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Gastrointestinal sado-masochism

Cliff takes on the worst food in America in the name of journalism

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It was about 3 a.m. I clicked on the bedside lamp. Why oh why had I not bought some Prilosec when I ran out? Another wave of queasiness swept through my body. I'd been trying to sleep almost sitting up. That helps control the gastro-esophageal reflux.

One of the cats jumped onto the bed and, as usual, threatened to prick me with a single claw if I didn't pet her. I imagined onion-flavored oil exuding from the wound. I brushed her away and picked up a book. I tried to read. My eyes crossed. I turned off the lamp and resumed my 45-degree angle, wide-eyed with restaurant-induced insomnia.

I'd eaten at Chili's (2440 Piedmont Road, 404-848-7979) that night. I'd been to one of the popular chain's restaurants only once before – about 20 years ago in Houston. I was dumbstruck that friends would drag me to such a place to eat nachos in a city full of authentic Mexican food.

My return was inspired by an article, "The 20 Worst Foods in America," in Men's Health magazine, that examined the menus of chain restaurants. It included two dishes from Chili's. The restaurant's Awesome Blossom, a deep-fried onion, got the award for worst starter. Its 2,710 calories include 203 grams of fat, 194 grams of carbs and 6,360 milligrams of sodium. Chili's also scored the award for worst dessert with its Chocolate Chip Paradise Pie with Vanilla Ice Cream. It offers 1,600 calories with 78 grams of fat and 215 grams of carbs.

After our food editor, Besha Rodell, posted about this on our blog, OmnivoreATL.com, I felt myself becoming obsessed. How in the hell could one consume 4,310 calories without eating an entree? Even if you divided the starter and dessert with someone, as I did, you would still consume a monstrous amount of fat. I had to experience this for myself. So I talked Wayne into going with me.

I imagined that any place selling such outrageously unhealthy food would be filled with obese diners packed into booths, an awesome blossom in each fist. I was surprised it did not look like a Weight Watchers crowd. And I was also surprised by how friendly and competent the staff was.

I loved our server, Amy. I ordered tonic water to drink.

"I've never heard of it," she said.

"It's like gin and tonic without the gin," I said.

"I'll ask at the bar. May I see your ID?"

"My ID? Nobody's asked to see my ID in two decades," I replied, "but sure."

"It's nonalcoholic," Wayne snapped as I fished around in my wallet for my driver's license.

She scurried off and returned with the tonic water.

We ordered the onion. Wayne had encountered this dish before at an Outback Steakhouse, but it was new to me. It was a gigantic onion, sliced so that it seemed to have petals. Then it was dunked in batter and deep-fried. In other words, it was an edible sponge for oil.

Here's the thing: It tasted good. It was as if the Varsity had offered an all-you-can-eat special on its onion rings. We ate the whole damn thing.

I was confused. How could something so awful taste so good? Next, I ordered the much advertised baby-back ribs. Their "blazin" habanero sauce was far from blazing but – oh my – the ribs, with 1,220 calories – tasted good, too. Their side of cinnamon apples, 210 calories, was a sweet contrast.

Wayne, who has a longtime addiction to Buffalo chicken wings, ordered the Buffalo chicken fajitas, a mere 1,090 calories. This, a new item, tasted OK, but its Buffalo sauce was meek. The chicken, of course, was breaded, and the plate, replete with onions and poblano peppers, was topped with crumbled blue cheese and bacon. Ranch dressing was on the side. Considering the fat content of the last three ingredients, it's amazing the dish has fewer than 2,000 calories. Oh. Add in four tortillas for wrapping the fajitas. That's 400 more calories.

Next: America's worst dessert. Too bad it was yummy. How can you go wrong with a big, chewy brownie thing layered with chocolate chips, walnuts and coconut, topped with vanilla ice cream, hot fudge and caramel? You might have a heart attack before you get to your car, but you'll have a pleasant taste in your mouth.

The grand total? We shared 7,230 calories! And it was cheap! Somebody call Sally Struthers. I have the solution to world famine, if the starving don't mind a touch of gastro-esophageal reflux.

Honestly, though, I do have to give props to Chili's for furnishing such complete nutrition information. It also provides some healthy alternatives, under a "Guiltless Grill" section of the menu.

60 years of MoJo burgers

Since we were on a high-calorie roll, we decided last Tuesday night to pay a visit to Moe's and Joe's (1033 N. Highland Ave., 404-873-6090), which recently observed its 60th anniversary.

Back in my 20s, I was a regular here – and at the Stein Club on Peachtree, if anyone remembers it – because the beer was famously cheap. If you've never been to this bar, whose walls are covered with years of graffiti, you need to go.

The place was packed with what looked like mainly twentysomethings. This surprised me, since Virginia-Highland long ago morphed out of its bohemian, affordable status into a refuge for intowners with Buckhead incomes. Later, I learned from a post on our blog that Emory students hang out there Tuesday nights. Do they all pay the $5 for parking we did?

The menu is mainly the usual bar food. Besides the wings, the best thing on the menu we sampled was chicken egg rolls. I have no idea how they are made, but their creamy, spicy filling and crunchy exterior hit the spot. (You can skip the faux mango chutney served with them, though.)

I also ordered the chili that the bar has been making since the day it opened and the original $2.50 MoJo burger, basically a big slider, served with a few fries. Both are mediocre, but you won't care after a pitcher of draft beer.

Wayne, continuing his Chili's theme, ordered a Buffalo chicken sandwich with a side Caesar salad. He swallowed it whole. I didn't care for it.

The service is great. Some of the shrill customers suck. So does the bathroom.

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