big music, a whole bunch of big TVs. The only exceptions are the servers. The Whisky Girls, as they are called, are cute, tiny and clad in T-shirts, Daisy Dukes and cowgirl boots. They're sexy without being trashy, like you see at other not-to-be-named chain restaurants/bars. They are also well trained, friendly and helpful.

The food here is decidedly country cuisine so there are plenty of fried items. But unlike at many other chains, the food comes first. By that, I mean everything was seasoned to complement the food. The food either stood on its own or other seasonings were used to enhance it.

At lunch, we started with the chili con queso ($7.99) and the fried macaroni and cheese ($7.99). Our entrées were the fried chicken dinner ($14.99) and the California burger ($11.99). At dinner the appetizers were chicken wings ($10.99) and potato skins ($8.99). For entrées we went all pork, with the half rack of St. Louis style ribs ($14.99) and the fire-roasted boneless pork chops ($13.99). Desserts were chocolate cake ($5.99) and cherry pie ($5.99.)

The chili came to the table with a pile of red and green tortilla chips for dipping. This dish was gooey-good, with the chili and cheese in perfect harmony. The salty chips, long strings of cheese and slightly spicy chili came together in both taste and texture. This would have been a great party dip.

The American Medical Association might raise a ruckus over the idea of fried mac 'n' cheese, but the eight triangles on the plate were crispy, not greasy, and the breading was not chock full of salt. They came with a good-sized bowl of ranch dressing. I enjoyed them piping hot but they tasted better once they cooled down a bit.

Chicken wings come with a choice of five sauces and you can also have them naked (meaning they aren't breaded) or boneless ($1 more). We went Buffalo-style and breaded. The eight pieces—some wings, some drum-ettes—were drenched in a thick hot sauce with spank. Meaty and cooked to the bone, they were good, but my least favorite of the appetizers we tried.

But the potato skins were another story. Fried first, then topped with a mix of cheeses and bacon bits, they had plenty of flavor. You could actually taste potato and the bacon tasted like bacon.

The California Burger was topped with Swiss cheese, avocado and bacon. Cooked to order and with a bun that held up under all that stuff, this was a fine example of how a burger is supposed to be done: juicy, well seasoned and just plain good.

Fried chicken seems to be everywhere these days and I've certainly sampled my share. But I have to say Toby Keith's knows how to do yard bird and a mess of fixin's. There were four bone-in pieces of chicken, a whole ear of corn and a huge mound of mashed potatoes with country gravy. As with everything else we had, the chicken was in balance—lots of juicy, tender meat covered in a crunchy coating, all without a trace of grease. (And when I later ate the dark meat cold, it still was lip-smacking good.) The sides were also fab. The potatoes were thick without being dry; skins had been left on just like at home. The corn on the cob, which is usually boiled to death, wasn't at all. And country gravy, which at many places looks and tastes like wallpaper paste, brought the plate together with a hint of something porky and a smooth, creamy texture. A hint of smoke and a touch of sweetness made the juicy pork chops a pleasure to eat. The chops came with a side of those great mashed potatoes and cinnamon-apple slices. The apples were soft-cooked but retained some sturdiness.

The rib meat needed only a nudge to fall away from the bone. The house barbecue sauce had been painted on near the end of cooking so it melded nicely with the meat. The sides were sweet-potato tots (a nice change of pace) and fragrant jasmine rice flecked with carrots, onions and herbs. A tiny corn muffin also came with the dish. Although I like my cornbread a tad sweeter, the muffin was still delicious.

As expected, the portion of milk-chocolate cake was monstrous. Several layers of moist cake were separated by two kinds of chocolate mousse and the slice was finished off with chocolate ganache. (Yes, ganache at a country restaurant. Sakes alive!) The chocolate syrup that was meant to be served on top was unnecessary (and the only thing we tried that tasted like it had come from a can).

The cherry pie came to the table hot, which hid the true flavor of the sweet, dark cherries. Like several other dishes, it tasted better when it had cooled down some.

The only issue I had with TK's was the bar service. We sat at the bar and had a beer while waiting for our table. Although the bar wasn't busy, and there were at least a half-dozen servers and bartenders, several minutes passed before anyone greeted us or asked if we needed help. It just looked bad.

All in all, Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill works. Yes, it's a chain but it's also family friendly, with reasonable prices and some darn tasty food. After a hard day of shopping, the "grill" part would be a great place to dine. And rumor has it that the bar holds its own, with live music and a crowded dance floor several nights a week.