Dining Review: Chuck’s has upped its game with robust flavors

Bernie Whitmore

The drive to Auburn for dinner at Chuck’s Steak House had me less than tremulous with excitement. Memories of dining there, albeit years ago, had become a bit distant but remained colored by the low expectations with which I learned to approach dining in the decades marked by “exciting salad bar” ‑ an experience marked by lots of filler that dulled one’s sense of taste before drinks and, ultimately, the entrée course.

Upon arrival, it was of little comfort to enter Chuck’s through heavy, gray, metal fire doors. Is this the service entrance? Did we somehow miss the front door? Maybe not; there’s a group of huddled smokers gathered round out in the pouring rain.

But lo, after passing through that fortress, here’s the cheerful host ready to greet us and lead us to a table.

The layout at Chuck’s is bisected into several dining areas, a lounge and the salad bar room. We were led into a small nook off the main entrance. It’s the kind of “cozy” space that makes you hope you’ll get along with the people at adjacent tables because this degree of intimacy assures involvement in cross-conversation. Happily, our neighbors this evening were low-talking coworkers engaged in the day’s office intrigue and email exchanges.

Our dining chamber was sheathed with rough-hewn planking hung with old photographs and broken up by a wall that was cloaked with a wide black curtain; a shaft of light from a mysterious service area behind it spilled onto the low ceiling that otherwise featured a huge circular vent.

Lynn, our server, started out with the standard intro, “Have you been to Chuck’s?” Then she stopped short after recognizing us from another restaurant years ago. We’d always appreciated her friendly efficiency, and I was happy to see her again.
Guaranteed good service: Chalk one up for Chuck’s.

And, with a glass of Wormtown Brewery’s Be Hoppier, flavor began to assert itself. What was I thinking ­­­- that Chuck’s was still pouring wimpy weak-kneed brews? This was another pleasant surprise.

Scanning through the appetizer list, my friend settled upon the Onion Strings. Though I’d been leaning toward Bang Bang Shrimp or “Incredible” Seafood Cakes, I acquiesced. Great choice! Onion slices, separated into rings, were fresh and coated with what tasted like a zesty buttermilk batter fried light golden brown.

Excitement asserted itself in the unlikeliest place; our bowl of rings came with a cup of Rémoulade sauce, something I’ve learned to tolerate and mostly ignore at just about any dining venue. Chuck’s chef was spot-on with this sauce, though. It was tasty and creamy and a touch fiery; its flavor was straight from Louisiana. I loved it in combination with the salt of the rings.

Flavor surprise No. 2: my friend’s Caesar Salad. No stodgy, thick dressing from some dreary bottle; this was an authentic-tasting, first-rate Caesar dressing with the complex combination of flavors derived by following the classic recipe.

His New York Strip Steak was another pleasure ‑ flavorful and juicy. The piece I sampled proved that the attractive grill marks it sported were more than decorative – the deep char flavor was very satisfying. The steak came with a large baked potato and was garnished with two string beans, a rather odd flourish.

There was a time when Chuck’s Steak House’s range of cuisine might have been regarded as “uninspired.” But this menu contained some surprises, prime among them my entrée selection: Chicken and Waffles. Yes, this is a somewhat cultish item, but I was glad to find it offered, and it was an unanticipated alternative to steak.

Chuck’s Chicken and Waffles was an engineering triumph whose base layer was, unsurprisingly, a large Belgian waffle sitting in a pool of sweet maple cream sauce. Piled over it was a tall mound of sweet-potato fries, steaming hot and, I hope, a nutritious supplement to the waffle. Crowning all this, though, were two huge chicken cutlets, pounded thin, thickly coated with panko crumbs and sautéed a deep, puffy brown. The entire mound was drizzled with more of that maple cream sauce.

I was immediately enveloped in a haze of maple fragrance that clung to me in a strangely cloying manner. It was a dish I found easiest to attack from the side and whose sweetness was perfectly mitigated by the bitterness of my glass of Be Hoppier.

In short, it was everything I hoped for in Chicken and Waffles and so huge that Lynn boxed up more than half of it for me to take home.

It’s funny how a good meal can put everything in order. In the years since I last dined there, Chuck’s Steak House has not stood still; it has a chef who’s no stranger to robust flavors and interesting recipes.

And, yes, it still has its acclaimed salad bar.

Chuck’s Steak House • 10 Prospect Street, Route 20, Auburn • (508) 832-2553 • chucks.com