2/8Photograph: Martha WilliamsSeafood medley at Ill Forks
3/8Photograph: Colin BeckettCantina Laredo
4/8Photograph: Martha WilliamsWedge salad at Ill Forks
5/8Photograph: Colin BeckettCantina Laredo
6/8Photograph: Martha WilliamsChicken-fried prime rib at Ill Forks
7/8Photograph: Colin BeckettCantina Laredo
8/8Photograph: Colin BeckettCantina Laredo
By Julia Kramer|
True to its Orwellian-sounding name, Consolidated Restaurant Operations Inc. is a Texas-based corporation that operates more than 100 restaurants in the United States, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Of those, more than 30 are Cantina Laredos and seven are III Forks steakhouses, each of which recently opened a Chicago location. The two-story behemoth that is Cantina Laredo takes up a good chunk of a city block near the finally-not-under-construction Grand Red Line stop, while a few blocks to the east, III Forks anchors “Village Market,” a 105,000-square-foot complex in Lakeshore East whose grand scale and futuristic aesthetic are like a cross between NYC’s Battery Park City and Shanghai. Each of these restaurants seats hundreds of people, a good portion of them in large, busy bar areas.
But lest you confuse Cantina Laredo with, say, Chili’s, or III Forks with, perhaps, Outback Steakhouse, let’s be clear that these places do not look like your average chain restaurants. Money has been poured into these shiny buildings, lavished in particular on III Forks’ sprawling rooftop deck—outfitted with open fire pits and lounge seating—which is as chic as any you’ll find in this city. And as for the “flair,” the servers here don’t need it: The talkative host at III Forks was a little kooky, but she has more personality than most chain restaurants combined. And there’s one more thing that sets these two restaurants apart from most chains: They are not cheap.
This is easier to stomach at the steakhouse—a genre of restaurant in which paying loads of money for a piece of salted meat is considered a privilege—than the Tex-Mex cantina. At Laredo, you’ll pay $18.99 for two tamales filled with dry brisket, $13.99 for an order of tacos filled with fishy-tasting mahi-mahi. And you’ll also pay for the experience of having certain things made “tableside.” One of those things—Top Shelf Guacamole—is pretty much your standard guac: I’m still trying to figure out what I should have gotten out of watching someone mortar-and-pestle it together. Another of those things is “Mexican apple pie.” I am the kind of person who sees “prepared tableside” next to “apple pie” and immediately needs to experience it, but unfortunately, my imagination of what this would be like was far more exciting than the reality: a server placing a slice of pie onto a cast-iron dish, then pouring brandy-butter sauce into it and transferring an already-scooped scoop of ice cream onto the plate.
So I’m confident in saying it’s for the best that nothing (as far I know) at III Forks is prepared tableside. But still, like Cantina Laredo, the food at the steakhouse hasn’t gotten anywhere near the attention given to the build-out. The server recommended the “seafood medley” to start: The two giant shrimp were tough, the crab cake was unappetizingly wet, and though it was redeemed by its bacon wrapper, the small scallop was overcooked. Desserts—a multilayered chocolate cake and a bread pudding soaked in Maker’s Mark—were satisfying but were also very squarely within the corporate-chain-restaurant dessert mold.
Fortunately, no one who comes to a steakhouse cares about any of this. Can III Forks make a decent Manhattan? Yes. Will III Forks cook every identifiable bit of my steak—a 16-ounce USDA Prime New York Strip—to a perfect medium-rare? There is no messing around in that department. The steak had a nice crust, peppered like mad, and the meat was tender with good—if not great—flavor. If this is what you care about, go to III Forks.
It’s going to be you, the thousands of condo dwellers who finally have a neighborhood restaurant to call their own and one other very niche subsection of society: the chicken fried–steak lover. I plant myself very seriously in this last camp, which is why I’d like to thank III Forks—or rather, the Texan Overlords at Consolidated Restaurant Operations Inc.—for introducing me to chicken-fried prime rib, three slabs of rich beef coated in a (again) heavily peppered breading, fried as you would chicken and oh-so-wonderfully ladled with gravy. I thought I was being delicate leaving a piece behind on my plate; my companion likened the event to a scene from Woman v. Food.