For the past several years I’ve had a recurring dream involving a circus tent, a bucket full of onions, a trained seal who is also my dead grandfather, and the dulcet tones of a calliope playing Judas Priest. Sadly my waking hours are not nearly as festive, and no matter how many onions I buy, I just can’t seem to create that magical circus experience for my conscious mind. So call it good fortune that a few weeks ago I received an email from TGI Fridays—a restaurant I have never eaten at once in my life—inviting me to try its new Under The Big Top menu, designed to deliver all the joy and merriment of the circus to my digestive system.
Though I was intrigued by the promises of frivolity, I am not yet comfortable with indoor dining, nor did I want my first restaurant experience in over a year to be at an outdoor circus tent in a TGI Fridays parking lot. But, just like every other player in the game, Fridays has pivoted to a takeout/delivery model and offered to fill my heart with a mixture of childlike wonder and beef grease while I sat comfortably at home, gently cradling my onion bucket. How could I say no?
Under the Big Top consists of six menu items that, like deep-fried plutonium, degrade exponentially with every passing minute. Such items have never been good candidates for home delivery, and I’m not exactly sure why TGI Fridays thought it was exempt from the laws of physics. I anticipated this problem and was thus prepared to resuscitate the food in my own kitchen the second it arrived. I urge anyone entering the Big Top to plan for this, because if you dig in straightaway, you will be disappointed in a way that thoroughly obliterates the sacred bond between man and circus.
The first thing I tried was the Oooey Gooey Mozz Stick Melter, which is a bunch of mozzarella sticks drenched in tomato sauce and three different types of melted cheese, slapped between two flimsy slices of bread, and garnished with two additional mozzarella sticks. My attempts to re-crisp this sandwich in a hot cast iron skillet were an exercise in futility, and I’m sad to report that it may be impossible to salvage this sandwich at home. By the time it arrived at my front door the bread had absorbed as much tomato sauce as it could handle, resulting in a soggy sandwich filled with wet breading and cold, congealed cheese. This likely wouldn’t be an issue if I had eaten the dish inside the TGI Fridays parking lot circus tent. On the plus side, the mozzarella stick garnish was delightful, and I hope we see more foods and cocktails garnished this way in the future.
I used my air fryer to heat up the Amazing Blazing Pound of Cheese Fries, which came topped with poblano queso, mixed cheese, bacon, pickled jalapeños, and scallions, with a cup of BBQ Ranch sauce on the side for dipping. This combination worked spectacularly, and it made me realize that while fried foods might not travel well, being able to eat a pound of loaded cheese fries within steps of both my bedroom and bathroom makes it worth the sacrifice in quality. If you order these for delivery and don’t yet have an air fryer, slide your fries onto a baking sheet and pop them into a 450-degree Fahrenheit oven until they’re crisped to your liking, then maybe stick them under the broiler for a minute or so to get that cheese all brown and bubbly.
Statistically, most foods become at least 60% more exciting if you put them on a stick; put two foods on a stick together, and you’ve now got yourself a 120% chance of a good time. Unfortunately TGI Fridays’ new Famous Whiskey-Glazed Skewer—three Whiskey-Glazed Cheeseburger Sliders and six Boneless Wings on one very long stick—flies in the face of statistics by being terrible. While the boneless wings aren’t altogether disappointing, no amount of kitchen wizardry on my part could save the three bone-dry sliders, and dousing them with the separately packed whiskey sauce only made things worse. Perhaps the cloyingly sweet sauce is enjoyable when lacquered onto ribs or chicken, but not on top of burgers reminiscent of those you’d find at a bowling alley snack bar during non-peak hours.
There were two sandwiches that, in grand over-the-top circusy tradition, eschew buns in favor of glazed doughnuts. The Whiskey-Glazed Donut Burger comes with cheddar, crispy fried onions, hickory-smoked bacon, and pickles. It is... something. I can’t decisively say that it’s good or bad, because it’s a burger made with doughnuts, and if I start accepting things like this as viable food, who knows what may become of me? What I can say is that most burgers I’ve had delivered from restaurants have been marred by buns that did not travel well, but when those buns are replaced by hot, greasy doughnuts that collapse in the grip of your hungry hands, well, you’re looking at an entirely new circus. For a moment, I pondered whether or not the sins of all delivery burgers could be wiped clean with glazed doughnut buns. The same can be said about the Flaming Donut Chicken Sandwich, which features a crispy fried chicken breast doused in Nashville Hot sauce topped with pickled jalapeños, Ranch dressing, and, for some ungodly reason, bacon. If it weren’t my job, I would be too proud to admit in public that I liked these sandwiches. I suppose privacy makes a good case for home delivery, too.
Finally, there were the Churros, which were utterly fantastic. Honestly, the churros were the only part of this menu I genuinely cared about, and if TGI Fridays had found a way to mess them up, I would not have been able to forgive the blunder. This was the only item that managed to stay crisp during the delivery process, and no reheating was necessary. The churros come with caramel and chocolate sauces for dipping, but I skipped them both in favor of my homemade chocolate syrup because it is so good and I expect to win a major award for it.
Though TGI Fridays’ Under the Big Top menu was a mixed bag, it did manage to bring some circus-quality excitement to my life. My husband stared at me double fisting doughnut sandwiches like I was a sideshow. My kids roared with laughter as I ambled around in tomato-sauce-saturated pants like some kind of clown. I played the role of lion tamer as my four cats threatened me with bodily harm in their pursuit of teeny, tiny cheeseburgers on sticks. It may not be the Cirque de Soleil of delivery options, but sometimes there’s fun to be had in a strip mall parking lot full of whiskey-glazed wonders.