Deep Fried Chicago: R.J. Grunts
Opened in 1971, R.J. Grunts in Lincoln Park is the flagship Lettuce Entertain You restaurant—the rock upon which Rich Melman has built his restaurant empire. Kitsch is commodity here: the walls are lined with an inordinate amount of pieces of flair and photos of past waitresses (most are suspiciously voluptuous); the menu itself is almost half comic strips; and, of course, there's the famous salad bar tempting patrons to believe that "just a salad" in this case would be any healthier than the rest of the American bar food menu. And though I indeed possess an unnatural love of salad bars, I eschewed vegetables and kept my eye on the prize: in this case, a menu replete with pretty solid fried offerings.
The Buffalo Wings ($7.95 for 8 wings) are of the breaded, fried, and sauced variety. I don't mind saying that I'm becoming more and more fond of this style—when properly executed, of course. Here, the breading on these jumbo sized wings is crispy and the meat flavorful and moist. I could've used a little more of the tangy sauce, though. And while the wings resting on a bed of Fried Onions make the dish a fried two-fer, they add little more to the experience than bulk.
Under universal slicing conventions, I'd say that calling R.J.'s Pickle Fries ($6.95) "chips" would be much more accurate, but let's set semantics aside. If like me, your first experience with fried pickles were in rounds (as opposed to the arguably superior spears), you'll find these a comfort. The thick Vienna brand chips have strong dill flavor, and taking them down in one bite is advised unless you're looking to detach the barely adhered batter. I will say that the portion is a tad paltry, making table-sharing problematic if you have more than one pickle obsessive in attendance.
The ingredients in some wraps get lost or overshadowed, but each component of the California Chicken Wrap ($11.95) holds its own. The avocado is plentiful and creamy, the bacon is crisp and salty, and the chopped fried chicken is crunchy and tender. Somehow the largely unmelted mass of sharp cheddar works, too.
The Sweet Potato Fries ($2.00 to add to wraps and sandwiches or $5.50 as a side) are the standard issue shoestring kind. They're a little sweet, barely crisp, lacking in salt, and probably not worth the up-charge. Next time, I'll stick with the good looking Cottage Fries I saw zipping past my table.
R.J. Grunts is the type of restaurant well suited to clichés. While they're neither reinventing the wheel nor pushing the envelope, the menu is all things to all people. It is as solid as a rock, and you can bet your bottom dollar that I'll be back soon to try the salad bar.