Off the bat, I’ll admit I don’t dig chain restaurants. I am a local, indie food snob- but I also eat late. Sometimes when neighborhood joints roll up their awnings and turn off the fryolater, places like Chili’s and Olive Garden are still slinging mass produced hash. Bleh.
However, Outback is a notable exception to the no-chain rule. Along with its sister Carrabba’s, diners can expect- if not a groundbreaking cuisine- a reasonable, not-microwaved meal. Last week, I had occasion to test-run Outback against the ground-gaining (at least in the New York Metro area) Texas Roadhouse, and review the two on consecutive evenings. There’s a lot of similarity- in meal format, price, and of course, the theme factor- making it easy to break them down point by point.
Theme and ambiance: While not a classy joint per se, Outback maintains some level of “restaurant” feel to it- no loud music, and a relatively quiet atmosphere overall. Texas Roadhouse, on the other hand, definitely embraces the “Roadhouse” aspect of their brand identity. Peanut shells on the floor and blaring country can be a plus or a minus, depending on your preferences. So…
Bread and other comps: One puzzling aspect of the Outback menu is that weird brown bread. It tastes of nothing much, and generally arrives to the table hot, only to resemble cardboard within thirty seconds. Texas Roadhouse, on the other hand, supplies every table with a bucket of peanuts- a novelty, and pretty cool. But their bread, although sweet, is piping hot, delicious and unique. Even the sweet butter is tolerable. It’s difficult not to eat a few pieces and totally wreck your dinner.
Advantage: Texas Roadhouse
Appetizers: Offerings for apps in both center roughly around the large, deep fried onion. Both establishments offer a decent onion option, as well as several chicken based and cheese fries-like options. Relatively analogous.
Salad: Neither Outback nor Texas Roadhouse is a standout with salads, but Outback’s dressing are solid and additions like crumbled pecans and cranberries kick the offerings up a notch over its competitor. Texas Roadhouse’s pedestrian dressings and crumbled egg just don’t have the same allure.
Sides: At a steak chain, sides kind of take a backseat- but lame sides can ruin an awesome steak. Outback’s sides are slightly more ambitious, though Texas Roadhouse has some solid offerings. Ultimately, Outback comes in a bit more varied and at a slightly higher quality, with fresh veggies and more even seasoning. Also, remoulade. That is all.
Steak: The main event. Both chains promote their steak-y prowess, and Texas Roadhouse even displays their steaks at the entrance in a glass case- like lobsters, but deader. Although we ate rather early, Texas Roadhouse had already run out of prime rib, a definite disappointment. The ribeye offered instead was cooked more than requested and inedible. I ended up sending it back in favor of some respectable, moist and not over-sauced ribs.
Outbacks steaks don’t exactly knock your socks off, but they’re consistent and acceptable quality. (Avoid the depressing au jus, however.) Prime rib is sufficiently fatty and tender, and even some of the leaner steaks are well-seasoned and edible.
Dessert: Another area of roughly similar offerings. Both have acceptable cheesecake and ice-cream topped brownies, and selections generally serve the same purpose.
All in all, unless you’re a redneck-fetishist, Outback has a clear advantage as far as chain steak goes. Do you have a preference between the two? Has your experience been different?