Of course we love our mom & pops, and our favorite burger joints around the country are pretty much all independently owned, but there are certain times in life—overnight layovers, hungover Sunday mornings, all-day shopping trips at the outlets—that the only options around are the chains. Chain Reaction is here to help you decide when to go for the burger, and when you're better off sticking with the chicken fingers.
4721 Lower Roswell Road, Marietta, GA 30068 (Map); 770-977-3045
longhornsteakhouse.com, 370+ locations in 35 states
The Schtick: Old-West-themed steakhouse and saloon
The Burger: Of the four burgers, the spicy Black & Bleu packs the most punch
Want Fries With That? They're nothing special, but nicely seasoned
Setting: Rancher's cabin, complete with chaps and spurs hanging everywhere
Price:Black & Bleu Burger, $9.99
I'm not sure that true-blue cowboys would really eat at LongHorn Steakhouse, even though the chain sure wants you to feel like you've wandered in right behind a whole posse of them fresh off the range. Chaps, horseshoes, spurs, lassos, ten-gallon hats—the rancher gear is all over every square inch of the 370-plus restaurants spread across 35 states.*
* Quite a ride-off-into-the-sunset story for a brand that reportedly had one foot in the grave for its first year. According to legend, the first LongHorn location—on Atlanta's famed Peachtree Street—was struggling mightily in 1982 until a freak snowstorm hit during rush hour and forced hundreds of motorists to abandon their cars where they sat. Founder George McKerrow apparently threw open his doors and offered stranded commuters $1 drinks...and instantly put his little ol' saloon on the map.
Today, the chain sells itself as an authentic taste of the Old West, with stick-to-your-ribs grub fit for cowboy-sized appetites: steaks, salmon, ribs, and the like. Burgers occupy just a small corner of the menu; there are just four, and only one of them is available outside of lunch service.
The selections are pretty standard for the most part: a plain cheeseburger, a bacon-and-cheddar model, and a BBQ-themed variant that actually uses housemade potato chips as a topping. But to me, the most interesting is the Black & Bleu ($9.99). All start out as eight ounces of Angus, grilled up on a flat-top and served on a toasted brioche bun. The beef is of decent quality with a nice consistency and excellent sear job, but unfortunately, you can't get it cooked to anything less than medium.
Despite my server's promise to request something on the pink side of medium, my burger showed only one off-center smidge of color that truthfully looked like the result of a cool spot on the flat-top as opposed to the conscious effort of a line cook to hit medium rare.
That said, even though it may be lacking in juiciness, the Black and Bleu offers a welcome one-two punch. The rich and creamy melted blue cheese has some serious tang to it. But whereas many patties topped with blue are hopelessly overpowered, this one has the beef to hold its own.
That's due mostly to LongHorn's 7-pepper seasoning, completely encrusting the patty and providing a super-spicy kick that you'll still feel on your tongue hours later. I asked our server Samantha about it, hoping to hornswaggle some insider info out of her about its makeup. She did me one better and presented me with a take-home sample. While the chain uses it only on this burger and a steak salad, she claims that it works wonders on salmon and chicken, too. She even told me about a regular who asks for a dusting of it on his grilled veggies. I'm tempted to send it off to a lab to have it broken down into ingredients and proportions...but I'm more intrigued by what I could rustle up with it on my Big Green Egg.
LongHorn's fries are nothing special, but a competent fry job and healthy dose of seasoning salt is better than many chains can boast, and it makes these a perfectly suitable sidekick to the Black & Bleu burger.
You may not be expecting much, given the perhaps-overdone cowpokes-'round-the-campfire decor, but when you're saddle-sore from chain-restaurant blandness, there are far worse stops up and down the trail than LongHorn Steakhouse.
About the Author: Todd Brock lives the glamorous life of a stay-at-home freelance writer in the suburbs of Atlanta. Besides being paid to eat cheeseburgers for AHT and pizzas for Slice, he's written and produced over 1,000 hours of television and penned Building Chicken Coops for Dummies. When he grows up, he wants to be either the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys or the drummer for Hootie & the Blowfish. Or both.