Beef on Budget

When I told a friend about Em Chamas Brazilian Grill (see review), she was scandalized at the idea of tossing down $35 for an all-you-can-eat dinner that didn’t include drinks, dessert or gratuity. My friend is a frugal soul. “The cost of one dinner there would pay for my monthly cable bill,” she told me.

I know that feeling. There have been times when I’ve had to decide between going out to dinner for some special occasion and getting the oil changed in my car or buying a new pair of shoes. If I had been a frugal soul, I’d have a lot more shoes in my closet — and a smaller waistline.

When it comes to inexpensive steaks, I know a lot of people who swear by the Tampa, Florida-based Outback Steakhouse chain. These slickly run operations are less depressing than some other low-cost beef chains (such as the badly aging Ponderosa outlets), but there’s a trade-off for getting an 8-ounce “Outback Special” for $11. That center-cut sirloin dinner, which includes a loaf of warm pumpernickel bread and two side dishes, looks a lot better than it tastes. The menu claims that Outback’s steaks are USDA Choice beef “that’s hand-cut and aged just right.” I guess I believe that, but the three steaks I’ve tasted in local Outback venues over the past couple of years have been tough, chewy and not exactly loaded with flavor.

“But where else can you get a 20-ounce T-bone for $20?” argues my friend Joe, who is a huge Outback fan. He likes Outback’s little amenities, such as free refills on soft drinks and chilled bowls for the side salads. “If you can’t afford to go to Plaza III,” he says, “it’s the next best thing.”

I disagree, but there is one similarity between the restaurant operations. Both Plaza III locations serve lunch and, starting this month, two Outback Steakhouses serve lunch, too — but only the Outbacks in Mission (6870 Johnson Drive) and near Oak Park Mall in Overland Park (9501 Quivira). A company spokesperson, who asked not to be identified, told me that those restaurants were the only ones located “in areas that have a lunch clientele.”

And for wallet watchers: Yes, the lunch menu is cheaper than the dinner one.

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