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Published: Friday, 10/22/2004

Restaurant review: Chili's ***

It's amazing how restaurants are trying to make trenchermen of us all - turning normally sensible people into ravenous eaters, attacking food that's being piled higher and higher on our plates.

Plenty of local eateries are known for their Hungry Heifer portions, and most of the restaurant chains draw customers with similar calorie-laden food. Nobody says you have to eat it all, of course, but sometimes, despite ourselves, it's hard to resist.

For instance, on a couple of recent visits to Chili's, a chain with three Toledo area outlets, we had a choice: Order from the "guiltless grill" list of four items ranging from 9 to 15 fat grams, or pick from the regular menu, where there's nary a whisper about grams and calories.

Both times, we went with the latter and found ourselves tempted by deep-fried appetizers and entrees, scoops of mashed potatoes and gravy, garlic toast, dipping sauces, Big Mouth burgers, steaks and gooey ribs, fajita quesadillas wrapped in buttery tortillas, and the Awesome Blossom fried onion extravaganza. Was our food good? Did we eat it all? The answers, alas, were yes and yes.

The people who own Chili's lay claim to 1,400 restaurants around the world, including such other chains as Maggiano's Little Italy and Romano's Macaroni Grill. Chili's itself specializes in American food rubbed with timid and often too-salty southwestern seasonings. There are touches of Mexico (margaritas, fajitas, nachos), but the overall emphasis is on familiar, middle-of-the-road food with a touch of Tex-Mex.

At lunch, we chose a $2.29 cup of chili and a $6.29 oldtimer burger. The beanless chili, deep red and brawny with beef, was remarkably good, accompanied by shreds of cheese and onion. The oldtimer ("This one put us on the map," says the menu) came with mustard, shredded lettuce, tomato, pickle, and onion.

With a little coaxing on our part, the waiter delivered the burger a juicy medium-rare instead of medium to well done as dictated by the management.

Dinner a few nights later began with the Triple Play appetizer ($8.79), a combo of breaded chicken crispers, boneless buffalo wings, and southwestern egg rolls. Only the four dipping sauces - blue cheese, ranch, tomato and sour cream, and honey mustard - saved the samplers from tasting alike.

Chicken tortilla soup ($1.99) and a side plate of four deep-fried shrimp ($3.99) could have been meal enough, but no, we piled on, ordering grilled Monterey chicken ($8.99) with bacon, cheese, and fresh broccoli, peppers, and zucchini, plus battered, country-fried steak ($8.99) with garlic toast, potatoes, and white country gravy.

Dessert? The sugar-sweet corn on the cob that came with the country steak took its place, sending us waddling home with at least two doggie bags in tow.

Contact Bill of Fare at fare@theblade.com

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