Around us, the vibe felt low-key celebratory, like a family reunion at the park; multigenerational groups sipped technicolor margaritas and passed around bloomin’ onions (sorry, “Cactus Blossoms”). I spotted two teenagers on what looked like a first date, feasting on steak and Coke. A group of friends at the bar shouted in exasperation at their underperforming St. Louis Cardinals.
Our waiter sensed right away we were first-timers. When I didn’t instantly snap the tabletop menu QR code with my phone, she took it as a sign and handed me a huge laminated one instead. “Sometimes I just want to hold a menu in my hands, too,” she said reassuringly. Overwhelmed by choice (seven categories for entrees alone!), I figured I’d go with a steak—taking a cue from the many hulking pieces of meat I saw around the room. When I briefly wobbled over whether to order my New York strip medium or medium-rare, she slid a little photo guide in front of me, illustrating the levels of steak doneness.
My strip, which arrived a little darker than the one on the diagram, was nicely charred and seasoned, if gristly; my husband’s bone-in ribeye was better, and medium-rare as promised. The mashed potatoes tasted like they came from a box, but a loaded baked potato was scoopable and light, well-seasoned, and heaped with bacon, cheddar, and sour cream. The rolls were as good as everyone says—tender and sweet with a slick of cinnamon-honey butter, plus more for smearing. I get why the recipe blogosphere faithfully churns out copycat after copycat recipe. I would like them to please unriddle those heavenly green beans, too, braised till soft in bacon and onion broth… nevermind, they already did.
Unlike LongHorn, which leans more traditional in its interpretation of steakhouse food, Texas Roadhouse has a decidedly country cooking bent—a little Southern, a little Creole, a little clichéd-cowboy Texan. And though every dish didn’t hit the mark, the flavors were warm and familiar, and the portions were generous. It’s the rich, throwback food I associate with the very American obsession with road trips. Call Texas Roadhouse the nighttime companion to the diner, maybe. You’ve driven all day in the white minivan, everyone’s starving and cranky. It’s time to stop for gravy-smothered beef tips and a loaded baked potato.
As we ate, clapping and shouts of “Yee-haw!” broke out. Over the tops of the booths, we could see a man in his 70s clamoring onto a saddle that the staff had wheeled out. One handed him a cloth napkin, which he waved around his head with vigor while they half-chanted “Happy Birthday.” His family laughed and clapped along. I got the sense this was an annual tradition.
After an evening at the Roadhouse, I have my own theory about the chain’s enduring—and growing—popularity that goes beyond streamlined digital ordering. There’s a line from the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s when socialite Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) explains why simply being inside the luxury jewelry store helps soothe her ongoing feelings of dread: “The quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there,” she says. The Roadhouse may not be quiet or fancy, but I felt content and at ease for the hour and a half I spent eating my baked potato and watching people watch sports. I can already imagine myself carving out another night at another Texas Roadhouse on my next great American road trip. It’s nice to know I’m never too far from a place where the bread is free, the game is always on, and the good times are just a napkin-waving saddle ride away.