Old Chicago gives its "talent" the authority to serve.

Pizza Power 

Old Chicago gives its "talent" the authority to serve.

Here's a revealing phenomenon: Johnson County attracts most of the city's corporate-owned "fantasy" restaurants. People who live in this mecca of shopping malls, fast-food outlets and cookie-cutter housing developments seem especially willing to suspend disbelief when it comes to dinner. Who cares if the food at the Rainforest Café is no more exotic than the menu at Houlihan's right across the street -- you're eating those fried chicken strips in a jungle, surrounded by chattering animals. In a tropical storm!

Ditto for the neighboring "Mongolian" barbecue (would Genghis Khan have recognized cream-of-broccoli soup or Piña Colada Pie?) and the "Australian-style" meat at the Outback Steakhouse. Go ahead and pretend you're in Byron Bay as you nibble on that deep-fried Bloomin' Onion, but the view is only as romantic as the Oak Park Mall parking lot.

That's why I wasn't surprised by an announcement for a new corporate "ethnic" restaurant -- a "French/New Orleans-Style bistro" opening in August. This will be in Johnson County, I thought, scanning the gushing press release heralding the arrival of California-based Mimi's Café and its "no-nonsense, inexpensive, soul-satisfying comfort foods." Guess what: It'll be right smack in Oak Park Mall, barely a beignet's toss from the Outback. Servez-vous chicken pot pie? Oh, oui, oui, we do.

So it would be easy to dismiss another corporate restaurant in the same neighborhood, Old Chicago Pasta & Pizza, as another imported imposter. After all, what does the Kansas City installment of a Louisville, Kentucky-based chain that grew out of a pizzeria in Boulder, Colorado, have to do with Chicago? At least the Pizzeria Uno on the Plaza was inspired by a real Windy City joint, the place where Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo invented deep-dish pizza in 1943. But Lenexa's Old Chicago makes up for its lack of authentic cultural connections in dozens of other ways. Who would have thought this lowbrow sports bar -- which doesn't even have a location in Chicago -- would be a destination for good food and terrific service?

I expected to hate it as soon as I walked in. Simply opening the front door forced me to grab a handle carved like a Louisville Slugger. The view from our booth consisted of three different TV monitors, all tuned to different sports stations. Otherwise the décor was nonexistent -- the place could pass for any other suburban sports bar, even if it does serve 110 kinds of beer (the locally brewed Boulevard is the most popular) and bake its own cheesecake.

Still, it did provide cloth napkins. And the servers -- most of them barely old enough to remember when the Royals went to the World Series -- were smart, funny, savvy and accommodating. You want to combine a couple of things from the menu? Change an ingredient? They don't fumble around and drag over flustered managers; they take care of it. Old Chicago's promotional materials refer to the company's employees as "talent." They are.

"Our staff is empowered to fix things," says Steph Steil, the chain's director of marketing. "We're about building relationships between our staff and customers."

At one meal, our young waiter acted as if he owned the place. "I know the menu says there are three different versions of chicken wings," he said. "But if you want to try all three on one order, we'll make it happen."

He did, practically leaping back to the table with a plate of, well, not wings specifically, but an assortment of red "drumettes," some of them soaked in a fiery chili sauce ("The Volcano"), others rubbed with a tepid Jamaican jerk, the best glistening with a vinegary, Buffalo-style tomato glaze. I was with my friends Bob and Lou Jane, and we made quick work of that appetizer so we could tackle the restaurant's more offbeat starter: six Sicilian pepperoni rolls. For these homey creations, Old Chicago wraps yeasty dough around melted Mozzarella, papery slivers of pepperoni and bits of green onion swimming in ranch dressing. If the recipe didn't actually come off a box of Bisquick, it should have.

Salads, on the other hand, were standard-issue. A Caesar came drenched in dressing and dusted with freshly grated Parmesan, while the house was a tidy composition of jumbled greens, two cucumber slices, a smattering of julienned carrots and the kind of croutons that always look as if they'll be crunchy and buttery but aren't.

Diners who are content with all the old standbys can order Old Chicago's deep-dish, thin crust or stuffed pizzas topped with any of the usual ingredients. But the corporate kitchens have also come up with a fattening Alfredo variation made with roasted chicken and a lush cream sauce, and the Taos is a Southwestern-influenced number with green chilies, spicy bean sauce and far too much cilantro. There's also the Chicago Seven -- which refers to the number of ingredients, not the radical Yippies who went to trial for conspiring to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention (not that any of the servers would know who they were). Being culinary activists, we leaned left and picked the deep-dish version. With Hormel pepperoni (the menu includes the meat company's trademark on every reference) and a slew of veggies, though, there was nothing particularly radical about what arrived steaming in a metal pie pan, gooey with melted cheese on a thick, soft crust.

A more revolutionary dish was a plate of linguini in a long-simmered homemade marinara sauce, generously sprinkled with chopped fresh basil and laden with three moist, thick, delicately seasoned meatballs. But Old Chicago is a sports bar, not an Italian restaurant, so hamburgers and sandwiches must hold their own, too. A half-pound burger dripping with hickory-smoked bacon and melted cheddar was cholesterol city, but dieters can order it with a side of raw vegetables rather than fries (not that I considered doing so). On another visit, I was thrilled by a sandwich of roasted chicken, onion, peppers and melted cheese on toasted crusty bread.

The restaurant's signature double-sized cheesecake takes two days to bake and is, I understand, luxuriously smooth, but none of us felt inspired to try the ubiquitous dessert. Besides, our new best friend, the engaging waiter Mike, insisted we try his favorite, the Kahlua hot-fudge brownie. It's hot all right: a warm, fudgy slab of brownie drizzled with a Kahlua-flavored sauce and a cloud of real whipped cream.

Who needs Chicago? No American city has a patent on pizza -- and that's a good thing for Johnson County, until it gets a cuisine of its own.


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