Meat for the Masses
MoB | Hunting for the Bargain Steak
We’ve been blessed with a very high quality supply of meat in this inaugural Month of Beef, but the reality of life is that there isn’t always a Wagyu beef cache and a hot cast iron pan in arm’s reach — especially on the road. We wondered, is it possible to get a good steak at one of America’s big chain restaurants, or is it a lonely walk to the other side of the beef railroad tracks? Our small, slightly unscientific experiment: search for a bargain in a massive, widely accessible national chain restaurant. In this case: Applebee’s. Maybe we’d be pleasantly surprised and find a decent steak at a bargain. Or maybe we’d end up eating a bullet for you.
Read on to find out how good (or not) eating in the neighborhood really is.
It’s fair to say that we didn’t go in to our grand experiment with high hopes. There’s a stigma around chain restaurants, one nurtured by films like Waiting and even some of our own waitstaff ordeals. Chain restaurants absolutely serve their own purpose, but that doesn’t mean their kitchens don’t scare us a little. But with pessimism came lowered expectations. Could a cheapo steak experience sweep us off our feet? Good food that doesn’t break the bank is always appealing; isn’t that what Applebee’s proposes to sell, after all?
We pawed the menu and tried to order diversely. Our three picks were the 12-ounce New York Strip Steak, the 9-ounce House Sirloin (a “neighborhood classic”) and the Bourbon Street Steak, all ordered medium rare. We asked what kind of cut the Bourbon Street was, and though the waiter wasn’t sure, he did direct us to the laminated photo on the menu. Not a great start.
As an aside, it’s worth noting the photos below have none of the usual post-processing applied to them. Just raw photos taken on a basic DSLR, crappy lighting and all. For comparison’s sake, we’ve thrown in the images from Applebee’s website as a reference.
12-Ounce New York Strip Steak
Price: $23.29 (in New York: $28.28)
PUT THAT STEAK KNIFE DOWN
I’m not looking to start a culture war here: I’ve enjoyed my share of Mediterranean chicken wraps at O’Charley’s, Original Chicken Crispers at Chili’s and late-night CINN-A-STACK pancakes at IHOP. If you want to see my membership card for the Boston Market’s VIP Club, just say the word. We’ll grab a family meal for three. My treat.
We call these places casual dining restaurants. They’re the big box department stores of the restaurant world: open late, mediocre burgers, great onion rings, 200+ locations along interstate highways, often owned by publicly traded companies and without fail a salad dressed with mandarin orange slices and almond slivers.
And a full menu of steaks. When I order a steak it’s because I feel I’ve earned it. Maybe it was a long week, maybe I earned a little extra money that month, or maybe I just feel like eating the simplest, most delicious thing I can think of. What I don’t want is a steak covered in shrimp and cream sauce. I don’t want a steak that smells a little like, well, dog food. I don’t want a steak served with a side of vegetables that have a radioactive half-life. I don’t want a steak that turns to mush when it’s cooked to medium rare, probably because it’s been defrosted in the microwave. And I certainly don’t want to pay more than $20 for it.
So here’s my verdict: don’t order that steak at Applebee’s. Ever.
The New York Strip was the creme de la creme of the menu, from the looks of it. Price-wise, it didn’t break the bank, but it wasn’t wowingly inexpensive, either. With a beer or two, tax and tip, you’re playing in the $40 range; a Cowboy Burger with the same fixins’ comes in at a much less gasp-worthy $25.
The steak looked half decent when it slid onto the table. The crosshatched grill marks were, perhaps, the most well-executed aspect of the entire meal. Mashed potatoes on the side looked waxen yet delicious, but the vegetables, in the wise words of our fellow taste tester, appeared as if they were just dug out of a trash can.
We sliced eagerly into the steak. Boy was it rare — not quite enough to be sent back, but certainly pushing our comfort level for a chain restaurant (our server suggested ordering temps beginning at medium). There was no color gradient: the meat dropped quickly from silvery brown to pale pink. Not a problem.
In general, we’d rather have rare than overcooked, but the meat was soft and mushy — which gives pause. The flavor wasn’t not terrible, but it wasn’t impressive, either — none of that deep, mouth-watering beefiness we’ve come to love. Not a win, and a bit of a kick in the gut for the price.
9-Inch House Sirloin
Price: $19.79 (in New York: $25.59)
This cut seemed to be the median on the menu, so when it came to our table plump with surprisingly accurate grill marks and a nice color our spirits were lifted. But once again, when we opened it up with our trusty serrated knives… there sat the dreaded mushmeat. At this point it occurred to us that the waiter hadn’t mentioned medium-rare or rare when asking how we wanted our meat — just medium-well or well-done. The texture suffered harshly from a doneness that usually makes for a prime meal. We pushed on, but it was just too rare and disconcertingly soft. The ends, which were a bit more cooked, had a firmness not present in the strip steak that made them a bit more edible. In flavor, though, the house sirloin had too much pepper and char, which overwhelmed the tastiness we’ve been accustomed to this Month of Beef. Another disappointment.
Bourbon Street Steak
Price: $19.99 (in New York: $25.79)
We still had hope. This was the only steak that wasn’t served plain, having been doused in a strange white sauce, mushrooms, onions and a dark oily broth. We shook our heads at the mystery sauce, scraped it off, and dug in. Finally, we opened up something that wasn’t undercooked. This steak was done just right, probably because it was served on a skillet that had continued to cook it at the table. It had good firmness. It had tasty pan juices. It didn’t have the consistency of a meat-flavored Swedish Fish. As much as we hated the other two attempts at beefery, this was utterly passable. Be proud, ye citizens of New Orleans. Applebee’s does you somewhat proud.
The most harrowing aspect of our meal, even after our medium rare troubles, was that small slip of paper with faded ink print. At New York City prices (roughly 25% higher than those listed on the Applebee’s website), our three steaks, along with two sodas, came out to a depression-inducing $110. There’s nothing bargain about that price, even if you’re not in the big city. But this trip wasn’t all doom and gloom. Here are our lessons learned. Heed them, or beware, ye who enter here.
Don’t order your steak rare or medium rare. Medium should do the trick and keep the meat from feeling like sushi on your tongue. That, in the end, was the main contributor to our disappointment. Secondly, don’t shy away from steaks with toppings and sauces. You’ll have to sacrifice your purity, but as we learned, purity doesn’t do much for you here. Grilled onions and mushrooms, cheeses and even shrimp are being pitched to you with gusto. Run with it. Top off all you want — but think long and hard before you spring for the steak. Chicken fingers aren’t glamorous, but neither is dropping 100 bones on weak meat.