LongHorn Steakhouse in Waterford is a good deal

Rice pilaf, steamed broccoli and Parmesan creamed spinach (Photo by Eileen Jenkins)
Rice pilaf, steamed broccoli and Parmesan creamed spinach (Photo by Eileen Jenkins)

There are so many unanswered questions.

Do we have free will? Are protons unstable? Do plants die of old age? And THIS brain-spinner: Why do all my favorite foods cost so much?

Shrimp, babyback ribs, oysters, steak, lobster ... It's as though some faraway Food God intoned in his Orson Welles voice: "Hey, it seems Rick Koster likes shrimp. Raise the price!"

My wife Eileen, who is a vegetarian, rarely has this problem. "I think I'll have some leeks. Look! They're 19-cents a quarter-ton!"

In an admittedly unscientific observation, seeking out a really excellent steak seems to be the most prohibitively expensive dining experience. In my time on our planet, it's been my very occasional pleasure to eat at some very fine — and very costly — steakhouses. Special occasion deals, mostly.

The original Del Frisco's, The Palm and Ruth's Chris — all back in the Dallas days. Dickie Brennan's in New Orleans. Michael Jordan's, just up the road at Mohegan Sun. And Tadich Grill in San Francisco (notable in addition to the superb beef for being the one place that had virtually NOTHING for Eileen to eat. I think the waiter felt bad and finally brought her some lawn clippings from his own home).

Anyway, lost in all of this is the idea of the moderately-priced steak. Unless you're one of those Jerry Jones people who eats at the Palm six nights a week, a moderately-priced steak is certainly better than none at all. Which is why I recently spent a few meals at our local LongHorn Steakhouse franchise.

It's a large, pleasant, ranch-y sort of place, with a saloon area on the left and a booth-happy family dining room on the right. There's a high, timber-framed ceiling, plenty of wood and stone, a steer head or two, and framed and silhouette-sculpture décor designed to make you think you're in Wyoming rather than tucked between Home Depot and the Sears at Crystal Mall. On each of my visits, the staff of mostly Young Persons was cordial and quick.

Featured, of course, is beef — including sirloin, chop steak, flat iron steak, New York strip, a filet, T-bone, ribeye and a porterhouse. But the LongHorn experiences reminded me of another "lost in all this" fact: folks operating a moderately-priced chain steakhouse have a target demographic and, as such, offer a lot of stuff that's not steak: sports-bar-styled appetizers; burgers; chicken and seafood entrees; salads and sandwiches; even a moderately varied array of vegetable sides.

And while nothing we ate is going to strike giant icicles of fear into the staff at Peter Luger's, we enjoyed most of the things we tried — a few of them a lot. From the appetizers, the fried pickles ($3.99) and spicy chicken bites ($5.49) were both exceptional. The former were very thinly sliced and moderately dilled pickles spangled with Parmesan and panko crumblies. The quick-fried batter had a delicate, almost tempura quality. Accompanying in splendid and tangy contrast was a house-made ranch dressing.

The chicken breast bits, in a brittle batter, came luxuriating in a silver serving cup with a crafty, rich ginger-chili sauce that left a vapor trail of sweet heat on the tongue. I'd order two of these as a meal unto itself anytime.

Of the lunch combinations, I tried a third-pound cheeseburger ($7.99 with a choice of soups or salads). If you're used to a Wendy's Quadruple Dave (or whatever their giants are called), a third-pound burger isn't very large. But the quality of the burger is quantifiably superb and thick, melted cheddar oozed off the patty. My side, a bowl of shrimp & lobster chowder ($3.99 cup, $5.49 bowl), was barely warm and seemed to contain a lot more corn than seafood.

From the "Beyond Steak" portion of the menu, Redrock grilled shrimp ($12.99) came on two skewers atop a bed of rice, all delicately kissed by a smoky tomato butter. I didn't get much "smoke" or "tomato" out of the sauce, but it was buttery and got along splendidly with the large crustaceans.

What did Eileen get out of all this? She was impressed that our server knew which of the sides were made with chicken or veggie stock and, from the $2.99 sides menu, enjoyed the fresh steamed broccoli and rice pilaf, both of which were adeptly prepared. Her highlight was from the $4.99 signature sides. Parmesan creamed spinach included just-out-of-the-garden spinach in a robust cheese-cream with panko topping. Twenty-two grams of fat?! Yes, but soooo worth it.

Oh, I actually did eat a steak, a six-ounce portion of the Renegade Sirloin ($11.49. $14.49 eight-ounce and $17.99 11-ounce). It came with one side, and I asked for fries since, well, those are ideal to run through a buttery a jus. The cut was lean as promised, delicately charred on the exterior and red in the center befitting my "medium rare" request. The menu boasted a "signature Prairie Dust" seasoning, which was not discernible. Which is fine; my steak wasn't fork-tender, but it was quite enjoyable.

There are several desserts I could have studied on the menu, but as soon as I saw a Key lime pie jar ($3.49), that's all I needed to know. It's actually served in a small Mason jar in a tripartite construct: velvety lime filling on the bottom with graham cracker powder in the middle and a fleurette of whipped cream at the summit. Just really pleasing.

We'll visit LongHorn again, whether to actually eat an affordable and tasty steak or to enjoy any of the numerous other good stuff available.

LongHorn Steakhouse

Cuisine: Moderately priced franchise steakhouse with tasty beef and a surprising wealth of fine appetizers, sandwiches, sides and other choices

Atmosphere: Where you'd expect Longmire and Joe Pickett meet to celebrate capturing Wyoming criminals

Service: Polite, quick and solicitous

Prices: Lunch combos $7.99-$9.99; appetizers, sides and salads $2.99-$13.49; sandwiches and burgers $9.79-$14.79; steaks and entrees $10.99-$27.49

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Credit cards: All major

Handicap access: Yes 

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