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Dining hall pizza is actually good now (and other observations about the Aramark dining transition)

<p>A selection of foods from the newly overhauled dining halls.</p>

A selection of foods from the newly overhauled dining halls.

Today I did something that, a year ago, I would have deemed unthinkable: I enjoyed dining hall pizza.

Last year, I had many evenings in which I despondently resorted to cardboard-crunchy, stomach-wrecking dining hall cheese pizza. Dining hall cheese pizza was not a delicacy; it was what you ate on the rare occasion that everything else in the dining hall was somehow worse. 

Thus, the first time I bit into the Aramark margherita pizza, I was understandably taken aback by the fact that I wasn’t immediately disgusted. 

In fact, it was excellent: the cheese was melty, the spices were tasteful and the crust was crispy without feeling like cardboard. I threw my head into my hands and wondered, How the hell did I ever eat the old pizza?

This change is only one of many major changes that have recently happened to Miami dining. With the transition to Aramark, our dining hall menus are full of new recipes and options.

Beyond the new menu options, loosened COVID-19 restrictions have eliminated plasticware and paper cups. For the first time in my entire college experience, I can enjoy my dining hall coffee in a real mug and cut my food with a real fork and knife.

With all of these new changes, you may be wondering: what food is good? What food is bad? And is dining hall fish still as mysterious as it has always been?

For the past week, I have been sampling a variety of different meals from a variety of campus dining halls. Through my research, I have compiled a holistic review of our new dining options: the stand-out favorites, the disappointments and the reliably good options.

The Stand-Out Favorites

Zen Garden: This newly improved station at Garden Commons thoroughly impressed me. With rice, lo mein noodles, different stir-fry options, sautéed shrimp, tofu, and various veggies, you can customize your own bowl. I was particularly enthusiastic to see the variety of sauces, including teriyaki, chili garlic, soy and — my personal favorite — sweet and sour. Everything in my bowl of brown rice, red peppers, chicken and broccoli was flavorful and cooked perfectly.

Crispy chicken sandwich: The first time I tried one of these, I told my friends to leave the table and grab one for themselves. Cooked to a perfect crunch, this juicy chicken sandwich tastes fresh and pairs well with the saratoga chips.

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French toast sticks: These nostalgic-tasting delights are just one of the many great new breakfast options (and an overwhelming fan favorite among my friends) at Maple. I paired this with the wonderfully-crispy hashbrowns for a restaurant-quality breakfast.

Maple bacon donut: I would rank the maple bacon donut among the best desserts our dining hall offers, along with the blackberry brownie treats, cherry pie and oreo pudding. Spotted in Maple and Western, these filling donuts make a great evening treat.

Ham: I was skeptical about getting dining hall ham (cue flashbacks to rubbery, lukewarm ham from my first year of college), but I was truly surprised by the juiciness of the ham at Garden. I paired this with the mashed potatoes (also good!) and some veggies. It tasted like a delicious home-cooked dinner!

Fries: Who doesn’t love a side of well-seasoned, crispy french fries? I dipped my french fries in some of Western Dining Commons’ chili and had an excellent chili fry dinner.

Disappointments

Mac and cheese: I tried two different mac and cheeses at both Garden and Western, and each dish seemed to lack the level of flavor I was looking for. Instead, I would recommend going for mashed potatoes or cooked vegetables.

Tilapia: Last year, one of my favorite entrées was the crusted tilapia. The new tilapia at Western is no longer crusted, but served with diced tomatoes. Unfortunately, the tilapia lacks seasoning and is just too “fishy” for my taste.

Buffalo chicken wrap: I was so excited to try these at Garden, but the ratio of chicken to lettuce to sauce was very distorted and left me wishing for more lettuce and a lot less sauce. You are better off grabbing a salad or something Zen Garden.

Additionally, I wish that international cuisine options were more consistently offered. Stations like Zen Garden are not always open, which is disappointing, given that I feel as though our international cuisine options are among my favorite foods offered on campus.

Reliably Good Options

Pizza: Obviously, it’s no secret that I am a fan of our new pizza. With pesto, spinach, pepperoni, cheese, margherita, veggie and many other options (depending on the location), the pizza is always fresh, the cheese is always melty and the quality is refreshing. Be sure to try one of the breadsticks too!

Fruit and salad bar: The fruit and salad bar is a staple of any dining hall meal I have. The selection of salad toppings have widened, allowing even more customization options. I recommend adding red peppers to your salad — they’re game-changing.

Chicken tenders: Personally, I found the new dining hall chicken tenders to be better than any of the chicken tenders at Armstrong. I enjoyed pairing these with Caesar salad to make my own crispy chicken salad.

Chicken marsala: The chicken marsala is buttery with strong notes of cumin and cardamom. It’s filling, light in texture and frequently available, making it a great meal option anytime.

Taco bar: I have eaten the taco bar’s Mexican rice almost daily this past week; it’s flavorful, well-cooked and works great in a taco or as a side for another dish. The mini-tortillas at the taco bar allow you to grab a taco as a small snack, or make three mini tacos for a solid lunch option. These taco bars are in dining halls all over campus.

As always, the dining hall staff on campus are incredible and hard-working, and it is wonderful to be able to try all of the new food they are working to prepare for us. 

While there is definitely room to improve the diversity of foods we offer, I am thoroughly impressed with the improvement in dining on campus after our Aramark transition. 

I find myself using my declining dollars less and having the urge to spend money DoorDash-ing less now that I have options on-campus that are genuinely tasty. 

I also feel that the transition to using real mugs, cups and silverware was the last step in making campus life feel normal in this pandemic-adjusted environment. However, one pandemic dining policy I wish we could bring back was the highly popular to-go box option.

And, of course, I am amazed that saying “I love dining hall pizza!” is no longer a hot take.

perkin16@miamioh.edu

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