Texas Roadhouse and Outback Steakhouse
by M.B. Lewis
From the August, 2016 issue
Our Outback Steakhouse visit was far enough behind us to allow for digestion to fully occur. Texas Roadhouse was on the current day's agenda.
Each named for a distant land, these two chain meateries face off across Ann Arbor-Saline Road. I was halfway through an assignment to see how they compare when my young adult son came in from a hot July bike ride and asked: "Do I need to change this T-shirt before we go out to eat?"
"No," I responded--and realized that being able to wear anything is, along with easy parking, a key selling point for these mass-marketers. After all, you probably won't see anyone you know, and, bored to distraction by corporate menus, you may end up with gravy or grease or BBQ sauce on your clothes.
Such were my lackluster expectations, post-"Australia" and pre-"Texas." But then my prejudices were rollickingly busted by cheery servers, a cliched but fun decor, and one of the juiciest sauteed-mushroom-and-onion-topped grilled ribeye steaks around. During a time of painful division between rural and urban, northern and southern cultures in America, there's value in every reminder to look beyond easy judgments.
Despite their proximity, the steakhouses' settings couldn't be more different. Outback is in the misnamed Village Centre. Built in the 1980s--the High Suburban period--it was for decades hidden behind a grassy berm. Though the barrier was bulldozed last year, newcomers may still need a trip or two around the triangle framed by Ann Arbor-Saline, Oak Valley, and Waters roads to find an entrance.
There's no missing Texas Roadhouse. A simulacrum of a frontier blockhouse, it sits smack up against Ann Arbor-Saline Rd. Its street-side edge was once another berm, hiding the Meijer store that opened in 1989. Now, cashing in on the New Urbanist trend, the Pittsfield Place shopping strip flaunts its commerce proudly, a rampart of fast food and mobile phone storefronts. Although Texas Roadhouse opened last December, exterior work continued into this summer, as if there can
never be enough fortification against the Comanches.
You drive in through a crazy maze setup in what used to be Meijer's parking lot, then walk in past long rows of benches. Passing the pager drop box by the entrance, I tsk-tsked at the presumption they'd get crowds large enough to need such management in Ann Arbor, with its mature landscape of homegrown restaurants and good steakhouses. Yet inside the vast wood-beamed interior, more than half the tables were full for an early Saturday lunch, and families kept streaming in the whole time we were there.
We waited less than a minute at the front desk, under a jaunty welcome sign welded from horseshoes. A hostess came over with a basket of rolls in hand and asked us if we wanted to pick a raw steak from the display case of neatly sorted cuts (the way you might pick lobster elsewhere). We declined and followed her to a booth, where a metal bucket of shelled peanuts awaited.
Tall glasses of water soon arrived, lemon wedges alongside. Turns out the butter with the warm rolls is whipped with honey and cinnamon, a tradition familiar from North Carolina BBQ stands. We didn't look too hard at the laminated card menu, because we had been online and knew we would order the same things we'd had at Outback. So we munched salty peanuts and sweet rolls, listened to country music, and checked out the Tigers game on the high-mounted TVs around the central bar. Hard to miss the mounted buffalo and buck heads (fake, the bartenders assured us, though supposedly real at some of the chain's other locations). We passed on our server's invite to order Kenny Chesney's favorite blue rum cocktail but picked out his likeness among county-fair-style big-head caricatures on the wall, along with Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, and Blake Shelton. At one point a couple servers passed us carrying a sawhorse-mounted leather saddle to a table, where they cajoled a teenager into sitting on it while they serenaded him with "Happy Birthday."
Our "Cactus Blossom" deep-fried onion appetizer looked very much like the "Bloomin' Onion Aussie-tizer" we'd tried at Outback. But the "Cajun Horseradish" dip at the Roadhouse had a bite that kept taste buds stimulated more than the bland "bloom sauce" at Outback. And, in a comparison that would continue, the Roadhouse onion cost a few dollars less.
Our server kept our waters full, and at a relaxed moment I couldn't resist asking how she felt about wearing a uniform with "I love my job" written on the back. Her face lit up: "I do love it here. We have fun--we get to dance every day."
"At night, at the bar?" I guessed.
"No," she chirped. "Every hour if we can--line dancing," she answered. "I'll show you."
She disappeared at a trot. A moment later the music volume went up--some song about a chicken on a stick, I think. A half-dozen laughing T-shirted women began an intricate line dance. It lasted maybe a minute.
Our main dishes arrived shortly after, and our now even bubblier server insisted we cut the ribeye while she watched, to make sure it was cooked as requested. It was, with a delicious sizzle still going at the marbled edge.
Texas Roadhouse's ten-ounce ribeye was leagues better than its gray, heavyweight counterpoint at Outback. The Roadhouse ribs were moister, too, falling from the bone more easily than the dry Outback version. The BBQ sauce was decent at both places, and both had good mashed potatoes with real texture and bits of skin, but Roadhouse fries were more appealing, thick cut and cooked crispy with a light dusting of seasoned salt. The Roadhouse's grilled shrimp were juicier and fresher tasting as well, with pepper the dominant flavor rather than Outback's mouth-drying crust of garlic salt.
Credit goes to Outback in two other areas, however: lovely green snips of basil and plum tomato quarters garnished its shrimp, and nicely steamed and balsamic-dressed broccoli florets and yellow squash made up the mixed vegetable side (Texas Roadhouse had plainer broccoli and mini carrots). Some folks will also prefer the darker interior and quieter sound level at Outback, with Paul Simon and Adele instead of country on the sound system. And at the Roadhouse, I felt I was asked too often whether I wanted bacon and cheese on top of pretty much everything we ordered but the brownie.
Instead of continuing a spreadsheet of comparisons and contrasts, suffice to say that the upbeat atmosphere and sense of better value and greater care with the food tip the scales in favor of the Texas Roadhouse for any outing that doesn't require a serious conversation. Since neither chain originated anywhere near the geographic location claimed by its marketing (the first Outback was in Tampa, the first Roadhouse in Indiana), no points to anyone for authenticity. And neither approaches the quality of our homegrown Chop House, Knight's, and Zingerman's Roadhouse.
I'll end with a tellingly disenfranchised quote from our low-energy Outback server as she proceeded to undersell us on corporate's latest "new!" (the exclamation point is on the menu) appetizer, the Aussie Signature sampler:
"I don't know why we need a sampler, because everything in it is on the menu already. But they [as in, corporate] just do whatever they want."
Might a line dance for this sentiment be to the tune of "Ain't that America"?
3133 Ann Arbor-Saline Rd. (Pittsfield Place)
Mon.-Thurs. 4-10 p.m., Fri. 4-11 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Appetizers $4.99-$8.99; sandwiches and salads $3.99-$13.99; entrees $9.99-$26.99; desserts $5.99
3173 Oak Valley Dr. (Village Centre).
Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Appetizers $7.49-$12.49; sandwiches, tacos, and salads $3.99-$12.99; entrees $9.99-$21.49; desserts $3.99-$7.99
[Originally published in August, 2016.]
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