There it is, just staring at you on the final page of the McAlister's menu -- daring you not to be impressed. It's a list of all the deli's Metroplex branches, 13 of them, stretching from McKinney and Southlake to Arlington and down to its newest Fort Worth location on Camp Bowie Boulevard. (There's also a new McAlister's on the TCU campus.)
What the list -- along with a decor that has nothing to distinguish it as a Funkytown eatery aside from posters marked "Fort Worth" -- suggests is that this McAlister's is probably a polished copy of myriad others in its 22-state empire. In this corporate-mandated homespun atmosphere, McAlister's serves up perfectly nutritious, if clearly institutionalized, mainstream dishes designed to neither offend nor arouse anyone's palate.
Well, mission accomplished.
The McAlister's menu is dominated by categories covering hot, classic, grilled and club sandwiches, or salads running the gamut from Southwest Cobb to Savannah chopped.
On this unseasonably chilly late-September evening, I couldn't resist starting out with cups of its potato soup and traditional chili ($3.29 each). The soup had a pleasing creaminess to it, punctuated by chunks of potato and accented by the always welcome combo of chives and bacon. The chili was uncommonly hearty, with each spoonful gathering hunks of beef in a lusty sauce.
My decade spent in Manhattan has cursed me with a quest for the perfect Reuben sandwich ($6.99) beyond the Big Apple. McAlister's made a game effort, with its generous ratio of corned beef to sauerkraut, but the Thousand Island dressing was noticeably AWOL.
The four-cheese griller ($6.69), essentially a grilled cheese sandwich on steroids, did spark nostalgic memories of the same soul-warming 'wich of my youth. And while I appreciated the oozing amalgam of cheese, it was impossible to discern the individual qualities of the brie, Swiss, sharp cheddar and Parmesan.
The McAlister's club ($6.99) was so stacked with smoked turkey and Black Forest ham, bacon, sharp cheddar and Swiss cheeses, and lettuce and tomato, that a python's jaw was required to take in the entire creation. All the ingredients worked nicely, though they were betrayed -- as were all the other sandwiches sampled -- by a lackluster job of toasting the bread. The entire affair sagged when it should have snapped.
A saving grace for one of the sandwiches was a perky coleslaw, liberated from its normally mayo-heavy dressing.
The less said about the Spud Max ($6.99) the better. A tugboat-size baked potato was bursting with a combination of ham, smoked turkey, applewood smoked bacon, green onions, cheddar-jack cheese and black olives. Only the black olives emerged intact from that food fight of generally dry ingredients.
Lifting me from my spud stupor was the extremely courteous service staff, with their prompt, ever-smiling delivery of my food and their constant tending to my glass of sweet tea.
Thanks to a wedge of "colossal" carrot cake ($4), my meal lurched to a sugar-high finale. The multilayered confection was perfectly moist, with just the right touch of tart and sweet to the white icing.
Equally enjoyable was the magic brownie bar ($2), sprinkled with nuts and coconut shavings.
The bar arrived in its own plastic wrapper, with the McAlister's logo prominently stamped on it -- one final reminder that I was dining in a faultlessly hygienic, regional franchise operation where the food is unremarkable yet affordably priced, fuel delivered with a smile.