We took a sneak peek at the snack food-themed menu and orange decor before last night's grand opening.
First thing first, I like Cheetos. Mostly the crunchy ones. I’ve never cared much for the puffed-up, curvy, caterpillar-shaped variety, and I’ve never been on board with the Flamin’ Hot kind either. If you haven’t thought about your Cheetos preferences recently, you probably also haven’t spent much time in front of the chip display, where a bevy of corn snack options stretches across entire grocery store aisle, from savory snack mixes to the relatively recent cinnamon-sugary Sweetos.
I’ve tried many, if not all, of these varieties in my tenure as a food writer and editor, and, of course, in life as a person who’s been inside a convenience store more than once. So when Cheetos announced its plans to open a pop-up gastropub called The Spotted Cheetah helmed by chef Anne Burrell, the opportunity was already there for a wide range of applications for Cheetos as an ingredient. We’re not talking about a one-dimensional snack like pretzel rods or popcorn. If you poo-poo orange fingers you may disagree, but I’ll say it: Cheetos have range.
Reservations for the three-day run were filled within only six hours after becoming available, and a waiting list of hopefuls lining up thereafter. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one curious to see the results of this collaboration. Luckily, Cheetos invited me to preview dishes and the restaurant before the official opening last night, as staff hurriedly put the finishing touches on The Spotted Cheetah.
The brand has taken over the space normally occupied by Distilled New York at 211 W Broadway in TriBeCa. The overhaul must have been relatively swift—like on those restaurant rescuing reality shows that redecorate practically overnight—as the usual tenant only started its vacation on Sunday. The resulting experience is one that’s been adequately oranged out while retaining a glossy black vibe to match the brand’s cheddar-colored Cheetah aesthetic.
Branded pop art adorns the walls, along with a large painted portrait of Chester Cheetah hanging proudly above the bar. Rugs, including the carpeted stairs leading into the restaurant are cheese dust orange, as are napkins, spotted tablecloths, fabric draped in the rafters, and, yes, even the toilet paper (in the “Pawtty”). There’s also a “live” Chester Cheetah experience off to one side of the bar that’s comprised of a digital display customers can interact with and have a conversation with the cartoon cat.
Despite Flamin’ Hot bloody Marys running amok on social media, the snacks steered clear of the cocktail menu. However, anyone with an Instagram account would surely want to order a Tipsy Citrus, an appropriately orange-colored frozen blended mix of El Jimador Blanco tequila, Aperol, orange and lime juices and simple syrup. The concoction churns in those large Icee-style machines, hearkening to Cheetos typical mini-mart pairing. Other cocktails add splashes of Pepsi’s “1893” line of vintage-recipe colas.
As for the Burrell’s menu, is there a lot dusting of things with Cheetos crumbs? Yes. Is that a bad thing? Not if you like Cheetos.
A representative for the brand’s public relations teams tells me Burrell really broke the snack down to its main ingredient, corn meal, when considering applications. That’s how the bacon and tomato grilled cheese sandwich (which contains crunchy Cheetos) got its counterpart, a rich, savory tomato soup that gets its hearty viscosity from ground Cheetos used as a thickening agent.
The other appetizer options: fried pickles breaded in Cheetos and meatballs bound by and topped with crumbs. Other than the grilled cheese, perhaps most successful are the fried green tomatoes which retain a crunchy, nutty exterior made from White Cheddar Cheetos in contrast with the tart, underripe tomatoes and a corn and arugula salad which uses the same snacks in place of croutons.
The most touted main course offering was the Flamin’ Hot Limón Cheetos-topped chicken tacos, but my sights were set on the Flamin’ Hot and White Cheddar Mac and Cheetos as well as a Cheetos Mix Ups-crusted chicken Milanese. If you’re not topping your macaroni and cheese with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos already, this dish might make you throw the panko out of your pantry altogether. The creamy consistency of the cheese and pasta tamp down on the cloying spiciness of the Cheetos, allowing them to add heat and crunch in satisfying proportions.
Meanwhile, the chicken fillet is fried as crisply as the previous course’s tomatoes and the snack mix may not stand out but it does provide a profile that simply seasoned breadcrumbs doesn’t. The final main course dish consisted of nachos, replacing tortilla chips with Cheetos. Sure.
Dessert underwhelms the more adventurous palate. Taking most of her cues from Sweetos, Burrell created sweet and salty cookies with a caramel dipping sauce, cheesecake with a ground Sweetos crust and a blueberry compote, and what I ordered, White Cheddar Cheetos and Sweetos Apple Crepes, since it was the only dish that contained a savory component with a nod to melting a slice of cheese on to apple pie. The results were inoffensive if a little boring. Perhaps there was a missed opportunity to mix Flamin' Hot spices and chocolate?
So how does The Spotted Cheetah stack up? If you’re a fan of Cheetos, you’re going to have a good time. Are any Michelin stars going to be awarded? No. Did I eat some well-executed pub food? Yes. Did it have Cheetos in, on and around it? Of course. That’s entirely the point. And that’s totally fine by me.
If you missed out on the full restaurant experience, you can download a digital cookbook of Burrell's Spotted Cheetah recipes.