My contempt for the Maine Mall area—with its confluence of zombified crowds, dipshit teenagers and idiotic drivers doing their best to create traffic mayhem in the parking lots and surrounding streets—is such that there are precious few circumstances strong enough to motivate me to drive out there. The exceptions, in order of greatest importance to least importance, are:
1) Any visit to the Apple Store
2) The occasional excursion to Chipotle
3) My semi-annual trip to Macy’s for the purchase of Gold Toe Socks
Honestly, that’s about it. Even that time they were giving away free organ transplants in the Best Buy parking lot, I resorted to a coin flip in order to decide whether a couple of new kidneys and a spruced up liver were worth the 20 minutes of annoyance and frustration that I would undoubtedly encounter while trying to make my way there. (They weren’t.)
All of that said, you may be surprised to learn that I’ve visited the Maine Mall area not once, not twice, but thrice in the last few weeks. The first two sojourns were for my recent visits to Minami Japanese Grill & Buffet, reviewed here. Since Minami is technically just beyond the outskirts of the Maine Mall parking lot, the dipshit factor is exponentially lower, making getting there and parking a fairly painless experience.
Perhaps emboldened by those two experiences, I recently endeavored—as if participating in some form of graduated exposure therapy—to tread even closer to the belly of the proverbial beast by way of a visit to Longhorn Steakhouse.
To be honest, Longhorn Steakhouse was not even on my burger radar until a few days ago. Aside from Five Guys and the aforementioned Chipotle, chain-restaurant dining is not something that appeals to me on any level. Its not that I’m against the existence of chain restaurants. To each their own, I guess. But the notion of fighting your way through South Portland rush hour traffic, all so that you can wait in line 40 minutes to wolf down a lukewarm, sub-par meal in some soulless, tchotchke-filled room is not something that appeals to me on any level.
Then, there’s something my friend Sean wrote a few years back… a comedic rant that—I shit you not—runs through my head any time I’m even remotely tempted to walk through the doors of my local TGI Appletuesdays for the sake of trying their latest “too good to be true” steak special. It goes a little something like this:
“I was looking at a local chain restaurant the other day – 99 Restaurant? – and they had a big sign outside that said something like ’12 oz steak for just $9.99.’ Great deal! Except that 12 oz is about six times as much meat as anyone should have on their plate for a meal. So that’s six meals for dinner you fat ignorant porcine fucker. And what kind of meat do you think you’re getting for a 83¢ an ounce anyway? It’s shit meat. It’s bits of loose cow vagina and pulverized mastitis-hardened bull balls molded into a vaguely dinneresque shape and slathered with corn syrup and a dose of bovine squirts. You are a fat ignorant porcine fucking moron. Take all that money you saved at dinner and put it in a jar to pay for your heart transplant and diabetes.”
Its funny stuff, to be sure. And there’s more than a little bit of truth to it.
That said, I’ll admit that I my choice to lump Longhorn Steakhouse in with all of those other chain places was the product of some bias. I probably would not have given Longhorn a chance at all, but a few days ago, while perusing the “Best Cheeseburger in Portland” thread on Chowhound—more or less an ongoing dialogue about burgers between a half dozen or so devotees who I’ve tentatively labelled the Brotherhood of the Burger™—I saw a comment from one Dave B. (a Chowhound user who knows his stuff) praising the burger at a Longhorn Steakhouse location in New Hampshire. Here’s what Dave had to say:
“…I have had two outstanding burgers at Longhorn Steakhouse recently. This was in New Hampshire, but if there is consistency in this chain with the meat they use and how they grind it in the restaurants in this region, and I will anticipate there is – I do recommend you try their burger and see what you think.
It’s about $10, and was cooked perfectly medium-rare per my request. Completely pink and juicy on the inside with sumptuous mouth feel and very rich beef taste. I was so enthralled by their burger on my first recent occasion that I went back a couple of weeks later for another.”
I was intrigued, to say the least. The idea of a really great burger in South Portland isn’t so bizarre. But at a chain restaurant? Could it be? I had to find out for myself.
Hoping to avoid the dinner rush, I arrived at Longhorn Steakhouse at around 4pm on a drizzly January afternoon. Walking inside, I was greeted by a hostess, who asked if I would like to sit at the bar or at a table. I opted for a table and—as we strolled through the restaurant—I took note of the furnishings. The decor is much nicer than what I imagined. Having been exposed to countless walls adorned with license plates, Christmas lights, movie posters and gaudy knick-knacks at other chains, I guess I was expecting more of the same here. Instead, what I got was a tasteful vibe suggestive of an upscale Texas steakhouse… or at least what some executive in Florida want us to think all upscale Texas steakhouses look like (Longhorn Steakhouse is operated by Darden, the Orlando, FL-based organization that owns Bahama Breeze, Olive Garden and Red Lobster, among others). Sure, there were still a few of those tchotchkes—several pieces of artwork, a saddle and more than one steer’s head—but taken as a whole, the decor was far more refined than what I had imagined. The combination of wood, stone and leather finishes in shades of gold, black and brown lend the dining room a polished atmosphere, and I noted that the floors, countertops, tables, chairs and booths were all clean and in good shape.
My waitress—who was polite but seemed unnecessarily rushed for it being 4pm in a restaurant less than an eighth full—took my drink order and gave me moment to check out the menu. Reading through the list of appetizers, I couldn’t help but think Patton Oswalt’s Black Angus bit (you can listen to a very NSFW version here… it gets good at the one minute mark). But before you could say “potato bacon bomb” the waitress returned with two massive glasses, one containing a diet soda (free refills available) and the other an ice water.
The Longhorn Steakhouse lunch menu features four half-pound steak burgers with options like “7-pepper seasoning & melted bleu cheese” available. The dinner menu offers only their standard, no-frills steak burger with cheese. But that was fine with me. If this was truly a burger to behold, I wanted to sample it in its purest form (but with bacon added for a dollar extra… I may be a purist, but I’m no fool). I was a little bit surprised when I was told that having my burger cooked medium rare was not an option, not only because this was not consistent with Dave B’s experience in New Hampshire, but because you’d think that even in this climate of corporate-imposed food temperature guidelines, a self-proclaimed “steakhouse” would have the balls to serve a burger rare or medium rare. Evidently not. Anyway, I settled for medium and hoped for the best.
Having eaten only an english muffin during the day, I was pretty hungry. Determining that “my belly” qualifies under the “everything is bigger in Texas” tenant, I also ordered a bowl of french onion soup and a side of Longhorn’s steakhouse mac & cheese. And just for shits and giggles, I mentioned that I was also interested in something on the menu called the “Chocolate Stampede,” described on the menu as “moist peaks of chocolate cake layered with six types of chocolate and served with vanilla bean ice cream.” What can I say? I’m a ambitious.
The first dish to emerge from the kitchen was the french onion soup. Though I strongly suspect that the light-colored broth was made from a mix, it wasn’t entirely unpleasant. More tangy than robust, the broth served as the vehicle for large pieces of onion and some over-saturated croutons which didn’t bring much to the dish, but didn’t really hurt it either. Like the croutons, the cheese just seemed to exist. But at least it was applied liberally and melted thoroughly.
As I took my last spoonful of soup, my waitress appeared with my burger and the side of mac & cheese in hand. The burger, accompanied by french fries, looked just okay. The brioche bun had been cut rather unevenly, resulting in a huge “muffin top” of bun on top of the burger, while the tiny remainder of the bottom of the bun was left to support beef, bacon, cheese and vegetables. In my headline photo, you can see that the burger patty is pretty much hanging over what little bun there was. I was also disappointed that the lettuce, tomato and onion had been placed on top of the burger, rather than left on the side so as not to wither from the heat of the patty (and also to give the option of topping the burger the way he/she wants). To be fair, the menu doesn’t specify that the OLT will be served on the side, so I should have probably just asked for it that way.
I’ve had my share of burgers that tasted better than they looked, so I wasn’t too deterred by the appearance. And I’ll confess that when I cut the sandwich in half, I was momentarily heartened to find some evidence of a pinkish center. Alas, biting into the burger quickly dissolved any remaining hope that this meal would be anything special. Although the patty did have a nice texture—I’m in full agreement with Dave B. that the consistency of Longhorn’s grind is quite nice—the meat itself was dry and under-seasoned. (The only upside to this was that the scant bit of bun at the bottom of the burger—not being exposed to anything along the way of grease or juices—stayed mostly intact.)
The problem here is one that I’ve written about before. While Longhorn doesn’t specify what cut of meat is used in their burgers, the label “steak burgers” suggests to me something that is probably a higher end cut that is relatively low in fat. And if they are preparing the burgers in the same way that they prepare their steaks—which is to say, grilling them over super high heat—it’s a recipe for disaster:
Low fat + high heat = hockey puck
Aided by liberal doses of mustard and steak sauce, I did manage to eat about two-thirds of my burger. But its not likely to be an experience that I’ll remember with any sense of fondness. I nibbled on a couple of the french fries, which weren’t bad but also didn’t seem to be any more exciting than the fries at any other chain restaurant.
The meal might have been salvaged by the steakhouse mac & cheese, which was the best-looking of all the dishes. But whereas the burger was under-seasoned, this dish was overloaded with salt to the point of being barely edible. Its a shame, because the pasta was actually really nicely cooked, and the small chunks of thick-cut bacon were a nice touch. Though the bacon brings a sodium component to the dish, the real culprit here appeared to be the much-too-salty cheese sauce. I had to abandon the dish altogether, after just a couple of bites.
Disheartened and on the verge of an angina attack, I called it quits at that point. I asked the waitress to either nix the Chocolate Stampede or wrap it up to go. She opted for the latter—thankfully putting the ice cream portion in its own container—and now it sits in my refrigerator, waiting to be consumed. I’ll post an update if it turns out to be something special. But knowing how desserts tend to be at places like Longhorn, I suspect it will fall somewhere in the “not bad but not great” zone. And frankly, after a meal this underwhelming, the dessert—in order to make this burger something worth recommending to others—would have to imbue me with the power to magically summon any two Hollywood actresses of my choosing to my place for a three-way. (For the record,
George Clooney Kate Beckinsale and Christina Hendricks.)
Oh, and Dave B. from Chowhound? He’s dead to me. No, I’m just kidding. Even as my recent burger experience left much, much, much to be desired, I’m glad that he had not one, but two great burgers from the Longhorn folks. In his comments on Chowhound, Dave B. does mention “consistency within the chain.” My mother worked for a chain restaurant for a number of years and I can tell you that while these companies do generally try to apply across-the-board standards, there are a lot of variables at different locations that can result in wildly different experiences at Store A vs. Store B. I’ll definitely give the Longhorn in your neck of the woods a try at some point and report back if I have a better experience.