A Sticky Situation

Tucsonans flock to yet another chain restaurant in enormous numbers--why?

To all the people out there who are willing to wait an hour and 20 minutes to dine at Texas Roadhouse: Why? What is the allure that has you willing to spend 80 minutes of your precious weekend standing in a Wilmot Road parking lot?

Don't get me wrong; Texas Roadhouse has some positives. If you like loud and boisterous, then Texas Roadhouse has that vibe. The wooden booths and buckets of peanuts are kitschy in a comforting way. The prices are reasonable, and the young waitstaff is enthusiastic and competent. But ... almost an hour and a half? When there are local places--owned and operated by your friends and neighbors--that are so much better, with no wait at all?

Garrett and I first visited the Texas Roadhouse on Wilmot on a recent Sunday evening. The wait was a mere 15-20 minutes, we were told, so we took our number and waited outside for a bit. About 16 minutes later, we were seated.

Imagine an Outback Steakhouse, and replace all of the Aussie trinkets with Texas stuff, including a freakish, smiling armadillo mascot named Andy. You have wooden booths, neon signs, taxidermy, peanut shells on the floor and modern "country" music (including the horrifying "Boot Scoot Boogie"). The laminated, triple-fold menus stay at the table, and TVs with sports occupy the bar area.

They hand-cut the steaks in-house at Texas Roadhouse, and you can see some meat in a refrigerated display as you walk in. This makes for a nice touch, and the prices are nice, too: The costliest steaks on the menu--the 18-ounce Texas T-bone and the 16-ounce New York strip--are $18.99 (those prices include two side dishes). You can get a 6-ounce USDA choice sirloin steak--again, with two sides--for $8.99. Your usual appetizers, salads, ribs and chicken dishes join shrimp (a relatively new addition), several fish dishes and some sandwiches and burgers to round out the menu. Vegetarians: Don't bother. The sole entrée for those who don't eat meat is a plate with four sides.

We decided to try the bloomin' onion awesome blossom cactus blossom ($5.99) and the rattlesnake bites (diced jalapenos and jack cheese fried in batter, $3.99) as appetizers. For my entrée, I picked the 12-ounce New York strip with mashed potatoes and a house salad ($14.99), along with a "sidekick" of ribs ($5.99 with meal). Garrett chose the filet medallions--three filets, totaling 9 ounces, with either peppercorn (Garrett's choice) or Portobello sauce, all served over rice--with mashed potatoes and vegetables ($15.99). He also got a skewer of shrimp ($5.99 with meal).

Our server quickly brought the appetizers, along with some rolls accompanied by a delightful cinnamon honey butter. While the five small rattlesnake bites were tasty with a nice kick, the cactus blossom was disappointing. I've had many of these breaded, fried onions over the years, and this was one of the worst. It was overly greasy and not cut all the way through--and some skin remained on the outer layers. Someone in the kitchen was either lazy or not paying attention.

As I enjoyed my salad--a basic lettuce mix with tomatoes, croutons, cheddar cheese and egg--a manager came by and asked how things were going. She said she'd heard this was our first visit (the host/hostess asks if you've been there before as you're seated) and gave us a coupon for a free cactus blossom on our next visit. Local restaurateurs could learn something from this: It was an impressive touch that made us feel like this chain appreciated our business.

This could not save our entrées, however. My New York strip was a nice cut of meat, but it was not cooked as requested--a cardinal sin at a steakhouse. I ordered medium rare, and I got medium well. On the flip side, Garrett had the opposite problem: He ordered his medallions medium rare, and he got them quite rare. He enjoyed them nonetheless, and had nice things to say about the spicy peppercorn sauce. He also liked his shrimp skewer. My ribs, however, were mediocre. The meat was nicely falling off the bone, but the sauce was shallow: slightly sweet, slightly smoky, no nuance. The menu claims the ribs are cooked with seasonings, but I could not taste them.

We were too full to try any of the three desserts in-house, so we got the big ol' brownie ($4.99) to go. It came with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream--all packed separately--and when I put it together at home, it was a chocolaty, tasty treat. It was a nice end to an otherwise unexceptional dining experience.

We planned our second visit for a recent Friday night--when we encountered the 80-minute wait. (Word to the wise: If you feel the need to eat at Texas Roadhouse, call ahead.) Instead, we went to the fabulous Cuvée World Bistro, where I had a New York strip steak. There was no wait, and the meat was splendid.

The next day, we tried Texas Roadhouse again, during lunch hours. (They open at 11 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, but the menu is the same.) There was no wait, but the restaurant was still busy. We were seated, and shortly thereafter, Garrett realized the back of his shirt was stuck to the wooden booth, thanks to some barbecue sauce. We let the server know, and she brought out a rag and wiped down the seat. (Later, when the manager came by to check on things, as is normal at Texas Roadhouse, we decided not to complain, not wanting to draw attention.)

Our meal was decent, but nothing special. The chicken critters appetizer (five breaded chicken strips with fries, $5.99) was pretty good--the chicken was tender and juicy, although the fries were small, broken and exceedingly greasy--but I wondered why only ranch dressing was given as a dipping sauce, with nothing else offered. My sirloin steak and chicken combo ($12.99) underwhelmed; the steak was prepared properly this time, but the meat itself was gristly. The chicken was overcooked and doused in the mediocre barbecue sauce. My meal's highlight was the delicious, fiery chili I got as a side. Garrett's smokehouse burger ($6.99)--a half-pound patty with onions, mushrooms, barbecue sauce and cheeses--was pretty good, and he said he'd order it again.

That is, he'd order it again if we ever return to Texas Roadhouse. I'd be surprised; there are just too many local places (and chains, too) that are better--places where there is almost never a wait.