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Ready for ribs Tony Roma's has ribs down, needs work on sides

The Western New York outpost of a national chain, Tony Roma's is a spacious place. With a large dining room, a separate bar room and a great big entrance lobby, it can accommodate a lot of diners -- though it was hardly full on either of our visits.

The seating in the dining room, mostly in booths, is comfortable, with the welcome a tad on the impersonal side. But the two of us, who aren't crazy about chains for the most part -- we might as well put the truth up front -- have had pleasant, though hardly dazzling, experiences.

The menu will shout that the place specializes in ribs, seafood and steaks, but it's the ribs that matter here. Most people think of them immediately when the restaurant's name is mentioned. That's why we ordered the Original Baby Back Ribs, which come with a choice of sauce for $15.99 (a full rack is available for $18.49), and we liked them just fine.

The ribs, ordered with the Original Sauce, were on the sweet side rather than hot, were tender and served fairly dry. Diners can apply more sauce from the bottles on the table if they like them drippy.

These sauces vary in flavor. There's smoky, hot (but not that hot) and Carolina (with honey chipotle).

We also ordered another house specialty -- they are marked with a cute little logo on the menu so you know just what way to go. This one, the BBQ half chicken ($9.99), had been basted in that same Original Sauce and cooked nicely.

Two sides needed work though, I'm sorry to say. The Roma Tomato Pesto Salad was totally without taste, and the Toasted Garlic-Seared Green Beans were a total loss. They were green all right, very green, but I could not detect garlic flavor at all. And they were not even cooked to an al dente stage.

I call 'em chewy and rubbery.

But I digress. Two more conventional side dishes were perfectly acceptable. That would be the cole slaw and the french fried potatoes.

Tony Roma's has also earned a big reputation for its fried Onion Loaf ($4.99). It's served as an appetizer and, if I'm not mistaken, is the dish that other restaurants have been copying forever.

The TR Onion Loaf, however, is one of a kind. It's huge for one thing; it's a Jack Horner-sized tangled cake that must measure at least 5 inches in height. And eaten at its prime (which means the very nanosecond it's placed on the table; do not delay) it is a wondrous thing.

Crisp, oniony, addictive, this is junk food par excellence. You don't even have to dip the onion strings into the accompanying barbecue sauce unless you really want to.

Another starter was pretty good, too, though hardly in the same class. Baked Potato Soup ($2.49) is really a semi-liquefied spud. Served in a deep cup with a few hunks of potato still afloat, some grated cheddar, some (tough) bacon and chives, it's a hearty brew.

You should also know that steaks, chicken, seafood and burgers also occupy a good part of the Tony Roma's menu.

Desserts are readily available as well. Notably the Skillet Brownie Sundae ($4.99), an enormous construction of ice cream, fudge, whipped topping and crushed Oreos that is too sweet by half.

So we recommend the surprisingly tasty Apple Crisp a la Mode. Made from apples with character, not too much cinnamon for once and a crumb topping, it is a surprising winner.

e-mail: jokun@buffnews.com

2.5 stars (out of 4)

TONY ROMA'S

WHERE: 4200 Ridge Lea Road, Amherst (332-7073). Western New York outpost of a national chain claims it specializes in ribs, seafood and steak, but it's really the ribs that matter. Credit Cards: American Express, Mastercard, Visa.

FAVORITE DISH: Onion Loaf

NEEDS WORK: Toasted Garlic-Seared Green Beans

PRICE RANGE: Ribs with cole slaw and potato from around $12 up. Other entrees are similar.

SERVICE: Good

NOISE LEVEL: Moderate

HOURS: Lunch and dinner, seven days. Monday through Thursday to 10 p.m. Friday, Saturday until 11 p.m.

HEALTHY CHOICES: Roasted Garlic and Rosemary Chicken, BBQ Salmon

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

PARKING: In the lot.

KID APPEAL: Pretty high

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