Heaping helpings of comfort
By MARK NIXON
Safe and predictable are what some folks crave in a restaurant. Look no further than Finley’s Grill & Smokehouse, whose motto could be “Playing it safe, every day.”
Before we go any further, let me just spit it out: I have devolved into that lowliest of culinary creatures, the food snob. I can’t help it. I have been to the promised land on several occasions, feasting on food fit for the gods. Back on Earth, I must regularly reacquaint myself with the ordinary. It’s tough. As the song goes, “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”
Finley’s ain’t Paris — or even one of the better dining spots in Lansing. But Finley’s, a Michigan chain with two restaurants in Lansing, has a solid fan base, if online reviews are to be believed.
One of Finley’s most positive aspects is pricing. Its entrees are more modestly priced than most of the trendier places in Lansing. For instance, a full rack of ribs at Finley’s is $21.99. A full rack at Saddleback BBQ, arguably the best place for smoked meats in this town, is $26.
The single best thing I tasted during two visits — one visit to each Lansing location — was the mac and cheese at the South Lansing Finley’s. It came as a side with a three-meat barbecue combo ($16.99). The mac and cheese is lavishly made; it tasted buttery, creamy and cheesy all at once. I had the same side a week later at the west side location, but it was dry and less flavorful.
The three meats I chose were chicken wings, Texas brisket and pulled pork. Finley’s promises its meats are smoked 17 hours, yet the wings were nearly bereft of smokiness. Of the three, only the brisket held the bold smokiness I look for.
Finley’s accompanies each barbecue entrée with a six-pack of sauces, ranging from mild to thermonuclear (my term). That’s a nice touch, allowing customers to sample and indulge according to their own tastes.
Also on the plus side, the steak half of the steak and shrimp entree ($17.99) was done perfectly rare, the way Judy likes it. The shrimp half was a rubbery, uninspired dud.
Duddier still was the side of sweet potato fries. They looked and tasted as if they went straight from freezer to fryer.
On our visit to the west side Finley’s, I went for the half rack of baby back ribs ($15.98). I assumed they were smoked. Shame on me for not reading the menu carefully. There are smoked meats on the menu, but baby back ribs aren’t one of them. Instead, the ribs are slow-cooked. You can dab barbecue sauce on them if you want. The ribs were tender but lacked flavor. Meh.
Finley’s seems to fare better with its sides. The onion rings ($7.99) appear to be breaded with panko, those Japanese breadcrumbs that turn airy and light when fried. These onion rings are some of the best I’ve had in Lansing.
Another side, a simple baked sweet potato, was kissed with a dash of cinnamon. Very nice.
Somebody — many somebodies, actually — like Finley’s. That is clear. On a brutally cold January weeknight, the west side Finley’s was bustling with customers by 6 p.m. The service was friendly and attentive. The decor in both places is subdued, favoring dark wood and low lights.
While it’s fair to say Finley’s leans heavily on familiar comfort food, that isn’t an indictment. Adventurous dining is not for everyone. For those looking for a safe bet, Finley’s is just the ticket.
Kickin’ chicken, big burgers
By GABRIELLE JOHNSON LAWRENCE
I was as surprised as anyone to recently find myself sitting in Finley’s for dinner. But City Pulse duties called, so off to South Lansing we went. Mr. She Ate and I had invited a friend, a Naval intelligence officer who had come to visit from San Diego for Christmas.
Generally, I like an independent restaurant, something that’s one of a kind and has some of its own flavor — unless it is one of the three chains to which I swear my allegiance: Starbucks, Cracker Barrel, and Cheddar’s. Those places have proven themselves to me, and I know that I can always count on the Holiday Spice Flat White, Egg in a Hole, and croissants and Cookie Monsters (respectively) to knock my socks off.
To be fair, Finley’s is a Michigan-based mini-chain with just five locations. Still, it was with some trepidation that we ordered one of Finley’s signature items, the Woodpile ($8.99), as an appetizer. French fries were topped with a meager helping of pulled pork, chopped green onions and tomatoes and what the menu promised as a “five cheese blend.” It looked and tasted like straight up Velveeta, pale yellow, waxy and no flavor. The pork had a sweetly smoky flavor that tried to shine through, but the serving was so skimpy that we could barely taste it.
Mr. She Ate chose the pulled pork macaroni and cheese ($12.99) as his entrée. We liked the cavatappi (spiral shaped) noodles in place of traditional macaroni, but were again disappointed with the cheese quality.
Our friend had a three-meat BBQ combo ($16.99) with Texas brisket, smoked sausage and ribs. The brisket was a little fattier than we are used to — especially in comparison to the vast amount of lunches that we have enjoyed lately at REO Town’s Saddleback BBQ — but it was tender and had a deep, smoky flavor. “The sausage,” our friend sagely observed, “is sausage.” Naval intelligence, ladies and gents. The ribs were tough and coated in a sticky, too-sweet sauce.
I had a two-meat BBQ combo ($14.99) with the same smoky, flavorful brisket and the chicken. In the chicken, I found what is probably the best thing on the menu. No diabetes-inducing sauce, no cheeselike product, just moist and juicy smoked chicken that should be the first item mentioned by servers when they are asked for recommendations.
My baked beans were so saccharine that I could only manage one bite, and my steamed broccoli was so overcooked that I could mash it with a stern look. My companions liked the beer selection, especially the Tiramisu Stout from the local Ellison Brewery.
Round 2: Mr. She Ate bowed out, and I was accompanied by my dad, who is convinced that I am a food snob who only eats things like quinoa and organic edamame. “I wanted to play ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ when I got in the car,” he said, barely able to contain his glee over this dad joke. We headed to the west side Finley’s, across the street from Horrocks in a former TGI Friday’s —the site of weekly girlfriend gatherings during my high school days. The West Saginaw location is a far cry from South Cedar. It’s newer and better lit, and the joint was jumping when we arrived.
We started with potato skins ($6.99), the kind everyone has eaten a million times. If I had any special military training, I might tell you that the potato skins were potato skins. Instead, I’ll relay that they had more filling than usual, which made for a hearty appetizer, but they needed salt.
I asked our server about the house salad, and she expertly rattled off the ingredients: iceberg and romaine lettuces, cherry tomatoes, red onion, and croutons. No surprises here. Dad perused the menu and was pumped to see options that included gouda, one of his preferred cheeses. He chose the Drippy Brisket Burger ($11.99) which, despite its unappetizing name, turned out to be the winner of the evening. The fat, juicy patty was cooked to his desired medium and topped with layers of smoky brisket and gooey melted gouda. The bun was buttery and toasted. He loved the coleslaw too, which I didn’t realize is an actual thing that people can love. It’s creamy, he said, and not too vinegary. The housemade chips were thick, salty and not too dry, a perfect crunchy complement to his burger.
When Grandma She Ate learned that I was researching Finley’s this month, she jumped at the chance to give me her intel, advising me to try the Hawaiian chicken ($12.99). It was, in a word, brown. Brown rice topped with a browned chicken breast and a yellowish slice of grilled canned pineapple. A cup of brown sauce came on my plate, filled with something so syrupy sweet that a dip of the tines of my fork was all I could handle.
I love my grandma, but I didn’t love the Hawaiian chicken. It was dry and boring. I kept thinking about Horrocks across the street, how I would love to hop over and get some parsley to throw on the plate.
Maybe I am a food snob, but I just want chains and mini-chains to be a little better. Put fresh spinach in your side salad. Make your own croutons. If you insist on Hawaiian chicken, use fresh pineapple, not canned.
But then again, my dad returned for another burger three days later, so Finley’s is doing some things right.
Finley’s Grill & Smokehouse
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-
Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Friday-Saturday 7433 W. Saginaw Highway, Lansing (517) 323-4309 6300 S. Cedar St., Lansing (517) 882-7530 finleysamericangrill.com