Best Bites: Think again, culinary elitists: Texas Roadhouse in Hadley is “the best $30 you can spend on a piece of meat anywhere in the Valley”
|Published: 10-27-2023 2:02 PM
Not even in the elite steakhouses of the world — the opulent haunts of the nouveau riche of New York, London, or Buenos Aires, where waiters in black tie serve $200 dry-aged Porterhouses to pharma execs and crypto bros — will you often get the chance to choose your own steak at a butcher’s counter.
This level of quality and personal customization can be found at few restaurants in the Western Hemisphere. Some old-school haunts in Tuscany will let you choose between cuts of €200-per-pound Chianina beef for your bistecca alla fiorentina. There’s a more casual place in Bordeaux called Boucher, one of my favorite restaurants in Europe, that does it. There you might get away for €100 a person.
And then there’s Texas Roadhouse on Route 9 in Hadley, where the most expensive steak on the menu — a sensational, 23-ounce USDA Choice Porterhouse — costs $34.99, including two side dishes. This is not much more than you’d pay for that steak at a good butcher shop.
The first thing you’ll see when you walk into the giant faux-clapboard house, beneath its classic strip-mall signage — the golden beacon of neon America — is the little butcher’s window to your left. There, through a glass counter, you can select from a couple dozen USDA Choice hand-cut steaks with different shapes, sizes, and levels of fat. They run the gamut from lean filets and sirloins as bright red and bouncy as fresh slabs of tuna sashimi to ribeyes with rich marbling from edge to edge.
When you choose your steak, they’ll tag it and give you a ticket with a number, like a concierge checking your luggage. You give the ticket to your server when your order, and you end up with that steak. The only drawback to this system is that the meat-counter assortment is mostly (or sometimes all) boneless steaks. I wish there were more bone-ins on display, since these are the kitchen’s best work.
Sight seen or unseen, you’re going to get a fantastic steak at Texas Roadhouse. Every one that sizzles to a table comes out tender and meaty, judiciously charred, and fresh without the faintest twinge of rancidity. The interior color of the beef gradates gradually, as it should, from the steak’s golden brown periphery to its juicy, deep red center.
A light brown sauce, thicker than a jus but thinner than a gravy — ”nappant,” as the French might say — seeps into the meat and adds umami to every bite. It is a straightfoward sauce, and given the natural flavor in the high-grade meat it’s all that’s needed, although you can also “smother your steak” with sautéed mushrooms, onions, jack cheese or a thicker brown gravy.
The Texas Roadhouse experience begins with the almost inconceivably friendly, helpful, and famously loyal staff, who are known as “Roadies.” This is one of a small handful of American hospitality brands, like Disney and In-N-Out, who have built — and managed to maintain — such a vibe among employees for so long.
So just like in Texas itself, there are always good moods and contagious smiles here — and patience, too. The are always Roadies swinging by through to see how you’re doing.
Here’s how good they are: on one recent visit, my table had ordered three medium-rare steaks. Two came out perfectly to temperature, cooked with the precision that I always expect from Texas Roadhouse. But on this night, one of our three steaks, uncharacteristically, came out medium-plus, with little pink left in the middle of the meat.
This happens, sometime or other, at every restaurant. Nobody’s perfect. What differentiates the greats is how they handle problems, and here, it’s with unusual kindness and grace. Within three minutes of sending back the one steak, the chef himself came out to apologize, gave us a free side of broccoli, and sent out a perfectly cooked steak minutes later.
I loved that well-steamed broccoli, like the bacon-studded green beans, though culinary elites would call them overcooked. (I also like mushy peas more than crunchy ones.)
Starters and side dishes are traditional American fare, with some fun touches. Warm dinner rolls come out straight from the oven, baked every five minutes. They come with honey cinnamon butter, which to your delight is a little sweeter than it should be. Don’t eat too many of them, because greater treasures await.
You might start with the dramatic and photogenic “Cactus Blossom,” a hacked-up and deep-fried onion, like a giant onion ring with dozens of tentacles. This is a knockoff of Outback’s Bloomin’ Onion, and it’s better than the original. Beef-and-bean chili, a starter or a side, is an absolutely judicious rendition, simple and cumin-forward with gently melting grated American cheese.
But the steaks are what you come here for, and among them, the bone-in ribeye is king. It’s the best $30 you can spend on a piece of meat anywhere in the Valley.
Given its great food and value proposition, Texas Roadhouse is usually full of customers, especially kids. My eight-year-old nephew Azai and his friend Joaquin, like many of their other friends, love the place. Nonetheless, Texas Roadhouse is never full of fancy people who live downtown, five-college professors, and their families. These highly educated people also love it when their kids have fun, and like anyone else, appreciate good value for their money, so why aren’t they here?
Well, first of all, Texas is immoral. Or at least it’s unfashionable. Among downtowners, I mean.
Second, steak is also unfashionable among downtowners, because they follow urban fine-dining trends. From the 1950s through the ‘70s, when steakhouses were in among New York elites, the Midwest was making a lot of money, and Midwesterners and their ways were therefore fashionable. With the flight of wealth and the wealthy from the Midwest, unadorned steak lost its status as “fine dining” among the culinary establishment. Today’s fine-dining restaurants come in many different genres, but steak — even at the highest end, at Smith & Wollensky or Peter Luger — is not fine dining.
Steak is steak dining, and today’s foodies frown upon it.
That wave of culinary gentrification has now washed steakhouses from the downtowns of western Massachusetts. Our steakhouses — Texas Roadhouse, Outback, LongHorn — live along the strip malls. And although steak is never cheap, they’re all reasonably priced compared with downtown restaurants.
Some highly educated downtowners do come through, but they’re hard to spot, because it’s a self-selected group of them, the unpretentious minority who deign to eat here, and they dress and behave more like normal people.
In 1993, just as the Midwest was becoming most unfashionable, Kent Taylor, a cowboy-hat-wearing Kentuckian, got a $300,000 investment from three local doctors and opened the first Texas Roadhouse in the Green Tree Mall in Clarksville, Indiana. It was immediately profitable. In the same year, he opened the second one in the equally unfashionable city of Gainesville, Florida.
No sit-down dining chain has a better track record of success over the past 30 years. Texas Roadhouse now has more than 500 branches serving a total of 300,000 meals per day, and it has been steadily profitable and grown in almost every year it has existed. The company’s market capitalization (NASDAQ: TXRH) is more than $6 billion, three times that of Bloomin’ Brands, owner of Outback.
And therein lies the last, and maybe biggest, reason you won’t find downtowners at Texas Roadhouse: in these parts, avoiding mega-chain restaurants is a virtue signal. This is true even in crowds that claim to care about things like the local economy and local jobs.
When it opened in 2016, Texas Roadhouse created more than 200 jobs in the Pioneer Valley, as many as 10 small restaurants. The ownership, yes, is not local. But by all accounts, their employees are happy and fairly compensated. They earn a living wage and they spend their money in the local economy. Chain restaurants are not a replacement for small local restaurant businesses, nor vice versa: in our vibrant economy there is plenty of room for both.
And they deliver a world-class steak and way better service than a New York steakhouse at a price that a working family can afford as an occasional splurge. Texas Roadhouse is a gift to the community, and the basis of this gift is not just the excellent food and service, but above all the generous prices.
You can get a 6-ounce sirloin steak dinner — the most popular order across the more than 500 branches of this beloved American family-dining chain — with two sides for $15, the price of a sandwich on many downtown lunch menus.
Taylor sadly died in 2021 of COVID-related causes, but in his posthumously published memoir, “Made from Scratch,” he tells his own rags-to-riches story and the centrality of what the book calls “cuckoo pricing.”
“Texas Roadhouse has purposefully trailed the industry in menu price increases,” Taylor writes. “It appeals primarily to families who watch every dollar … and the company respects their guests’ pocketbooks. Pricing decisions are made regionally, on the front lines, rather than in corporate finance or marketing departments.”
Here’s to affordable meals that make memories, to family dining concepts that transcend state lines and regional rivalries, and to restaurants great enough to replicate and reach people from sea to shining sea.
Robin Goldstein is the author of “The Menu: Restaurant Guide to Northampton, Amherst, and the Five-College Area.” He serves remotely on the agricultural economics faculty of the University of California, Davis. He can be reached at email@example.com.