Chain of foods

At Ruggeri's, Primo's, and Cafe Express, you are where you eat

Location, location, location.
I think I may have opened a review with that phrase before, but since at least half the restaurant business is actually the real-estate business, the maxim can't be repeated too often. In Dallas, the restaurant real estate is clearly staked out; until Oak Cliff votes itself wet, Addison and the McKinney Avenue area are still the locations most likely to guarantee success. To cover their back doors, Dallas restaurateurs prefer to be in both places at once.

Whether a restaurant starts out as an individual's singular vision or a corporation's calculated clone, multiple locations are the goal of most restaurant owners because that's where the dollar strength is. The cutting edge of cuisine is still in the independent kitchen, but chains form the backbone of the food-service business and all its dependents.

Recently, in spite of the climbing columns of dollars, the industry fears that customers are wearying of the everlasting sameness--masquerading as consistency--of the big chain restaurants. So it has coined a new phrase, the "unlinked chain," to encompass chain restaurants that don't all look the same from the outside (the golden arches have disappeared from McDonald's) and may not even have the same menus. In other words, the chains want to look more like the independent restaurants where people expect good food, not just the same food. And so it makes reverse sense that, following the former lead of the big guys, independents are cloning themselves like the chains, grabbing for more of their dollars.

Most independent restaurants grow somewhat by serendipity: You have an idea for a restaurant, but you're not sure exactly where you're going to find the right piece of real estate; you're not sure who your staff members will be; your food will vary according to which fractious chef is currently in the kitchen; and, most importantly, you're not sure exactly who your customers will be and what personality they'll bring to the place. These are all things that, however well-planned, end up evolving somewhat in their own way.

Chains, on the other hand, don't start with an idea; they start with a concept. Traditionally, they build their own places so they all look just alike; they don't have chefs, they have cooks; and they don't even break ground until they know exactly who their projected customers are, and that means what cars they drive and what their zip codes are.

It's more difficult for an independent to freeze coincidence into concept, but that's what you have to do if you're going to reproduce your original. These second restaurants are more or less successful, and sometimes I think that has a lot to do with coincidence, too.

In the past few months, two Dallas favorites, Ruggeri's and Primo's, have reproduced themselves in Addison. And one predetermined chain, the Houston import Cafe Express, which originally opened its first area restaurant in Addison, has opened a second one on McKinney. The menus at all these places has remained the same, but the Addison restaurants are completely different from their downtown siblings.

I was not very impressed with Addison's Cafe Express when it opened. Its owner is Robert del Grande, who is to Houston what Dean Fearing is to Dallas. Cafe Express is his bid for the big bucks; there are already several of them in Houston and plans for them to multiply outside Texas. Here, its porticoed facade blends right in with the Holiday Inn next door on Belt Line so you think they're part of each other--not the best first impression. The room inside is of a size that makes you feel as small as Alice on the wrong side of the mushroom. There's nowhere cozy or hidden, and eating inside here is like eating in a gym. Outside, the patio catches the wind--as well as the noise of Belt Line Road.

The new location, on McKinney, is architecturally more whimsical--you could even say wacky--and more appealing. Its stone walls, purple trim, and jutting patio cover remind you of a drive-in the Flintstones might frequent, or like the far-out architecture of that Oklahoma visionary, Bruce Gough. This is the new flagship design, a prototype for the many restaurants del Grande and his partners hope to open, and it's much more successful than its predecessor: Inside, the dining room is L-shaped, so the space is broken up into manageable areas, and outside, an ingenious Roman-style aqueduct system carries water down an incline into a fountain, providing a pleasant barrier between your meal and the cars on McKinney.

It may just be because I liked the location better that I thought the food tasted better here than in Addison. The menu is modern and features--what else?--pasta and chicken. But this roast chicken was full of juice and flavor under its crackling skin, and plenty of olive oil carried the flavor around the firm penne pasta, mixing the smoky strips of grilled chicken breast with sweet garlic and roasted red peppers.

The vegetarian sandwich here also seemed better than the one I had in Addison: The grilled zucchini was thinly sliced so it became tender while it still had its fresh crunch, the onion was slivered and sweet, and both avocado and a thin smear of goat cheese enriched the vegetables. This sandwich was easier to eat and better designed than most grilled-vegetable sandwiches, whose oil-slicked vegetables slither out from the bread slices like wet watermelon seeds. But there's no excuse for bread this bad. I appreciate it being slightly softer than the cud-chewing slabs of peasant bread we're getting used to (and which I like, but they can be too much on a sandwich). This roll had an unpleasant crumbly texture that often comes from freezer burn or an attempt to soften up staleness.

A bowl of grilled chicken strips with pasta and pesto over lettuce was good, though overdressed, and so was the simple BLT on wheat.

Again, I have to question the "express" part of this concept. True, it didn't take us long to eat a meal at Cafe Express. This is self-serve: Like that granddaddy of chains, McD's, you place your order and pay at the counter. Thank God the food isn't waiting under lights; you go sit down until your number is called and then retrieve your own food, silverware, and condiments, etc. I don't doubt the system seems more efficient to those whose job it is to stand behind the counter, and it probably streamlines the payroll, as well, but from my point of view, "express" is when someone else brings the food to me.

Ruggeri's downtown location is in a quaint brick building near The Quadrangle, full of the kind of charming inconveniences Dallasites only like to encounter when they travel. At home, they don't put up with them for long. There are rumors, denied by Ruggeri's, that this particular charming and inconvenient building is going to be demolished.

In any case, the new location in Addison is more orthodox in design. Located in one of Addison's premier locations, behind Chamberlain's right next to the Addison Town Hall, the whole back of the restaurant looks out over a rolling green lawn and the old house that serves as the restaurant community's municipal building--in all, a pretty view.

The new Ruggeri's was noisy, crowded, and dark on a recent rainy night, but the service was as effusively friendly as it ever is on Routh Street. The crowd was a little more glitzy, typical of Addison, than the downtown customers. With our wine, we ordered the special garlic toast, which is really a kind of open-face cheese sandwich, the garlicked bread covered with a melted lace of parmesan.

The menu is the same as the original Ruggeri's, whose manicotti has always been the best in town, the limp little crepe enfolding ethereal, cloudlike cheese, with a tangy marinara sauce keeping the whole thing from cloying with its softness. Somehow, it didn't seem quite as wonderful here as it has at the original location, though the soft-shell crab, another Ruggeri's specialty, seemed even better, buttery and brown, the crust breaking into pastrylike bits around the sweet, sea-scented flesh. Veal scallops were pounded to paper-thinness and topped with citrusy artichoke hearts in lemon butter, and red-hearted lamb chops were thick and juicy knobs of meat on fragile little bones.

Primo's on McKinney became notorious as the chefs' favorite after-work hangout, which either says something about the food, the owner, or the amount of tequila in the margaritas, depending on who you talk to. Like Ruggeri's, it's a funny, odd-shaped space in an older building that has annexed more space as business heated up. The new space in Addison is more bland: It looks like any other Mexican restaurant decorated with odd pictures on the wall---a huge painting of a fancy dancer, an oil portrait of Emmitt Smith, a quiet landscape--and a collection of beer cans lined up over the carved wood columns. Anyway, outdoor dining (in Addison, a big wood deck replaces McKinney's cramped streetside patio) is the drawing card here for those people who mysteriously have whole evenings during which to do nothing but sit around and drink.

The kitchen reproduces the downtown food well, including the famous botanas platter with its tiny white-meat-packed flautas; its nachos so loaded with cheese and beef that the tostados turn back into a tortilla, and with their twin peaks of guacamole and commercial sour cream (does anyone really eat that stuff?); the tiny cocktail tacos, fried after filling; and crisp-coated, bullet-shaped stuffed jalapenos.

There are numerous combination plates and a section of fajitas--the word usually meaning "skirt steak," but here encompassing chicken, seafood, or vegetable fajitas, the latter a sputtering platter of sliced squash, peppers, onions, and mushrooms to scoop into a flour tortilla with some of the (hot) hot sauce for a roll-your-own. What's missing is a little cheese to stick the elements together.

Of course, I prefer the original Primo's and the original Ruggeri's; I like the quaintness, the slight funkiness. But I like the downtown Cafe Express better than its uptown location. It's not the food--it's fine and mostly identical uptown and downtown--but the atmosphere (that overused word ambiance) that's different. The point is, it's not just what you eat but where you eat.

Cafe Express McKinney, 3230 McKinney Ave., 999-9444. Open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Ruggeri's, 5348 Belt Line Rd., 726-9555. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; for dinner daily, 5 p.m.-11 p.m.

Primo's, 14905 Midway Rd., 661-2287. Open Monday-Thursday, 11-midnight; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. (Bar open Monday-Saturday till 2 a.m., Sunday till midnight)

Cafe Express:
Penne Pasta with Grilled Chicken, Sweet Garlic, and Olive Oil $6.75
Half-Roasted Chicken With Baked Potato $7.95

Ruggeri's:
Homemade Garlic Bread $3.75
Soft-Shell Crab a la Ruggeri $7.95
Scaloppine alla Carciofo $16.95

Primo's:
Botanas Platter $7.25
Veggie Fajitas $6.95
Cheese Enchiladas Plate $6.

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