Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Fish Tacos at the Rainforest Cafe, Edison New Jersey

The Rainforest Cafe is an entertaining chain restaurant located at the Menlo Park Mall in Edison, New Jersey. Since it is a chain restaurant, I expect the food to be decent, but not five-star quality- generally chain restaurants are about the atmosphere and convenience as they are about anything else- so I keep my food expectations realistic. We were there mainly for our kids, who love the jungle-themed decorations. The food was likable, and the atmosphere was fun- meaning I had happy kids on my hands. There is, of course, more of a story to tell...

The main draw for the Rainforest Cafe is it's impressive jungle themed decoration, and enormous fish tank. Every 15 minutes or so, the lights will flicker on and off, and the PA system will play thunder sounds in a simulated thunder storm. The whole affair is perfect for keeping young children entertained while they wait for their food. As any parent can attest, this wait can easily turn into a nightmare of temper tantrums and cries of impatience. This trip out, the food took a little too long to come out, but the kids were actually remarkably well behaved. They had plenty of fun things to look at, and we broke up the wait by taking turns taking the kids for short walks to see all the animatronic animals and the fish tanks.

The wait staff was attentive and on top of things. The lunch rush started in earnest as we were putting in our food orders, and the wait staff had the hustle to keep up. I saw many trays of drinks come flying out of the kitchen and delivered quickly to their destinations. As I mentioned earlier, our food seemed to be taking a long time- long enough for us to begin to wonder, but not really long enough to get upset about - especially considering that the kids were on good behavior, and entertained. That's when I began to realize that I had a great view of the kitchen door- and yes, there were a lot of drink orders flying out the door into the now crowded dining room. The problem was that I only saw one, maybe two trays of food come out of the kitchen the whole time we were waiting so far.

So it was clear that something was going wrong in the kitchen- maybe the sudden lunch rush caught them off-guard and under-staffed, maybe an important appliance chose a bad time to stop working, or maybe Gordon Ramsay was in the back scaring the line cooks to death and calling them "donkey" or some such nonsense. One thing was clear, things were backed up, and there was little the wait staff could do about it other than weather the storm.

A nearby table chose to take matters in their own hands. I saw a manager rush over to make his apologies to a family that sat down around the same time as us. This family seemed to be more upset than the wait time would indicate, although I was starting to worry. A few minutes later, a flurry of activity happened back by the kitchen and the food started flying out. Good. Gordon's scolding (or a quick field repair, or whatever) seemed to have done the trick. Our food was at the table in no time.

My blackened fish tacos came off fairly well. When I saw the menu, the price tag seemed  a little on the high side (but I ordered them anyway)- when they arrived, the price seemed to be more correct. The fish was flaky and moist, seared with a tasty spice rub, and served on corn tortillas with a red cabbage slaw and a little sauce with cilantro. The sides were a dish of black beans and corn, and a helping of Spanish rice. A nice scoop of pico de gallo rounded out the plate. The food wasn't the be-all end-all of fish tacos, but it was a decent plate, and pretty good quality for a chain restaurant. As far as flaws go, a little more slaw would've helped- I wanted a little more crunch. My second taco also started to fall apart- since I went with blackened fish instead of fried, the extra liquids  made the tortillas a little soggy- perhaps the tortillas needed to sit on the grill and brown a little longer. Despite the flaws, it made a nice lunch.

Meanwhile- at the next table... our food hit before the grump table's food did. As soon as our food was on the table, the other parents stood up, and made a show of heading for the door in an outrage. The woman running the front of the house ran over and defused things, and got them to sit back down somehow, and their food hit the table while the apologies were still ringing in the air. Almost immediately, the angry dad complained that he didn't like his food at all, and didn't want anything else. I doubt he actually even tried the food, but still felt the need to make a scene as revenge for making his family wait a few seconds longer than the next table. He eventually walked out leaving the rest of his family behind to eat. When their check came, the wait staff brought a plate of complimentary donut holes as an apology, but was met with turned up noses and self-assured smirks.

OK, so there was a long wait for food, I'll admit that, and even go so far as to say it affected my tip (but not too much- it obviously wasn't the wait staff's fault so I only low-balled by about 3%). The lesson I got from the whole drama that played out as I took a nice photo of my plate with my phone, was that some people feel the need to make a scene, be the center of attention, and abuse the fact any half-decent restaurant will bend over backwards to appease you if you act unhappy. Their reaction was way out of line with the actual wait, and, in fact, they seemed to be the only people in the entire (now packed) restaurant. I respect the right to complain when things are not right, but making a scene of it, and blowing it so far out of proportion is just in poor taste, and is a bad example for your kids, and my kids too (who luckily were paying no attention to the whole mess and instead focused on having a good time watching the animated butterfly hanging over our table. Lesson- always be polite, even if things are going wrong. Express your complaint in a decent, civilized manner, and the staff will (almost always) earnestly try to make things right. Make a scene of it, and it reflects more poorly on you than on the restaurant. Gordon would probably chew these people out for their shenanigans than he would the kitchen staff for allowing themselves to get backed up, and Gordon is always right.

All in all, I'd call the Rainforest Cafe a decent family-oriented theme restaurant that goes way above and beyond when it comes to kitschy (in a good way) decor, and gets bonus points for making it easy to keep restless toddlers interested while they wait. The food was good, but not without a few flaws putting in firmly in line with what you'd expect from a chain restaurant. The service was obviously trying very hard, but the kitchen just had an off day when it came to keeping up with the lunch rush. One incident is not enough to indict the place as having slow service- so I'd gladly give them another chance. The interesting surroundings kept the kid entertained, so, for me, a longer-than-it-should-be wait isn't a deal-breaker- and it honestly wasn't anywhere near as bad as the grumpy table would have you believe.  I'd go back just because the kids had a good time, and the food was good enough for me to keep the place in mind again.

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