Consider the Bloomin Onion.
Two thousand calories.
One hundred sixty-one grams of fat.
Crispy, oily, sweet, crunchy. A big slick of salt and grease. Slightly disgusting. Completely addictive.
The Bloomin Onion is an almost perfect example of the gluttony and fun inherent in the tradition of American fair food. The Bloomin Onion is a triumph of Americana.
You'll notice that I said "American fair food" and not "Australian." That's because, despite its marketing, nothing about Outback Steakhouse, home of the Bloomin Onion, is Australian. Don't be fooled by the guy on the ads with the thick Australian accent. Don't be fooled by the "Aussie cheese fries" or the "walkabout soup" on the menu. Outback Steakhouse is 100 percent American.
Lest anyone think me an unbiased observer, let me dissuade you of that notion. The whole concept of Outback Steakhouse is an affront to me. Australia is my country of birth, and I'll admit I'm touchier than most — many Australians are quite cheerful about their status as the funny drunk uncle of the world.
But that reputation was no fun for me when I arrived at an American high school with purple hair and a bad attitude right on the heels of Crocodile Dundee, the 1986 movie that depicted a brawny, endearingly clueless Australian crocodile wrestler. I wanted to talk about The Cure; people wanted to ask me about kangaroos. "Are you from the Outback?" kids at school would ask, snickering, and I'd think of my hometown, Melbourne, with its Victorian houses and old Italian cafés and leafy avenues, and sneer to keep from crying.
Just the name "Outback" makes me angry — in the cynical hands of public relations professionals, it's lost all meaning. The dry center of Australia is many things: an inhospitable desert, a wonder of nature, sacred land to our indigenous population. In America it's just a word attached to all things Australian to conjure a dumb guy in a funny hat who says "bloke." Given that I blame Crocodile Dundee and its Outback-flavored aftermath for ruining my adolescence, it's no wonder I'd never set foot in an Outback Steakhouse before.
And yes, Outback Steakhouse is in some ways a direct result of Crocodile Dundee. It was the film's huge popularity that inspired the four American founders to brand the restaurant, founded in Tampa in 1988, as Australian. None of those founders — Chris Sullivan, Robert Basham, Tim Gannon and Trudy Cooper — had ever been to Australia. Restaurant-industry veterans of chains like Bennigan's, Steak & Ale and Chili's, the quartet had one big idea: Contrary to popular belief, Americans were not looking for healthier options. Quite the opposite. They wanted steak. And fat. And, apparently, battered and deep-fried onions specifically engineered to pack as much fat and grease into every molecule of their being as is allowable by the laws of physics.
As a matter of fact, the owners of Outback specifically didn't visit Australia because they didn't even want to take the chance that they'd be influenced by its culture or cuisine. They just wanted to think of it as cute and fun and full of fuzzy animals and people who talk funny. If there's a better symbol for the way that most Americans have approached me over the years about my Australianness, I can't think of it.
I decided to take on Outback for all these reasons. Like any good nemesis, it had to be faced. I also was intrigued because people love it. Here's the thing about these successful chain restaurants that most food obsessives don't want to admit: There's a reason people love them. And it's not just price and familiarity and convenience, although those things play a big part in their popularity. There is also something about the food that humans with taste buds very much appreciate.
On my first visit, to the Glendale location, we slid into a booth adjacent to the bar, and I eyed the almost-Aboriginal art adorning the walls. As our waitress arrived to introduce herself (she didn't say "G'day," thank sweet baby Jesus, though I'm sure she probably was supposed to), the Men at Work song "Land Down Under" started to play on the stereo system. "Oh my God, this is awesome," my American husband beamed as he watched me try not to wriggle out of my skin with 23 years of pent-up disgust.
Asking someone for "shrimp on the barbie" was maybe one of the hardest things I've ever done. I've spent years railing against the very concept, declaring that I've never had a barbecued shrimp because it's basically made-up — no one barbecues shrimp in Australia. "We'll have the shrimp on the barbie. And the Toowoomba pasta. And the Bloomin Burger." My soul cracked at the edges with each word.
Yet it was hard to deny, when those shrimp arrived, that they were pretty good: well-seasoned, fat, cooked pretty much perfectly. The puce-colored dipping sauce accompanying them was salty and slutty and gross — or drunk-food delicious, depending upon your mood. You can say that about almost anything at Outback Steakhouse.
The Toowoomba pasta is famous for being one of the most calorific entrees on the planet. (During my visits, just eating a few bites here and there of each dish still made it practically impossible to leave before consuming 1,000-plus calories.) They somehow manage to cram 1,344 calories into one bowl of fettuccine with shrimp, crawfish, mushrooms and Parmesan cream sauce.
It's a regular-sized bowl, but eating it is like eating cream-and-seafood-flavored buttercream icing — big, steaming, gloppy mouthfuls of savory icing. It's disconcerting, and I felt like death for hours afterward (and I ate a total of perhaps three or four mouthfuls). And yet: The seafood tastes fresh and sweet; it was harder to stop shoveling into my mouth than I'd like to admit.
And the steaks? The steaks aren't very good. But they're big as hell and cooked right and incredibly cheap for something as inherently decadent as steak. They aren't thin and gray; they're big and meaty. They just have no tang or depth. And maybe it's just me, but sometimes I feel as though I can taste the barely perceptible flavor of misery in a piece of meat. The cow's misery? The cook's misery? I've declared more than once that you can taste love in food, so why not misery?
Still, it's hard to argue with a $20 filet that's as big as your head and comes with a wedge salad covered in glop and a substantial side. If I were a kid with $60 in my pocket and a girl who needed impressing on a Saturday night, I could see the appeal. Baby, I love you so much, Imma take you to Outback and you can get the big steak.
And then, of course, there's the Bloomin Onion, Outback's signature dish, its crowning glory. Over a number of meals at Outback and a number of weeks of thinking about Outback, I had a lot of conversations with people about the Bloomin Onion.
At first, people would hesitate, waiting to see if they'd be shunned for proclaiming their Bloomin love to me, a grumpy Australian, and a food critic no less. But once prompted a little, the floodgates opened.
"Why is a Bloomin Onion so much more delicious than any onion ring?!?" one friend demanded passionately late one night, a few drinks in. Another admitted that said onion was the one reason she secretly looked forward to her annual visit to her small hometown, where a visit to Outback with the folks was the blowout meal of the trip, and the Bloomin Onion the highlight.
After ordering this juggernaut twice, America, I say embrace the Bloomin Onion in all its disgusting glory. Just know that it's yours, not mine. And definitely not Australia's.
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OUTBACK STEAKHOUSE | One star | Multiple locations including 146 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale | (818) 244-1136 | outback.com | Sun.-Thurs., noon-9:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat., noon-11 p.m. | Entrees, $9.99-$25.99 | Full bar | Lot parking