Applebee’s: Tex-Mex Fix

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‘Fan the Flame’ are the Hollywood-signboard-like words you see above the window of the topside grill and kitchen area, while to the side is the shadow of a cow on a wooden wall, all divided in its proper segments, identifying choice cuts such as chuck and blade, flank, brisket and rump. Fast and Furious Seven, Man of Steel and Big Hero 6 play simultaneously on three TVs set up on a ceiling perch such that depending where you sat, you’d either get Henry Cavill in shiny blue spandex, Vin Diesel making cars fly, or fist bumping bah-la-la-la. Or you can just enjoy the balcony view and watch passersby below.

Downstairs, the bar is hard to miss, as it has a big glowing sign above it and its burnished, purposefully swirl-scratched countertop serves as a runway for the flight of many a fanciful drink from the bartender to a waiting patron. Suspended on the ceiling are glowing light arrays – matte black dandelions with incandescent tungsten filament bulbs for pods. More of those bulbs illuminate rows of mason jars all stacked on a steel wireframe rack, a funky conversation piece for an equally funky hangout.

This is the scene set for Applebee’s Bonifacio Global City, the latest entry brought in by Archie Rodriguez, CEO and founder of Global Restaurants. “Applebee’s is owned by the same company that also owns IHOP – DineEquity, Inc.,” he elaborates. “With our success with IHOP here in the Philippines, they felt that Applebee’s could be just as successful.”

A lot of that has to do with the ability to change and adapt. “For me, it was important that the brand had to evolve from what it was to what it is today. The thing is that Applebee’s is in the same space as other brands that are already in the country, and I wanted to make sure that there was a clear difference between what we were bringing in versus all the other brands that are already here. So it had a lot to do with reinventing the design, menu and service style – the whole philosophy behind the brand. So what you see here in the first Applebee’s here in the Philippines is that evolution.”

So how does that translate into reinvigorating a 35-year old American mainstay? “In terms of design, we’re a lot more current, a lot more in-the-now. If you compare us to other brands, we’re a lot more contemporary, comfortable and a bit more fun than they are. The others go with nostalgia and a folksy, family feel that although has its appeal, is something we’re striving to be different from.”

“And here’s the thing,” he confides. “We’re the ones that are spearheading the new look, menu and feel. Applebee’s has entrusted us to be the first of this type of their franchise in the world.” What that type translates to is a slick, cool look and hearty, honest Tex-Mex cuisine plus some wickedly winsome libations put together by Applebee’s executive chef, Paolo Gutierrez. “We’ve got a lot of the old favorites here from the original menu,” explains Gutierrez. “However, we’ve been given freedom to create our own recipes and if they catch on, they could find their way abroad.”

With that, I set out to see what Chef Paolo had in store. The first of the dishes was the Wonton Taco, a spicy chicken-stuffed wonton shells with coleslaw and cilantro. The crunchy wonton shells proved toothsome, and I had to stop myself from asking for another plateful lest I ruin my appetite. Next came a sprightly treat – the Cedar Grilled Lemon Chicken garnished with Granny Smith Apple relish and topped with lemon olive oil vinaigrette over a medley of cranberries, rice, honey-glazed pecans and quinoa. The tartness of the apples and cranberries somehow worked with the sweet nuttiness of the pecans and whetted my palate for more.

Red-blooded carnivores will salivate over the Bourbon Black and Bleu Burger, a juicy blackened seasoned ground beef chuck with bourbon-caramelized onions and mushrooms, Jack cheese, crumbled bleu cheese and toasted, smoked bacon served on a hot brioche bun with smoky mayonnaise. Chef Paolo smiled as my eyes went wide seeing this robust burger and the blue cheese went smashingly well with the toasted bacon. The burger and many of the other dishes came with Applebee’s signature fries that tasted like they were smoked in hickory wood and covered in homemade dry barbecue seasoning.

But for a real ranchero, the Fiesta Lime Chicken is something not to be missed. This was a set of grilled chicken fillets done fiesta-style with zesty lime sauce, Applebee’s signature Mexi-Ranch sauce, bubbling Jack and cheddar cheese melted on the top, crisp tortilla chips, and pico de gallo. The cheese dripping on top like a pizza is enough to send queso lovers into fits of ecstasy. For even more queso, one needn’t look further than the Quesadilla Burger – the happy union of a quesadilla and a burger with Mexi-Ranch sauce, pico de gallo and shredded lettuce in a Jack and cheddar quesadilla.

Weight watchers and other health buffs need not despair, as the Thai Salad is a crunchy treat that does the job. An assortment of mixed greens and red cabbage, this very light meal has edamame (soybeans steamed in the pod, Japanese-style), almonds, wonton strips, peanut sauce, fresh cilantro and an oriental salad blend tossed with chili lime vinaigrette.

Butter Pecan Blondie is a brownie variant made wholly out of butterscotch instead of chocolate fudge. The Blondie is then baked with nuts and topped with vanilla ice cream, baked pecans and cream cheese sauce and served on a sizzling hot plate. The result is you have a soft, hot butterscotch cake at the bottom, with ice cream cooling it down and turning into a happy, goopy mess that would delight anyone with even half a soul. On its heels was the Triple Chocolate Meltdown, a magnificently moist chocolate cake with a fudge-filled center served with vanilla ice cream and hot fudge. Not to be upstaged, this frisky filly of a dessert had its own li’l charms – spooning the chocolate cake would burst its pure chocolate heart, pouring the resulting hot fudge onto the rest of the ice cream, basically a lava cake paired with ice cream and drizzled with lots of chocolate and caramel syrup.

What can I say? Olé, pardner!

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