The waitress at Topsham’s Fairground Cafe had such very nice things to say about the mini chicken tacos that I said yes to the restaurant’s sampler plate of appetizers ($10.99), featuring said tacos, french fries, onion rings, chicken tenders and mozzarella sticks, before she’d finished her spiel.
I should have waited. “They’re so good I started buying them to make at home,” she added.
Buying them? Does this restaurant, which I’ve heard described from multiple people as a good, down home kind of joint that just happens to be located in the far-from-beautiful Topsham Fair Mall, sell its food in some packaged way to be cooked or reheated at home? Or was I about to get a reheated item that arrived at the restaurant prepackaged in a bag?
The latter I fear. I did two dumb things after she brightly told me the brand she buys, which she said were just like the brand used by the Fairground Cafe. These were two dumb things that are common mistakes at restaurants, and I should (and I’m guessing some of you suffer from this syndrome as well) know better.
I’m an assertive person in general. Of course I should have said, “On second thought, I don’t think that sounds up my alley,” and switched my order. Or skipped the preamble. When you’re out to eat, you should never behave as if you’re being polite at a dinner party hosted by a prospective employer or in-laws. By all means, be polite to your waiter or waitress (this one in particular was competent and friendly and deserved nothing less). But if something sounds unappealing to you, move on to an alternative choice.
But partly out of this foolish politeness and partly on the grounds that I was trying to get a representative sample of the food at this good-sized but atmospherically cozy place (a booth for everyone!), I stuck with the appetizer plate. I also ordered a half of a tuna sandwich and a cup of haddock chowder. The chowder was well loved by customers, the waitress told me.
Also ordered by my companions, one of whom is 10, a full order of utterly duplicative chicken tenders and fries – duplicative because the Fairgrounds Sampler was enormous and contained both these items in abundance – and a bowl of chicken, vegetable and rice soup.
Everything was bland, although the chicken tenders were also unpleasant. The fries were fine, the onion rings adequate, but the vaunted mini tacos contained no lettuce, no greens, no discernible salsa, in short, nothing but a gummy smear of meat and beans and maybe cheese. They were in the shape of a half crescent, which means they have a relationship to an actual taco in much the same way that a nacho cheese Dorito is related to a tortilla chip.
The chowder was thick and flavorless, although the fish was plentiful and had decent texture. Every sauce for the fried bonanza was out of a package: barbecue, ranch, marinara and salsa (these last two caused disagreement at the table as to which was which, but ultimately, it didn’t matter, a statement in and of itself).
When I go out to eat, I do not want to feel as if I’m sitting at a table surrounded by the contents of someone’s refrigerator door. Or sitting on an airplane being forced to eat out of packets.
I am sure the Fairground Cafe will have defenders who say it is a good value. By example: A friend who lives on a fixed income was pleased with the Thanksgiving dinner he shared there with friends. Another friend reported having a perfect BLT there recently. I know other people who are fond of it, and I hope they continue to enjoy the value they find in it.
Certainly for our $38 tab (including apple juice and two coffees) we could have fed a couple more 10-year-olds with a penchant for fried food. And then listened to them bellyache about their bellyaches. I’d argue that this is a good value if you place more of a premium on quantity than quality.
Speaking of, that other dumb thing I did? Ate way too much of that Fairgrounds Sampler.
WHERE: 49 Topsham Fair Mall Road, Topsham; 207-729-5366; no website
HOURS: 5:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday; 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; 5:30 a.m. to 9 pm Friday and Saturday.
WAIT: Surprisingly negligible on a weekend afternoon.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes