In September, Chili's told us that it was headed back to its roots. The burger joint that got its start on Greenville Avenue found itself as a global chain with a menu some 125 items long. Chili's set out to refocus on "what we’ve always done best: our burgers, ribs [and] fajitas," and with that new focus, 40 percent of the menu got the axe. If you were a diehard fan of Southwestern mac and cheese, you're out of luck — although Chili's kindly made a Tasty-style YouTube video showing you how to re-create the dish at home.
When deciding where to eat, diners pick a casual dining chain because they know exactly what to expect going in. It's like reaching for that same comfy sweatshirt time and again. It's familiar. Which is exactly how we found ourselves at Chili's this week — sometimes, you're out in suburbia and want to eat something that's relatively decent, with minimal waiting and thinking involved. Chili's fit the bill.
The new Chili's menu is noticeably thinner, but something new caught our eyes: Chili's has a smokehouse. We should all be familiar with the ribs that headline the section (if the baritone I want my baby back baby back baby baby back jingle isn't stuck in your head right now, you're borderline un-American), but we were surprised to see the option to build your own Smokehouse Combo ($14.99) with two meats and the Ultimate Smokehouse Combo ($16.99) with three meats.
Aside from the ribs (which earn a $2 up-charge when added to your combo), the meat choices were a bone-in chicken breast (umm, okay), jalapeño-cheddar sausage (say what?), smoked brisket (am I still at Chili's?) and chicken crispers (oh, right, I'm still at Chili's). All combos come with roasted street corn, fries, chile-garlic toast and garlic dill pickles, so picking meats is the only decision you need make. We ordered a two-meat combo with the most barbecue-sounding meats: brisket and sausage.
"Do I get a choice of lean or moist brisket?" I asked my server. She was polite enough, but her eye roll was almost audible, and her reply was an apologetic, "Uh, no." All right then. Any fantasies we had that Chili's was rolling out a decently serviceable brisket slowly faded away.
Anyone with a soupçon of barbecue-eating experience (aka people who eat barbecue from places not named Dickey's) probably has a preconceived notion of what Chili's brisket is like. By and large, those notions were confirmed when the aluminum tray of food landed on our table.
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The brisket is so thinly sliced that it might be mistaken for beef jerky — if it weren't drizzled with barbecue sauce and piled on a thick slice of buttered Texas toast. We picked up a piece, and it held the same shape it took when it came to rest on the bread. It's not jerky tough, but that's about the best thing that can be said about it; it's pretty dry, and there's little smokiness to the meat. The mild barbecue sauce was was nothing to write home about, either, despite large grounds of black pepper floating in it.
The jalapeño sausage was the high point, with bits of cheese in every bite and a legitimately spicy kick from the jalapeño. But the roasted street corn had been boiled far too long before getting a faux char mark from the grill. Chili's fries are decent enough, but among the fries, corn and two slices of buttered Texas toast (ours apparently missed the chile-garlic memo), we had enough carbs in our systems to run a half marathon, had we been so inclined.
So Chili's brisket is about what you would expect: It's edible but not even remotely close to the quality brisket turned out at any number of barbecue joints in North Texas. As bad as the brisket is, the bigger travesty is that Chili's offers it in the first place. Chili's corporate owner Brinker International is still based in Dallas. A restaurant chain with Chili's Texas roots should know what parts of Texas cuisine translate well into chain restaurant fare and what parts are better left alone. Barbecue definitely falls in the latter category. The leaner menu was supposed to afford Chili's the chance to focus on what it does well, but the smokehouse choices offered tell us that Chili's still has some room to sharpen its focus.