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Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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Published: Friday, 8/11/2000

Damon's: Good food packs in the crowds

When it was the Bungalow, the popular eatery on Airport Highway, bungalow was the right word. The building didn't seem big enough to hold all the regular customers and airport arrivals who crowded it daily for some of the best steaks in town.

Too small it may have seemed to Ahmed's, which followed, for the owners rebuilt and rearranged until it was a new building with only a few vestiges of what had been. Enlarged inside and out, it was still cut up, as the Bungalow had been, into somewhat unexpected divisions of dining and drinking space, though it never recaptured the mood of cozy intimacy that had been part of the Bungalow's distinctive charm.

As often happens when a restaurateur tries to clone an early success on the other side of town, Ahmed's soon retreated to its initial Alexis Road location, and after some more rearranging - opening up one unobstructed dining room - Damon's, famous for ribs and other good eating, moved in. It's still there, and to all appearances thriving.

Few restaurants have menus that so completely, and in such detail, match what Midwest America loves to eat and how to prepare it. Damon's does. It's all here: prime rib and barbecued ribs; chargrilled chicken tenders or chicken breast parmesan, with fettucine Alfredo, or splashed with teriyaki or barbecue sauce; a New York strip steak or a salmon caesar salad; popcorn or jumbo shrimp; spring rolls, or a cheeseburger. Close your eyes and tell the server to bring whatever's handiest, and odds are you will be content.

In this big, cheerfully noisy room there are usually a lot of hungry customers at the same time, picking this or that from the extensive menu, yet in my experience the kitchen manages to keep it all straight. My prime rib, the smaller of two sizes, was still a generous 12 ounces, juicy, tender, and roasted to a perfect medium rare. The entrée comes with two sides and my first was enthusiastically recommended by the server: a small sauce dish of yummy candied, pecan crusted sweet potato casserole, so good that by itself it's reason to come back again. For my second choice, I selected baby carrots instead of a salad, one of many alternatives, something relatively rare in a high-volume kitchen.

Monterey chicken, grilled under slices of both Monterey and all-purpose American cheese, is, the menu says, a Damon's classic, and, whatever "classic" means, it's a winner in my book. Atop and around the cheese, bites of tomato and scallions, paired with a side of lively salsa, add spice to a solid dinner. Despite lots of choices among the sides, I couldn't resist a second round of the candied sweet potato casserole.

Still, the cole slaw is my preference instead of a conventional, cut-it-up salad, and Damon's sauces it attractively: sweet and sour, just enough vinegar. Besides being less a nuisance to reduce to bite size, it offers an agreeable counterpoint to the meat and potatoes.

How does the kitchen do with seafood? It's just a single experience, but I didn't like the flavor in which a salmon steak had been marinated. Maybe it's just me, but, especially on a frozen portion that has lost much of the fresh taste, it seemed flat and a bit harsh.

Still in my experience, it's a rare Damon's dish that is not attractive. It is a cook-by-number kitchen, of course, with recipes developed by a central management, but is once again a reminder that the art of successful franchising has been pretty well mastered by a growing number of chain proprietors.

Especially on a weekend, count on waiting for a table. But even from the wait area by the hostess station you can follow ESPN, CNN, or a Trivial Pursuit game on the wall-sized television screens. (I'm glad I wasn't there during the convention!)



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