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Steak and Potato Paradise

If you can get past the silly surface, Outback delivers the goods

Non-beef eaters will be happy to note that Outback can do a spectacular job of grilling fish. They order fresh from local suppliers, and it shows: a recent evening's $11.95 special of salmon at the Westheimer location was the equal of fish from far more expensive restaurants, a thick slab with a moist interior and a spicy, seared crust. Like the tenderloin, its inside/outside contrast makes a dramatic point.

The big Outback drama, though, is its theatrical (and widely imitated) signature dish, the so-called Bloomin' Onion. Intricately cut so that it unfolds into a many-petaled chrysanthemum shape as it deep fries, this onion is so huge as to seem a visitor from another planet, and it has assumed the status of an American pop icon. (A friend of one of the Outback founders got the idea from a Japanese manual on food decoration.) The batter is pumped up with spices Outback style, and so is the accompanying horseradish-and-cayenne-spiked mayonnaise dip -- to the point that the onion actually tastes friendlier with ordinary ketchup on it. When they don't stay too long in the deep fryer, these mutant behemoths are fun to eat. And eat. And eat. A person could easily feed a starting basketball squad with one.

Mention must be made of the inevitable "Grilled Shrimp on the Barbie." You knew that was coming, didn't you? They may have been frozen at one stage of their lives, but they're not bad -- at least when they haven't been over seasoned with salty spices the way my first batch was. On another occasion, they emerged red peppery and sanely salted, escorted by an interesting boat of grilled black bread (known, I shudder to report, as bushman bread).

It's best to arrive here in a casual mode: "casual" is a way of business at Outback, from the napkin-wrapped flatware slung on the bare tables to the determinedly friendly waitpeople in their camp clothes. Perky waitress duos strolled the Bay Area site chirping such pleasantries as "Two Caesar salads!" and "Done with that onion?" Briefly, I considered driving them off with Outback's signature oversized steak knife, an implement I was also tempted to brandish at the fiendishly slender hostesses in their slinky summer knits -- young women who seem never to have allowed Outback's fat-happy foods to cross their glossed lips.

I had heard that Outback encourages its staffers to sit right down at customers' tables to take their orders, but thankfully nothing of that chummy nature occurred during my visits. Perhaps this is because Outback's decentralized corporate culture leaves such details to the discretion of each restaurant's managing partner, as they're called in Outbackspeak. Each manager has to invest $25,000 of his or her own money in order to sign on, in return for a base salary of $45,000 and (get this!) 10 percent of the restaurant's cash flow -- which is why Outback Steakhouses tend to whir and buzz along like highly efficient machines. It's a strategy that has paid off, just as Outback's penchant for relatively inexpensive suburban sites and their refusal to open for lunch have worked in the company's favor. The conventional industry wisdom is that soon there will be Outbacks in every corner of the known universe.

That has to be a comfort to Houston's Damian Mandola and Johnny Carrabba, who have hitched their Carrabba's wagon to Outback's corporate star. The Outback guys -- who trained with Dallas chain wizard Norman Brinker of Steak & Ale and Chili's fame -- clearly know what they're doing on the business end. And if you stick to their steak dinners, you're liable to come away thinking they know what they're doing on the food end as well.

Outback Steakhouse, 10001 Westheimer, 580-4329; 481 West Bay Area Boulevard, 338-6283; and other area locations.

9-ounce tenderloin with Caesar salad and baked potato, $14.95; Bloomin' Onion, $4.95; grilled fish of the day, $11.95;

chocolate and toasted coconut sundae, $2.95.

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