Man, I love going out to eat. Sure, we really don’t have the money most months to hit restaurants every weekend or even a drive-thru after a rare report of a good week at preschool. But when we do hit our favorite casual dining spots, it makes my day exponentially better. With everything being so f*cking expensive anymore, though, I had to find ways to cut back even more when it came to dining out. One way I did this? Bringing restaurant food back home.
I’m not talking full dinners via carry-out (because that would obviously not be as economical as one needs to be in this economy). Instead, I just grab the thing I’m actually craving. For example, when I would offer up any number of sacrifices for a trip to The Old Spaghetti Factory, I swing by and pick up a pint of their famous Mizithra cheese. I can make my own noodles and brown butter… so it’s just as good at home and way, way less expensive.
So, there are certain restaurant foods we keep in our pantry. And they even manage to pass muster with my partner, who is a chef. Here are our go-tos, and a couple worth the trip for takeout when I’m hangry.
1. Mizithra Cheese (Old Spaghetti Factory)
I’ve only found one grocery store that (sometimes) carries Mizithra cheese, so this requires a trip to The Old Spaghetti Factory. But every few months, I swing by the restaurant and pick up a pint of Mizithra cheese. It’s a hard, dry cheese that doesn’t melt or get stringy on hot noodles coated in browned butter. The rich flavor feels fancy and special, even when I’m using a pink plastic fork to rake it into my mouth while watching the Bengals lose.
2. Brown Bread (The Cheesecake Factory)
At this point, I’m not even sure why The Cheesecake Factory offers their white bread — any time I’ve ever gone to TCF with friends or family, it’s a fight to get to the brown bread. Luckily for us all, they now carry Cheesecake Factory-branded loaves and rolls at most grocery stores. Last year, their brown bread even replaced our traditional yeast rolls at Thanksgiving.
3. Hummus (Taziki’s Mediterranean)
I’ve made hummus. I’ve also bought the various brands of hummus available at most Kroger, Target, and Aldi stores. None of those come close to tasting as good as the hummus from Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe. It’s extra lemony, with Greek seasoning sprinkled on top. Hope Foods’ avocado lime hummus offers a similar zing, so we recently started trying to keep that on hand, too. (The black garlic variety is also *chef’s kiss*.) Still, nothing beats the freshly made, almost tart, and oh-so-addictive hummus from the styrofoam bowl that I regularly bring home from Taziki’s. (And when you’re sick: Try the Lemon Chicken Soup!)
4. Queso (local Mexican place)
My chef partner regularly tells me that most local restaurants are serving us queso (or “white cheese dip”) from the same bag any other restaurant gets from those giant restaurant commissaries. I do not believe it. Even if that’s their base, Mexican restaurants must add stuff to make it better. I will never stop asking my local Mexican restaurant to buy a pint of queso to go.
5. Taco Bell’s Avocado Ranch
We have a college student that regularly comes to our house to babysit/raid the fridge/talk sh*t with me. I once asked her what restaurant food she wished she could always have at home. After queso, she said Taco Bell’s Avocado Ranch sauce. “I’d sell my soul for that stuff.” It turns out they sell bottles of it! So, now it’s always in our fridge… and it tastes so damn good on a baked potato, y’all. Bonus: She got to keep her soul.
6. Chick-fil-A Sauce (Chick-fil-A)
There are roughly a million “hacks” and “copycat” recipes on the internet to help desperate moms make Chick-fil-A sauce in hopes of getting their picky kids to eat nuggets at home. None of them taste as good as the real thing, which you can buy bottled from the restaurant and many grocery stores. You can also get Polynesian Sauce, which is *perfection.*
7. Mashed Potatoes (Bob Evans)
Once upon a time, there was a farmer named Bob who figured out how to make the best mashed potatoes in existence. He opened a restaurant, and the people came from miles and miles around to eat at the red barn-themed diner, Bob Evans. Many more restaurants have since opened. Decades later, his brilliant kids decided to start making those mashed potatoes to sell in stores (thereby saving busy parents time and money). So, I not-so-humbly ask, why is anyone still making “fresh” mashed potatoes?
8. Italian Dressing & Breadsticks (Olive Garden)
You cannot buy or hack your way to breadsticks that taste like the ones at Olive Garden. It’s impossible. You can, however, buy bottles of their Italian dressing and a bag of salad mix the next time you swing through Target. Then, all you have to do is pick up an order of breadsticks on your way home, and you’re good to go. Because let’s be real: None of us are going to OG for their actual pasta.
9. Cane’s Sauce
If you have a Raising Cane’s in your town, I can almost bet you also have a stack of little plastic cups full of Cane’s Sauce in your fridge. Any time we go, we ask for extra Cane’s sauce. Raising Cane’s chicken and crinkle fries taste the best in it, but any chicken will do in a pinch.
10. Panera’s Broccoli Cheddar Soup
This was another request from the college student, and I’ll be honest — broccoli does not typically appeal to me. But I kept this around for when she was at our house and in need of a quick meal. Then, I had my wisdom teeth pulled and became ravenous in the middle of the night. It turns out that Panera’s Broccoli Cheddar soup is for broccoli haters, too. Now that pint is in our fridge “for the college student” but usually disappears on Tuesday when Mama is working from home and doesn’t want to break her groove by running out for drive-thru lunch.