Pros: * Hearty, flavorful food
* Huge portions
* Lively atmosphere
* Friendly wait staff
Cons: * No reservations policy
* Unhelpful front staff
I confess to being one of those diners who is normally quite opposed to dining at chain restaurants (i.e., a food snob). That is not to say that I only eat at four star establishments, as I prefer mom-and-pop owned restaurants where the focus is on the food. Frankly, I avoid the high-end 4 star chains, too, as I find the food/concept is often too watered down at a mass-marketed chain. Surprisingly, the one restaurant chain that we regularly enjoy is Texas Roadhouse, a huge chain with 260 locations in 44 states. We just ate there last night with my in-laws, so I decided Id write more about one of the only chain restaurants I regularly enjoy.
About the Union City, CA location
Union City is a medium-sized city northeast of San Jose, south of Oakland, and southeast of San Francisco. In other words, it's a suburban community that wouldn't seem to be the most ideal city for a chain that only has 3 locations in the entire state of California (all of whom are in Northern California).
Yet Texas Roadhouse is located in a gigantic strip mall anchored by a Wal-Mart, Lowe's, Best Buy, Babies R Us, Borders, Century Theaters, and dozens of other smaller shops and chain restaurants. Thus, Texas Roadhouse (which is near the Border's and Century Theaters) is part of a mini-city of retail establishments. Parking is really difficult at certain times, like Friday night between 6 and 9 pm, even though there must be thousands of parking spaces. We have been known to park over by the Lucky's supermarket and walk 10 minutes when we head over during prime time.
Texas Roadhouse is a large stand-alone building surrounded by parking spaces. I would estimate the capacity is at least 120 or more. The restaurant's exterior looks like it's standard issue, as it matches photos of other restaurants on the website. It's basically a huge wooden building (looks like a mini-fort to me!) with a Texan flag and an American flag flying overhead. Once you enter the building, you can see lots of random country/Americana decor on the walls: trophy bass plaques, a stuffed buffalo head, neon lights, postcards, etc.
The seating is a mix of wooden booths (ranging in size from small ones for 2 adults to large ones that could squeeze 8 slim teenagers or 6 regular adults) and wooden tables with unpadded wooden seats. Please note that the wooden tables are packed in tightly. Last night, I saw an overweight man who had to ask patrons at two tables to adjust their chairs so he could squeeze by. The man was probably 200-250 pounds, so an "average" sized overweight American man, not unusually obese at all. That gives you some idea of how crowded it can be.
The hostess picks up the hot rolls as she seats you, so the first thing you do after sitting down is dive right into the hot fluffy dinner rolls baked golden brown and served with a tasty honey cinnamon butter spread. If you arent sick of peanuts yet (after munching on them in the waiting area), there is a metal bucket on the table as well.
While Texas Roadhouse offers specialty alcoholic drinks like margaritas, we stick to the beers on tap. There arent many, quite frankly, as I recall something about the typical American mainstream beers (Bud? Coors?) and then a few familiar regional brewery favorites like the Widmer Brothers Hefeweisen and Sierra Nevadas pale ale. When we went last night, the waitress initially mentioned Redhook Brewerys Longhammer India Pale Ale as an option, but then came back later and said they no longer have it. Thus, both my husband and I had the Hefeweisen ($6.95 for a large 12-16 oz serving) while my in-laws shared a Sierra Nevada ($6.95 for a large 12-16 oz serving). The beers on tap are brought to the table in their respective brewerys distinctive glass with the logo, so we had Widmer Weizen glasses while the in-laws had a Sierra Nevada pint glass. All 3 glasses were poured with a nice head of foam, but not too much.
The menus offer some standard American favorites, like steaks, burgers, ribs, country specialties and some seafood options, too. We tend to stick to the ribs and steaks, though I did try a healthier Grilled Chicken Salad ($9.99) for dinner on the night we announced I was pregnant to my in-laws. We often skip the appetizers, which are mostly deep-fried items like the Cactus Blossom (onion) and Rattlesnake bites (cheese and jalapeno poppers), or classic bar food like tater skins, buffalo wings, and chicken fritters.
My husband almost always orders the full slab of ribs ($19.99) (taking home 2/3 or more home for subsequent meals), while I vary between Prime Rib ($15.99-$19.99 depending on size) (which is only served after 4 pm while available and comes in 3 cuts: 10 oz, 12 oz., and 16 oz), the Ft. Worth Ribeye ($15.99-$19.99 depending on size) (also comes in 3 cuts: 10 oz, 12 oz., and 16 oz), or something random off the rest of the menu. These are all huge portions, though you can choose smaller cuts of meat (e.g., 6 oz. Sirloin steak or Dallas filet).
Last night, he once again ordered a full slab of ribs (falling off the bone, but a bit overcooked/dry compared to usual) while I had the 16 oz Prime Rib, medium rare, with fresh horseradish. We both loved my Prime Rib. My in-laws, who joined us, had a full slab or ribs and the Sirloin steak and Barbecued Chicken combination meal ($14.99). They both seem pleased and also took home the majority of their entrees.
With the aforementioned entrees, you also get a choice of 2 made-from-scratch sides. My husband and I usually decide to get 4 different ones and share. Weve enjoyed the chili, baked potato (which is salted on the outside and fluffy hot on the inside--you can get it "loaded" with bacon, sour cream, and cheddar cheese for an additional $1.29), mashed potatoes, Caeser salad, and steak fries.
The last 2 times we have eaten at Texas Roadhouse, we also brought our 22 month old daughter, who greatly enjoys their kids meals. We ordered the Kraft macaroni and cheese($2.99) for her, which comes with milk and a choice of one side. I havent been impressed with their fresh vegetables (carrots, cauliflower and broccoli), so I often pay extra and order her a plain baked sweet potato ($0.79) , rather than the fries, mashed potatoes, or baked beans. She has a hearty appetite, but the portion is large enough for an adult so we always have leftovers.
We're always too full to have dessert. There are three options, all for $4.99: strawberry cheesecake, brownie, or apple pie. I've never seen anyone eating dessert, so I wonder how many people order it.
Suffice to say, these are classic American entrees that are prepared well, served hot, and reasonably priced. When a restaurant delivers this kind of meal, Im a fan regardless of whether its a mom-and-pop establishment or chain restaurant.
About the Dining Experience
My biggest complaint is that they don't accept reservations. Thus, we often time our meals to avoid the crowds. Note: there is a "call ahead" option where they will put your name on a waiting list when you tell them your estimated time of arrival. However, I have been frustrated because some of the hostesses require all members of your party be standing in front of the hostess check-in podium before even writing down your name or "activating" your entry on the list. Therefore, calling ahead may not help if the rest of your party is late.
When you first enter, theres almost always a group of staff clumped by the check-in podium as they wait to escort guests to tables, wearing black Texas Roadhouse t-shirts and headsets. And on weekend nights, the staff have been known to line dance and put on a little show for diners in the middle of the restaurant by the bar. My 22 month old loved the "show" the waiters put on and was clapping happily at the end.
In the waiting area to the left of the check-in podium is a large barrel of peanuts (and lots of peanut shells on the ground), as well as lots of Polaroid photos of diners who finished the big 32 oz steak. I was pleased to see a few really skinny small women among the huge overweight men. On most nights, we have had to wait anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour or more. One night, a Saturday night around 7 pm, the wait was more than 2 hours so we ended up walking over to another chain restaurant (where we were SORELY disappointed by their ribs). Anyhow, in the 4-5 times we have eaten here over the past 2 years, we normally try to go early so we have only a 30 minute wait. The one time there was no wait at all was at 4:45 pm on a Saturday afternoon.
When you enter, the music is blaring (Shania Twain and other country/rock stars can be barely heard) but the crowds are louder. The vibe here is fun and lively despite the VERY mixed crowd of senior citizens, families with toddlers, and the high school/college/young professionals singles crowd. I think the fact that were in the middle of the suburbs gives Texas Roadhouse a very diverse audience as there arent many choices out here for weekend entertainment/dining.
Unlike other chains that give you pagers, Texas Roadhouse just calls your name out over the intercom system. When it's a really long wait, you can tell because there's no room inside and 30-40 people are milling around the outside of the restaurant.
Once you're called, you will walk by the "bakery" where hot rolls are baked fresh and the meat counter where the steaks are hand carved. Several nicely trimmed raw steaks are on display in the case.
The servers tend to be young and outgoing, yet still professional. Ice water is usually promptly refilled and the servers ask if we want more beer or soda. Food is served quite quickly even though the place is almost always packed.
My disappointment has been with the hostesses who seat us, as I think they are among the youngest and least friendly/responsive/professional. Frankly, I have been irritated by a hostess at every trip there, whether its because one of the girls (they all look 15 or 16) writes down the wrong guest information (i.e., She instructs another hostess to escort us to a table for 3 adults and a baby when I clearly told her 4 adults and a toddler in a high chair) or is just unhelpful. For instance, last night, the hostess brought us to a booth in the back by the restroom and an open door leading to a covered patio where I could see tables set up for a private party. There was a strong stench of some sort of burning gas, which we later deduced came from the outdoor heaters. I immediately asked the hostess what the smell was and whether we could be moved. She stared blankly at me at first, then said shed go find out.
We stood by that booth for 5 minutes as she walked over to the empty room and then walked back to the front of the restaurant to find out. When she came back, she just told us to follow her and we ended up standing in front by the hostess station for another 5 minutes until a different hostess finally seated us. We never heard an explanation for the smell, she didnt arrange for a table before leading us back to the front to stand there, and I overheard her tell another hostess, They didnt want the booth so you need to re-seat them. It irritated me that she wasnt more helpful in arranging a table before dragging us back to the front. And honestly, I was also annoyed that she didnt explain to the other hostess that we refused the booth because we didnt want our 22 month old toddler exposed to unknown burning chemical fumes. Instead, I felt like she just dumped us back on the other hostess with the implication that we were overly demanding patrons.
I will continue to enjoy meals at Texas Roadhouse because the large portions, reasonable prices, and friendly wait staff make it a pleasant experience for the whole family. I just wish they would allow reservations and provide more training to the front of the room staff.