Putting their money where my mouth is part 2: Marie Callender's calls my bluff

A couple of weeks ago I did a write-up on Del Taco, but let's not go too far into that.  As a matter of fact, let's not go into it at all. Ever again.  The point is, they sent me a gift card so I could try a new menu item, I obliged them, and I wrote a pretty negative review of the experience (which they apparently didn't read since I keep receiving all kinds of e-mails from them about new promotions and products).  At the start of that write-up, I mentioned that Marie Callender's PR people had been doing something similar, except that they seemingly just wanted me to share their press releases for no compensation and use their professionally-taken photographs.  I even included an example e-mail.  I figured why not, it's not like they actually read my blog!

Four days later, I received an e-mail from those same PR people.  They had seen my post, and would be happy to provide a gift card not only for myself, but one for my roommate as well.  They also said that they actually do read my posts, and that I should feel free to take my own pictures.  I'll admit it, I was shocked.  My first instinct was to apologize for what I'm sure seemed like obvious hinting on my part, but then I realized I had put it out there that if they would cover the cost of whatever it was they wanted me to promote, I would try it and write about it.  They had called my bluff.  I had done it for a place I all but knew I wasn't going to like, and at least I had fond memories of visiting Marie Callender's in the past.

And that's how I wound up having an early dinner at Marie Callender's this week.

Of course, it wasn't as simple as all that.  My roommate is trying to be better about her eating habits lately (I'm not the best influence, I'm afraid).  When she does feel indulgent, she usually has something specific in mind, and Marie Callender's is never that thing.  Even pointing out that I had promised to go, that she had been sent a gift card as well, and that if we did it on a Tuesday or Saturday then her kids could eat for free on top of everything, she was still a little reluctant.  The kids weren't terribly excited about the prospect either.  Come to think of it, neither was I.  I'd even felt a little embarrassed when telling a co-worker that I was eating there later that night, and I couldn't put my finger on the exact reason.

I remember my grandparents taking me to Marie Callender's several times during my childhood.  My roommate used to go with her parents.  As an adult, I can count the times I've been there on one hand, quick stop-ins just to grab a pie excepted (my brother frequently requests the German Chocolate as a replacement for cake on his birthday).  This week's visit was probably just the second in a decade.  We arrived after I finished work for the day but before the tween's cheerleading class.  There weren't a lot of people as it wasn't quite dinnertime yet, so we were seated immediately.   The interior is basically timeless, and looks the same as it has for as long as I can remember.  Our waitress quickly mentioned the happy hour specials, and I was as shocked as ever to be reminded that Marie Callender's serves hard alcohol.

Big hunk o' cornbread

Our waitress brought the customary cornbread slab and asked if we were ready to order.  Both children chose the "Gobble, Gobble Dinner" (though both were shy about saying it...I don't know what it is with family eateries and their weird names for the kids' meals).  My roommate decided that one person ordering the featured item was enough, and chose the Soup & Salad Bar combo.  I knew what I was supposed to order, but I seriously considered picking the other new featured item called the Grilled Cheese Pot Roast Dip: Cheddar, Swiss, Jack and American cheeses with pot roast, tomatoes and crispy onion strings on grilled Parmesan bread with a side of au jus.  Sounded pretty good to me.  Still, as the saying goes: if you pay the piper, you get to pick the tune.  The Perfect Pie Trio comes with a choice of dinner pie, a small Caesar salad, and a slice of dessert pie for, well, dessert.  Personally, I don't get the name.  You say "pie trio" to me, I expect three kinds of pie, not just three items where the majority is pie.  Anyway, the savory options are their classic Chicken Pot Pie, Shepherd's Pie, and Tuscan Shrimp Pot Pie.  This was a harder choice for me than you would think, mostly because I despise peas and mushrooms.  The chicken pie has peas, the shrimp pie has mushrooms, and the shepherd's pie has both.  The decision boiled down to the fact that I'd never heard of a shrimp pot pie before.

The roommate's well-balanced salad

My roommate headed for the salad bar while the rest of us went to work on the cornbread (yes, we saved her a piece).  I love cornbread, and serving it as one piece the way Marie Callender's does is genius, because it keeps all that heat locked inside.  Slice it up, and the whipped butter dropped onto it liquefies almost instantly.  The roommate dug her salad, in fact we both have memories of the salad bar there being one of the best in town when we were younger.  Of course there are a lot more options around town these days, but a good salad bar is always nice as far as I'm concerned.

Gobble, Gobble Dinner

The Gobble, Gobble kid's meal is pretty much what you'd expect from the name:  turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, veggies, and cranberry sauce.  I have to admit, the adults at the table were impressed.  "Kid's meal" is a pretty loose term in the restaurant industry.  Usually it means a protein, a starch, maybe a little fruit or a drink is included.  This was truly worthy of being designated as a meal, and the portion was pretty generous as well.  I didn't try any of the stuff, but the girls did some serious damage to it, and their mother was happy they were eating something other than a cheeseburger or chicken strips.  Of course Marie Callender's has that stuff as well, but they also have ribs, and even a kid's version of the soup and salad bar option as well.

Creamy Potato Cheese Soup

On the other hand, Creamy Potato Cheese Soup is a decidedly straightforward name, much like the item itself.  The roommate liked it and the portion was substantial, but it didn't exactly blow her mind.  Now if it had been me, I would have appropriated some of the real bacon bits from the salad bar as a garnish...

Perfect Pie Trio with Tuscan Shrimp Pot Pie

...but I had my own meal to contend with.  Served on the same plate, the Caesar salad and the pot pie were roughly the same circumference.  The pot pie was in a decent-sized ramekin, not a huge portion, but then again the idea behind this meal seems to be a three course dinner for an affordable price (the chicken pot pie meal is $9.99, the shepherd's pie is $11.99, and the Tuscan shrimp pot pie is $13.99).  The salad was pretty standard, but the pot pie was much more interesting.  The same flaky crust from the chicken pot pie is dusted with Italian herbs, and underneath is a mix of shrimp, grilled pancetta, mushrooms, and white beans in a garlic tomato cream sauce.

Tucking into it, my immediate thought was that there was more soup than substance to the pie.  Stirring things up in an attempt to locate and extract the mushrooms, I luckily only came across about half a dozen slices.  I also unearthed roughly the same number of small-to-medium shrimp.  The pancetta was in tiny shreds and scraps, and added more color to the proceedings than it did flavor.  The white beans were a little scarce as well, but lent some nice texture.  The most surprising thing was the sauce.  I had expected more of a creamy tomato sauce, and what I got was a very nicely balanced cream sauce with a hint of tomato.  It didn't take me long eat all the solid pieces from the inside of the pie, and since there was a lot of crust still clinging to the outer edge of the ramekin, I broke it off and tossed it into the middle.  It both absorbed and thickened the sauce nicely.  Overall, it's nothing I would order again.

Apple Pie

After finishing my meal, I still felt a little peckish, and that's where the genius of this combination kicks in: I still had a slice of one of Marie Callender's famously decadent pies coming to me.  I didn't even need to look at the menu, because my pie had been suggested just like my meal had.  Luckily it was the Peanut Butter Chocolate Cake Pie, which is the one I would have chosen anyway.  The kid's meals at Marie Callender's ALSO come with a slice of pie, which again is a nice change from what other eateries offer.  The younger child opted for Apple, a personal favorite of hers.  The tween chose Chocolate Satin, which might just be my favorite dessert in the entire world.  I'm not even kidding, the frozen Chocolate Satin from Marie Callender's is my go-to dessert at the grocery store.  Alas, the roommate's meal didn't include pie, but she decided to tack on a slice of lemon meringue.  This is where our helpful waitress informed us that their $7.99 pie sale is going on for the month of February, so she could have a whole pie for only a few dollars more than a slice would coast.  She hesitated for a minute and then caved.  It really is a pretty good deal, and you can get a fresh pie for just about the same price one of their frozen ones would cost you at the grocery store.  I definitely recommend checking it out even if you don't actually want to eat a meal there.

Chocolate Satin; I made her stop her attack long enough for me to get a picture

The Chocolate Satin pie is a super thick, rich, chocolate mousse-like filling in a chocolate cookie crust, topped with whipped cream and a little chocolate powder (the store version has chocolate shavings).  I can't talk this thing up enough.  If you like chocolate and can handle the richness, try this thing.  I don't care if you get one at the restaurant or the grocery store, though if it's the latter, make sure you get the real one and not those individually sized things, they're just not the same.  You can thank me in the comments below.

Lemon Meringue

I'm not the person to talk to about the Lemon Meringue.  I loathe meringue.  The roommate loves it though, and took a second piece to have the next day before dropping the rest of the pie at her parents' house later in the evening.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Cake Pie

Peanut Butter Chocolate Cake Pie is a kind of an unwieldy name, but it's entirely accurate.  If it were possible to pick up a chocolate cake and a peanut butter pie and shuffle them, this would be the result.  To be perfectly honest, it took me about half the slice to determine whether I liked this or not.  The peanut butter cream was more of a custard and not exceedingly sweet or salty.  The chocolate cake was similarly mildly flavored, but the fudge icing, chocolate chunks and chopped peanuts gave it a nice kick.  The whipped cream and pie crust seemed silly at first, but eventually I had to admit the whole thing just kind of worked.  It certainly won't replace the Chocolate Satin as my favorite, but it was a nice, wacky change of pace.  And by the time I was done with it, I couldn't have eaten another bite.

As we finished up and chatted, I think my roommate put it best.  She said that were it left up to her, she never would have chosen Marie Callender's for dinner that night, but when all was said and done she was happy.  We came to the conclusion that our lack of enthusiasm had to do with both of our unspoken perceptions that Marie Callender's is more of an older folks' restaurant.  We were the youngest people there by about a decade.  Thinking back, more often than not the people I've seen there were older, and any younger people were there with older relatives.  I would change that perception if I could, because there is a lot to like here.  It definitely hits the spot with its large comfort food menu, and while the prices might be a bit high on some things, the portions are generous and everything was good.  Watch for the deals like featured combos and kids eat free days, and you can make out pretty well.  I'd sure as hell rather go there than Friday's, or Chili's, or Applebee's.  And I'm pretty sure I'm going to have to go back soon just to try that pot roast sandwich.

Food:  They play it a little too safe with some of the flavors for my taste, likely because they're trying to appease the masses.  It's one of the less exciting things about chain dining, but if you like comfort food then you'll find something to enjoy here.  The pie is definitely where it's at.  B
Value:  Varies.  Watch for sales and specials, otherwise that brand name is gonna cost ya.  B-
Service:  Excellent.  Dirty dishes cleared quickly, drinks never allowed to go below 1/3 full, and just generally helpful and pleasant.  A
Atmosphere:  Pretty classic family-style eatery.  I'm getting more into these places (and diners and truck stops) lately, I think it's a retro/nostalgia thing for me.  I spent a lot of time in those places on family vacations back in the 80's.  B+
Final Grade:  B

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