Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Ponderosa Steakhouse

Target demographics:
Carnivores. Grandparents. Lonely Truckers.
My antithetical demographics:
Vegetarian. Grandson without progeny. Generally-satisfied-with-my-social-life librarian.

Ponderosa and Outback represent premiere instances of my masochistic explorations into inappropriate restaurants. Like many things in my life, it began totally outside of my own volition. Going to a steakhouse despite my vegetarianism was entirely my friend's idea. We were going to go to lunch one day, but before he picked me up he called and warned, "Look, I know you're going to hate this but I really want a steak, so we're going to a Outback. I'll pay." My reaction to this was split cleanly between the two sentences. Because I'm a vegetarian, the first sentence seemed like the stupidest idea ever. Because I'm cheap, however, the second sentence was very intriguing. My cheapness outweighed my reluctance, however, and I decided to give it a shot. On the way to Outback my curiosity began to germinate. Would they have any provisions for the confused and hungry vegetarian that wandered in? I began to look forward to the possibilities.

Unfortunately, Outback doesn't open until four in the afternoon and we got there around three. I was disappointed. I was looking forward to being disappointed by my lack of options.  My friend suggested we go to Perkins instead, but I've already been to Perkins. I already know I hate Perkins, and didn't really feel like getting that reaffirmed. But I didn't have a better idea, so we ventured off in the general Perkins direction.On the way, however, I spotted a Ponderosa jutting out from the deserted asphalt of one of those large, lonely, weekday afternoon suburban parking lot.

"Hey!" I said, "there's a steakhouse!" 
"Ponderosa?" my friend said, "Is that a steakhouse? Is it even open? Well, I suppose we could go there."

So we made a U-turn into my initial experience at a restaurant entirely opposed to my diet. It turned out Ponderosa was an excellent first choice. Not because it eased me into the steakhouse world. Instead entering Ponderosa was a trial by fire. Ponderosa is like the looking glass world of fine dining.

First of all, this particular Ponderosa looked like it was the site of a recent proletariat rapture. Like I said before, it was in the middle of one of those curious, vast suburban parking lots. I've become used to downtown business districts, where shops and restaurants are stacked up against each other like Legos. In the suburbs, businesses seem to fall where they land. Towards the back of the lot, towards the front of the lot, right in the middle, who cares?! We've got the space! The fact that it was a weekday afternoon probably didn't help the feeling of isolation as we exited the car. There was, perhaps, four other cars in the lot. If it was a movie, the wind would have whistled.

But we didn't really enter the looking glass until we went inside. Have you been to a Ponderosa, recently? I know I've been to one before, but I really don't remember it operating any different from any other restaurant. Apparently it does. When we walked in we noticed light boxes to the right, which illuminated nine pictures of somehow succulent steaks meals along with their prices. The the left was a low wall with the dining room behind it. At the end of the wall was a large woman behind a "wooden" counter. Behind her was another display featuring the same meals. We approached her expecting to be seated. The woman behind the counter at the front of a restaurant is the hostess, right? I don't know. I thought this was a reasonable assumption.

Well, it's not. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence where it became evident that our mere presence in Ponderosa did not necessarily yield us a seat at the table. I'm not exactly sure who broke the tension, or what was said, but I think either my friend said something to the effect of, "Wait... what's going on?"

"You order a steak and a drink here. And you tell me what type of potato you want. Then you can sit down and we'll bring it out to you. You get the buffet too."

Apparently, Ponderosa is the McDonalds of steakhouses. My curiosity suddenly turned to panic. I thought I would be at liberty to sit at the table and stare at the menu while my face slowly contorted into a grimace of disgust. "My word! Why there's absolutely nothing on here! This establishment is perfectly vulgar! Good day to you, sir, I will take my business elsewhere." Instead, I was under pressure to choose from a selection of totally incompatible meals right away! Thankfully , it was eventually revealed that I could have just the buffet for six dollars. The hostess/cash register operator probably noticed my herbivorous panic. Maybe she just wanted us to leave as quickly as possible.

I had forgotten about the buffet factor. I was strangely disappointed by this development. I couldn't really complain too much if I personally cobbled together a patchwork meal out of various side dishes, now could I? That's one of the problems with buffets: no matter how disappointing your meal ends up being, you have to share at least some responsibility for that disappointment. Oh you didn't like the salad? Well maybe you shouldn't have made it so badly! The macaroni and cheese and the potato salad didn't go together? Well who told you to put them on the same plate? Ponderosa had already cleverly circumvented part of their agency in my up-coming awful meal.

So what did I only have myself to blame for this time? Well the first round mostly consisted of the aforementioned macaroni and cheese, potato salad and a regular old lettuce salad with plenty of ranch. All of these were fine if totally unremarkable. The macaroni and cheese was of the gloppy variety; you know, the kind that seems like it's been sitting out too long and has gathered a strange gluey consistency. You can usually shove the entire helping into your mouth at once because it's congealed into a massive ball of goop. I don't remember anything about the potato salad. The lettuce salad worked in its function as a means of serving ranch dressing.

For the second go, I decided to explore the hot end of the buffet more thoroughly. I decided to construct a large pile of nachos. The implicit main ingredient for this at Ponderosa is the eviscerated ground beef that has lovingly been plopped into one of the heated bins. I decided to forgo that particular option. Instead I chose almost all of the other ingredients. This was not the wisest buffet decision I've ever made. I ended up with a small base of round tortilla chips that had an unfortunate concoction of sour cream, nacho cheese, salsa and various vegetables oozed over the top of it. It was the type of nachos you ate with a fork. It was the type of nachos you hated yourself for eating with a fork.

I also stole a large amount of my friend's fries.

Besides the lackluster food, Ponderosa in the afternoon is home to a sticky atmosphere of sadness and desperation. My friend can be included in attitude. Ponderosa's meager steak prowess did not satisfy his meat craving. It might have been tainted with a glaze of despair, though. There was a small group of repairmen who seemed to be satisfied with their culinary selection, but the vast majority of the other people in the dining room seemed like the were questioning the life decisions that led to their current position in a Ponderosa booth on a Tuesday afternoon. Besides the repairmen, there was also a well dressed couple who didn't seem to have too many regrets. I consider their opinion invalid, however. They were obviously hopped up on the love jones.

This first experiment seemed to have gone awry. I was expecting frustrations with a menu and perhaps a hidden vegetarian delight when I finally decided on the mozzarella marinera. Instead they cut me off at the pass. I was totally flummoxed from the ordering process on. I ended up with a food selection approximately equivalent to my college cafeteria. But I was determined to soldier on - after all my friend still owed me an Outback dinner.


  1. What, no industrial-strength chocolate pudding?

  2. I decided to leave the sweets for people with more intestinal fortitude.