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Into most red-blooded American lives comes the powerful urge for a decent steak dinner that doesn't cost the earth. It should entail a great, simple salad and a respectable potato. The meat should be of a tenderness and heft that do not scream "cheap steak." A glass of good red wine should not be out of the question. A predictable sense of security and well-being should ensue.
Now, if you're sitting down, I'll tell you where to acquire this classic configuration at a price you can live with: the Outback Steakhouse. Yes, it's a chain (230 units and counting). Yes, you have to be able to tolerate the quarter-inch veneer of Australian atmospherics and the grating Aussie menu prose. ("No worries, mate. Have a bo-peep at these treats and ava go!") You even have to be prepared to wait, because these no-frills, wood-paneled suburban bunkhouses can draw a line, especially on weekends.
But the payoff is a remarkably good steak dinner for around 15 bucks -- maybe less. For starters, it's hard to believe an American mass feeder has the nerve to offer a Caesar salad this gutsy: vibrant with anchovy and serious Parmesan, underlain by an insidious garlic burn. Terrific with a lot of dressing, the way the Bay Area Boulevard Outback tends to do it; terrific with just a little, the way the 10001 Westheimer location sent it out on a recent night. One bite brings the palate to full attention.
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Outback steaks are cooked so cleverly as to bring the best out of beef that's USDA choice instead of killingly expensive prime. Rubbed with a robust, New Orleansy spice mix and weighted down on a flat griddle, they sear fast and evenly at 400 degrees, producing a thin crust that has an engaging blackened effect. Its contrast with the buttery 9-ounce tenderloin -- a bargain at $14.95 complete -- is particularly effective; both spices and sear pump up the character of a cut that steak snobs love to deride as bland. Guy-guys may want to pop an extra dollar for the 14-ounce New York strip, a bruiser edged with heroic ridges of fat and named, I am sorry to have to report, "The Michael J. 'Crocodile' Dundee."
I even like the el cheapo Outback Special here, a center-cut sirloin billed by an earnestly enthusiastic waiter (the chain seems to employ no other kind) as "12 ounces for 12 bucks!" Nobody would mistake this thick cut for heavily marbled, well-aged prime, but it does the primal red-meat job very nicely. The fact that the price includes a Caesar salad and one of the last of the genuine baked potatoes -- flaky, dry-skinned and dusted with Kosher salt instead of soddenly steamed inside aluminum foil -- makes me like it even better.
So does the fact that the Outback grill people don't screw up on the doneness front: out of four steaks over three visits at two locations, they hit it on the rare or medium-rare nose every time. Bonus points, too, for the selection of Australian red wines by the glass, including a couple of feisty cabernets that have the appealing roughness of a French country red (Rosemount is the edgier of the two; Black Opal the smoother).
There is more to the ideal Outback meal -- namely a sublimely retrograde chocolate sundae that involves a vanilla ice cream ball rolled in crunchy toasted coconut. It's hard to take life (or yourself) too seriously when you're confronted with this sweet blast of childhood. Just be sure to ask them to leave off the whipped cream and the strawberry: this guilt-inducing little item is better pure and unadorned.
The holy steak-salad-potato trinity is what I come to Outback to eat. I certainly don't brave stuffed koalas and waiters in sheep-drovers' hats for the pleasure of dining on the inescapable baby back ribs or such American goop as "grilled chicken breast and bacon smothered in mushrooms, melted Monterey Jack and Cheddar cheeses, with honey mustard sauce." Nor, after a recent encounter at the Bay Area Boulevard Outback, would I return for a brave new menu item called Veggie Pasta Pemberton, whose contemporary cargo of grilled zucchini and peppers, portobello mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes was utterly defeated by the saltiness of its chicken-broth-based "unique semolina sauce." The promised garlic and herbs? Who could tell under all that sodium? Gummy-chewy tubes of penne pasta did not help matters any.
I couldn't help wondering what Outback's consulting guru Warren LeRuth would think. LeRuth, who ran a much-praised temple of fine dining outside New Orleans for many years, tinkers with Outback's new menu items at his current base in Pass Christian, Mississippi. Along with one of Outback's three founders, who trained in New Orleans, LeRuth is responsible for the stepped-up seasoning level that characterizes much of Outback's food; the restaurant's theme may say Australia, but its taste says Louisiana. LeRuth recently told the restaurant trade bible, Nation's Restaurant News, that the Outback founders "want one or two great things a year" to add to their small, efficient menu. I'm not sure the grilled vegetable pasta fills the bill, but perhaps the rack of Australian lamb scheduled for later this year will be more persuasive.
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.