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.
2475 Barrett Creek Parkway, Marietta GA 30060 (map); 770-429-9019; texasroadhouse.com, with about 400 locations
The Schtick: Cowboy-styled cuisine centered on steaks and ribs
The Burger: Dry, half-pound burgers are dwarfed by "Texas-sized" buns
Want Fries With That? The steak fries are actually the best part of the burger platter
Setting: Archetypal roadside saloon: cacti, corrugated tin, and horseshoes galore...but with some decent hand-painted murals
Price: All-American Cheeseburger, $7.99; Bacon Cheese Burger, $8.49
I should have been born a Texan. I've always had a thing for the Lone Star State, from the wide open prairies to my blind lifelong devotion to Dallas' NFL team to the straight-shootin' pickup truck mentality to the independent get-er-done attitude that just seems to come with the territory. Ignore my near-universal disdain for country music and my total ineptitude around horses, and I think I would have made a darn fine cowboy. I can certainly handle chuck-wagon cuisine: beef, beef, and more beef, liberal quantities of cornbread, and some potatoes and beans thrown in once in a while for good measure.
So by all rights, I should love Texas Roadhouse. A glass case of hand-cut steaks greeting you at the door, a tableside bucket of peanuts in the shell, the occasional yee-haw rising up from a far corner of the restaurant: what's not to love?
Well, as it turns out, the burgers.
The menu boasts three to choose from. The All-American Cheeseburger starts with the same half-pound patty of fresh-ground chuck as the others, and adds American cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onion. It's all served on what's called a "toasted, Texas-sized bun" alongside steak fries and a pickle spear.
But as that photo shows, the bun completely overwhelms. I love that the chain prides itself on making everything from scratch—each restaurant has a butcher and a baker in-house every day, with their name prominently displayed for all to see—and these buns were pretty tasty: fresh and squishy and fluffy, though perhaps a little prone to falling apart. But maybe "Texas-sized' is just too much for these burger bookends. How about "Wyoming-sized" buns that don't dwarf the beef?
But sadly, I'm not sure the meat should really be spotlighted any further. I wasn't allowed to order a burger cooked below medium, and both burgers at my table showed a 10-gallon hatful of dull, lifeless grey, with only the faintest hint of pink that was visible if you squinted at it just right. I watched the grillman on my way out; he clearly knew his stuff and juggled multiple steaks, chicken breasts, and burgers around both the open-flame grill and flat top with deft, practiced skill. I have no doubt that guy could have rustled up a fine medium-rare if given the chance. The dry, juiceless burgers I saw on this night would have been much happier for it.
The Bacon Cheese Burger adds bacon (duh) for 50¢ more. It's a worthwhile upgrade, as my pork strips were cooked to a perfect almost-crisp and added some saltiness that tried valiantly to wake up the beef. Apart from that, the two burgers were identical, with too-big buns and too-dry patties, and a little more lettuce and tomato than probably needed to be there. It's almost as if the veggies are doled out in proportion to the bun rather than the beef, and the result is the smallest-seeming half-pound burgers I've had in recent memory.
The steak fries were the plate's lone star. Big and pillowy, they were seasoned nicely. For an extra kick in the seat of your chaps, ask for the kitchen's Sweet & Zesty sauce on the side for dunking. (It's offered as a burger condiment, but it was far better as a fry dip.)
On paper, there's a lot to love about Texas Roadhouse. Everything (with the exception of, like, the kids' mac and cheese and hot dogs) is made from scratch, right down to the dressings, bacon bits, and salad croutons. That's impressive for any restaurant, but downright staggering for a chain of 400-ish in 47 states and two foreign countries. The ambience, while it can feel a little like the Disneyfied version of a roadside saloon (think cactus and horseshoes and corrugated tin everywhere...and a Willie Nelson shrine/corner booth in each location), is at least family-friendly and entertaining. I mean, the staff line dances mid-meal. For about 90 seconds to a bad cover of "Footloose," but how much more do you really need?
I just wish the burgers were better. Texas Roadhouse may shine with their steaks and ribs, but this cowboy will keep on riding down the trail the next time a hamburger hankering hits.
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, pizzas for Slice, and desserts for Sweets, 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 The Gaslight Anthem. Or both.