1 Walden Galleria, Cheektowaga, NY 14225
Web: The Cheesecake Factory
Rating: [learn more]
One of the best national chain restaurants now has a strong presence here, serving generally good to great entrees and some of the world's very best cheesecakes. Excellent menu, typically good service.
Occasional hiccups in service and issues with individual menu items can take away from otherwise great dining experiences.
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American Chains Cheektowaga Desserts Salads
"To us, these two items are the Factory's yin and yang, each serving its purpose, but there are so many options that you could visit every day for a month and not exhaust them."
Everything you need to know about The Cheesecake Factory can be summed up in a single sentence: the desserts are memorably outstanding, but you could skip them and still have an excellent meal. If you've been reading Buffalo Chow for any length of time, you know how seldom we use the words "outstanding" and "excellent," particularly in conjunction with a restaurant chain; it's a tribute to this business that after 30 years in operation, it's still untainted - a place where you can eat without fear of really bad service, really bad food, or a menu that has too few options. Across perhaps 50 meals at Cheesecake, five or more at the new Walden Galleria location, we've become very familiar with the chain's ins and outs, so we're sharing them here today.
The Story: Nearly forty years ago, The Cheesecake Factory started as a tiny Los Angeles-based cake shop, expanding several years later to service customers all throughout California, then in 1978 becoming the heart of a full-service restaurant in Beverly Hills. Thirty years later, that restaurant's founder - son of the original cook and her husband - remains CEO and Chairman of The Cheesecake Factory, Inc., now a publicly traded corporation that was the first to reach a billion dollars in revenue with under 100 operating locations; it also ships some, not all, of the company's 40 different cheesecakes via FedEx to locations in the United States. A more recent 13-location subsidiary of Cheesecake, called Grand Lux Cafe, operates in a handful of locations - notably including within Las Vegas's Venetian hotel - and serves one of the very best Caesar Salads we've ever had.
It would take the average person one, perhaps two visits to figure out why The Cheesecake Factory's restaurants have been so financially successful - some individual locations do over $200,000 in business every week. While the menu's prices are a little on the high side, and the average guest check is roughly $17.50, we'd say that the overall dining experience is a step above virtually any chain competitor out there. The decor is always attractive, the portions are generous, the dessert options are staggering, and there's a very extensive bar at each location. Anyone can afford to eat something at a Cheesecake Factory location, but between the opportunities to sip flavored lemonades with free refills, enjoy superb appetizers, eat huge entree plates and then end with a piece of the famous cheesecake, it's highly likely that you'll either leave stuffed or walk out with something to take home.
Highs: The single best thing about a Cheesecake Factory meal is the dessert, but it's a lot of fun getting to that point, so we'll start elsewhere. We're huge fans of the Thai Lettuce Wraps ($12), which are served better here than at any other restaurant we've visited - huge chunks of peanut-glazed chicken, sliced cucumber, cilantro, bean sprouts, noodles and carrots meant to be mixed in your preferred proportions, wrapped in lettuce leaves, and eaten with your choice of three light sauces. Cheesecake's rendition of this dish embarrasses lesser versions at places such as Chili's, which has used lower-quality ingredients and offered a smaller portion size - these wraps easily feed two as an appetizer and could serve as a full entree for one.
Another throwaway item at some restaurants, the complimentary loaves of pre-appetizer bread, is similarly better here than at any chain restaurant we have visited. While the sourdough bread is good, the dark whole wheat bread is superb, especially with the slightly sweet butter offered by the restaurant in little packets that are best opened when a little warm. It's possible to skip the appetizers altogether in favor of eating this bread, though we haven't yet been able to bring ourselves to do so; we love the appetizers too much.
Entrees are almost uniformly excellent. In addition to salads - we love the huge, filling Chinese Chicken Salad ($13), served with a sweet plum dressing atop lettuce, scallions, almonds, crispy wontons and rice noodles, bean sprouts, orange slices and sesame seeds - there are pages of options that constitute a "best of" list from a dozen or more cuisines. The seafood menu alone stretches from Cajun Jambalaya Pasta to Mexican Fish Tacos, Thai Chicken and Shrimp, and Jamaican Black Pepper Shrimp within its first four choices, adding American, Italian, and Japanese choices thereafter; everything from hamburgers to burritos to steaks, ribs, and meatloaf, U.K. items such as fish and chips or Shepherd's Pie, pasta, pizzas, and sandwiches can also be had here. It's impossible not to find something, and most likely multiple things, that you'll want and then actually enjoy when delivered.
We were concerned when one of our long-standing favorites, the Crispy Spicy Beef ($15), was initially lacking at the Galleria location of Cheesecake - we know from experiences in California that there's some small challenge in preparing this Asian-styled sliced, fried steak dish, completed with a spicy but sweet soy-based brown sauce, green beans, Shiitake mushrooms, onions, and carrots. But the Galleria location now produces it perfectly, and we always substitute the typically included rice for a handful of deliciously sweet fried plantains, a more satisfying if less stark contrast with the flavors of the dish.
Finally, we'll say a few words about the desserts. Put aside the massive Black-Out Cake, which resembles the five-story Chocolate Motherlode Cake of the cowboy-themed chain Claim Jumper. Try to ignore the Carrot Cake, which is almost as tall and certainly has some modestly healthier appeal. Just go straight to the flavored cheesecakes. They're awesome. So awesome that they can convert formerly anti-cheesecake people, including us, into worshippers at the Cheesecake altar. There's nothing else quite like these on the planet.
The secret is, in some cases, a dual-layer creation that places one flavor - say, the vanilla in the sublime, transformative Vanilla Bean Cheesecake ($6.75) - on top of a second layer of cheesecake, removing the heaviness of the classic sweetened cream cheese formula in favor of something lighter. In other cases, such as the Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake ($7), made with chocolate cake, mousse, and chocolate cheesecake, the combination of layers is nearly indistinct, successfully and profoundly blending elements that normally would not in any way excite us into a chewy, mouth-filling melange of cocoa flavor and weight. To us, these two items are the Factory's cheesecake yin and yang, each available to serve its chosen purpose, but there are so many other good options - Snickers Bar, Key Lime, Dulce De Leche Caramel - that you could visit every day for a month and not exhaust them. We'd pass on the original version, which people for some reason order in an effort to directly compare with their favorite cheesecakes elsewhere; in our view, if you're going to have cheesecake here, try one of the 30-some choices no one else sells. You'll be glad you did.
Lows: Though the vast majority of our meals at The Cheesecake Factory have been great, there have been issues here and there - including at our most recent meal. A Spicy Chicken Salad ($13), comprised of grilled chicken, peppers, corn, cilantro, black beans, onions, and rice on one side, mixed greens on the other, had some of the only unimpressive chicken we've eaten at this place, dry, flavorless, and rubbery; the included spicy vinaigrette helped the flavor, but we found the dish oddly imbalanced.
Similarly, the aforementioned Chinese Chicken Salad, always served with an eye-catching pile of crispy white rice noodles on its top, arrived a couple of visits ago without them; the server noted that they'd fallen off on the way over from the kitchen. "You probably didn't want them anyway," the server said, before being corrected - we then waited 10 minutes for the replacements to arrive. While Cheesecake's servers are generally well-dressed, friendly, and attentive, little presumptuous comments and oversights like this do happen, as do food quality screw-ups like errors in preparation of the Crispy Spicy Beef, and they sometimes require manager correction. Thankfully, The Cheesecake Factory's managers tend to proactively take care of their customers, and we've never hesitated to return after a small issue here or there.
The Verdict: We've watched many of our past favorite chains deteriorate over the years as short-sighted decisions over profitability and food quality have compromised our long-term patronage, and ultimately the viability of the restaurants themselves. In the years that we patronized The Cheesecake Factory outside of Western New York, we were always amazed at both the length of the waiting lines and the quality of the meals that we enjoyed after enduring them; consequently, it's our hope and belief that this business will avoid the same fate that its many predecessors have suffered from. Chain restaurant or not, this is most certainly one of the very best places you can go to have lunch or dinner in this area, and we'd highly recommend it to literally any type of diner. If you're nearby and don't have the need for a full meal, do yourself a favor: grab a slice of cheesecake to take home, and try your best to sample something different the next time. No matter how much we try to experiment with new items here, we keep coming back again and again to the amazing ones we've had before.