BREA — This column is rarely devoted to chain restaurants, but Outback Steakhouse is worth making an exception.
The Outback chain began as a single restaurant in Tampa, Fla., less than 10 years ago. Today there are well more than 300, in 36 states. The Brea branch is the only one in Orange County, but probably not for long.
What's the secret? I'm guessing friendliness, fair prices, reasonable quality and consistency. There are few glaring flaws (though there are also few brilliancies) in an Outback meal. And let's not forget that none of the ingredients are frozen and everything's made on the premises, from the crisp "Aussie chips" (French fries) to that rarity, hand-whipped cream on the desserts.
The restaurant has a clubby feel and a pronounced Australian motif: pictures of "Crocodile Dundee" star Paul Hogan, quaint Aussie signs ("No Sleeping on the Bar"), faux Aboriginal crafts and sundry paraphernalia suggesting cultural encounters Down Under. It does not detract from the kick of the place that this Aussie connection is a bit of a stretch foodwise--just about all the meals are thoroughly American.
When you arrive, two or three waitresses hold the door open for you, and that friendly, casual air runs throughout the evening. The waitresses kid with the customers and even sit down with them in the comfy wooden booths, a la Ed Debevic's, to take orders. This also has something to do with the noise level at this usually crowded place--sometimes they actually have to kneel to get within earshot.
The house specialty drink is Wallaby Darned, a frozen peach-and-champagne drink rather like a Bellini slush spiked with rum. There are also a lot of frozen margaritas, including a 14-ounce monster called the Down Under 'Rita.
The best two appetizers (pardon me, "Aussie-Tizers") are the ones made with shrimp. Grilled shrimp on the barbie is a half dozen perfectly grilled fresh shrimp with a horseradish remoulade; Gold Coast coconut shrimp is six larger shrimps dipped in a light beer batter and rolled in coconut before frying. They are surprisingly greaseless, and another surprise is the horseradish tang in their tart orange marmalade dipping sauce.
Walkabout soup is a sweet, creamy onion soup topped with melted cheese--delicious at first, then a bit cloying. Bloomin' onion is a whole deep-fried onion--it looks like an otherworldly flower with dozens of golden brown petals.
Steak is really what Outback does best. Rockhampton rib eye is a fine, fatty 14-ounce piece of beef, and ours came medium rare, exactly as ordered. The Michael J. "Crocodile" Dundee is a good, lean 14-ounce New York strip. I've also had the Melbourne, a thick 20-ounce Porterhouse with a wonderful tenderloin portion.
At $12.95, the best value is the Outback special, a 12-ounce center cut from the sirloin. All meats are Choice grade, cooked on a griddle, and I can only think how much better they would be if they were cooked over mesquite or hardwood.
Non-steak entrees are much less consistent. If you fancy prime rib, you can get it in 8-, 12- or 16-ounce cuts, swimming in their own juice. Ribs on the barbie comes in a generous rack, with those first-rate "Aussie chips." The menu says the meat is smoked and grilled, but ours had the flat, bland taste of meat that had been precooked and merely finished on a grill.
Chicken on the barbie employs the cut called the chicken tender, to my mind a backward step for civilization. Chicken tenders are hunks of white meat with no bone and little or no flavor. Even a lively barbecue sauce can't rescue this dish from mediocrity.
The Jackaroo chops, two 8-ounce center-cut pork chops served with a spicy cinnamon apple compote, are better. Veggie pasta Pemberton is overcooked penne pasta flavored with garlic and herbs, piled up in a casserole dish with char-grilled yellow peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and sliced portobello mushrooms.
You won't go far wrong with the cheese-heavy Caesar salad, but make sure to ask them to go light on the dressing, which has a pungent appeal, but only in moderate quantities. The firm, relatively small baked potatoes can be loaded up with bacon, cheese, chives and sour cream. In addition, all meals come with something called bushman bread, a dark, crusty loaf with a mild sweetness, served piping hot.
The mammoth desserts include Chocolate Thunder From Down Under (a huge brownie sundae) and Cheesecake Olivia--named, one assumes, for Australian-born Olivia Newton-John--which is in the New York style. Cinnamon Oblivion is a pecan-studded ball of Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream covered in cinnamon apples, caramel sauce and fresh whipped cream, strewn with a liberal helping of buttery cinnamon croutons.
Our waitress insisted we have Cinnamon Oblivion, and I have to say, good on you, mate. Eat a whole oblivion and you'll have enough calories to sustain you on one mighty long walkabout.
Outback Steakhouse is moderately priced. Aussie-Tizers are $2.45-$6.45. Entrees and steaks are $9.95-$17.95. Side dishes are $1.75-$3.95. Desserts are $3.45-$4.45.
* OUTBACK STEAKHOUSE
* 402 Pointe Drive, Brea.
* (714) 990-8100.
* Dinner 4-10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4-11 p.m. Friday, 3:30-11 p.m. Saturday, 3:30-10 p.m. Sunday.
* All major cards.