Every area of town has them — those cursed locations where, for no obvious reason, no business can stay afloat longer than six months. It’s like there some kind of invisible Cone of Doom surrounding them. Signs that would be bright and optimistic anywhere else look naïve and myopic at a cursed location.
So it was with a sinking feeling that we realized, just before we could see it, exactly where the new Chameleon Cafe was situated on Maumelle Boulevard. Just a bit past Counts Massie Road, on the north side, in a low building that’s housed Suburb-B-Q and three or four other restaurants in the past couple of years. We’d actually eaten at two of them, and while the food wasn’t anything to brag about at either one, we didn’t remember it being so bad that neighborhood folks with relatively few other options wouldn’t eat there often enough to keep them open.
Chameleon’s made a decent stab at the bright-and-optimistic thing. The walls inside are a bright aqua, and the tables sport white vinyl tablecloths. A recent newspaper ad included an offer to trade chameleon art for food, but we couldn’t see that they’d gotten many takers yet.
Chameleon Cafe is the kind of place where your expectations will make an enormous difference in your opinion of the food. Is the meal the centerpiece of the evening, a prelude to other things, or just something you’re doing other than throwing a frozen pizza in the oven?
The menu is all over the place — barbecue sandwiches, pasta entrees, steaks. You could spend anywhere from $5 to $19 for your main course. There’s a single TV in one corner that was playing an “Everybody Loves Raymond” rerun the night we went, but the wine list includes a surprising 10 or so choices.
Our group couldn’t resist the menu’s boast of “soon to be famous” queso, so we started with a bowl ($4.25). It was fine — of the thick, dark-orange variety, not the lightweight white kind so many places are serving these days. (Don’t talk to us about “authenticity,” either. It’s cheese dip.) The “soon to be famous” claim is a bit far-reaching, though. The tortilla chips were straight from a bag, but we didn’t mind.
For our main course selections, we went off in just about as many directions as the menu allowed.
We can’t resist a filet, especially when it’s on the company dime. Chameleon’s, called “The Leanest Lizard,” comes with the requisite salad and potato, which we ordered french fried.
The filet itself was, frankly, not worth the $17.95 it cost, no matter who was paying. It had so little flavor that we resorted to steak sauce, which we hadn’t done in years. The glass of Rosemount shiraz we had was OK, but not as flavorful and full-bodied as we’re used to in a shiraz.
One of our dining companions ordered the chicken and pasta alfredo ($12.95). The Cajun-spiced strips of grilled chicken had a decent flavor and weren’t tough, she said, and the pasta itself was not overcooked. But she wasn’t as happy with the alfredo sauce.
The third member of our party went with the barbecue pork sandwich ($4.95) and a side of baked beans. He finished the sandwich, but said it didn’t have enough sauce (there was more on the table, but he called it a fault nonetheless). We sampled the baked beans, and might have liked them the best of anything we’d eaten up to then.
For dessert, two of us shared a hot-fudge brownie sundae ($3.95) and the third ordered a slice of strawberry cheesecake. We’ve rarely, if ever, met a hot-fudge brownie sundae we didn’t like, and this one disappeared in predictable fashion. More of the cheesecake was left behind.
As we said earlier, lower expectations might have led us to feel better about our food. And if Chameleon can hold out at this gastronomic Bermuda Triangle longer than its predecessors, more power to them.
11901 Maumelle Blvd.
Stick with the low-dollar end of the menu for the best value.
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 7 p.m. Sunday.
Moderate prices. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine.
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