Left Holding a Bag

WHAT I'M THINKING If shopping is the one religion we Long Islanders all share, then December must be Holy Month. The Internet is a decent alternative for the mall-phobic among us, but sooner or later, you're going to find yourself in one. My wife makes things easy for me. She finds what she wants in a catalog from Bloomingdale's or Fortunoff, circles the items, folds down a corner of the page and points me in the direction of the mall. This way, when I get to the store I don't even have to speak. I can just find a clerk, point to the item in the catalog and grunt.

CASING THE JOINT The Cheesecake Factory is about as nice an eating establishment as you will come across wandering through a mall. It's an oasis, far from the maddening crowd. Whether you access the place from the outside or from inside the mall, once there—except for the fact that everyone is lugging shopping bags—you may forget you're surrounded by Old Navy and Virgin. Beepers that vibrate three times when your table is ready are handed out by the hostesses. When things are really busy, which is almost always, there is a waiting list for the beepers, essentially a waiting list for the waiting list. Decorated in a style best described as Aztec-deco, the place's tinted sconces throw off a calming light, offering a contrast to the harsh glow of the surrounding stores. Even when packed with more than 300 diners on two levels, the acoustics allow for conversation.

WHAT WE EAT The menu is a 36-page volume, complete with full-page ads. I considered waiting for the movie version or at least the Cliffs Notes. There are more than 130 pastas, pizzas, appetizers, salads and sandwiches, seafood, burgers and steaks and other entrees from which to choose. This is American food in large American portions, half of which are lugged home in doggie bags that a dog will never see. (Maybe we should be truthful and rename them "piggy bags.")Half the shoppers in the mall are carrying bags of half-eaten food from the Cheesecake Factory.

An appetizer called Roadside Sliders ($5.95) is four mini-burgers with grilled onion and pickles. Larger than White Castle "Murder Burgers," they're the proverbial meal-in-itself. French fried onion strings ($5.95) are a foot-high pile that come with a yogurt dipping sauce. We attacked it with forks and hands but two of us couldn't make a dent. Sheila's Favorite blackened chicken pasta ($13.95) comes with two different types of linguini and isn't too spicy. Baja fish tacos ($13.50) come as soft tortillas filled with an unknown fish and a spicy salsa and chili cream sauce. Either the salsa or the cream sauce packed a wallop on the night we were there. I learned from the Coke ad opposite page 15 that refills are free.

HEARSAY Our waitress, Shelli, told us that things were a little more chaotic than usual in her section because "there's going to be a wedding proposal." We figured out which couple it was, two tables down from us, and proceeded to monitor the situation as best we could. We knew immediately from the prospective groom's body language that things had gone awry with the "wedding proposal" when he stood up and put his hands in the "what more can I do" plea position. The couple left, him without an answer, her with an embarrassed look. Each of them carried leftovers, of course.

VEGETARIAN ALERT There's plenty here besides salads and pastas, even for cheesecake-disdaining vegans: fire-roasted fresh artichokes ($6.95) in spicy vinaigrette; avocado eggrolls ($7.50), roasted quesedillas ($7.95) without the smoked gouda. Asian vegetable stir-fry ($10.95) comes with a special sauce over rice or noodles. The "Incredible Grilled Eggplant Sandwich" ($8.95) can be ordered minus the mozzarella.

CAVITY PATROL There are 35 varieties of cheesecake ($5.50-6.95) made in the bakery at the restaurant. I chose the white chocolate chunk macadamia nut and my friend got the fresh strawberry. Both were definitive and very satisfying, featuring very light and creamy cheese. There are other desserts, too, but who cares?  

DAMAGE Be warned: Because you must have some cheesecake here at the factory, if you go the distance with an appetizer and an entrée, you'll probably be carrying a piggy bag on your way home. So split an appetizer with your date, have your entrée and get away for a little under $25—and maybe next time she'll say yes.

 
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