Friday, November 16, 2012

Lone Star Steakhouse (535 near Disney) - Review and Pics

I was invited this week by Lone Star Steakhouse to visit their restaurant and review the experience. You've probably seen this restaurant even if you don't know the name; this is the steakhouse at the very busy intersection of Apopka-Vineland (SR-535) and Vineland (the street paralleling I-4 that goes to the always-crowded outlet mall). I had not previously visited this steakhouse, partly because my wife and I are not  particularly avid eaters of steak.

Or rather, that was the case before. I think this dinner may have changed our minds and made us converts. Oh, we've had plenty of steak in our lives previously. I wouldn't bother to compare Lone Star to Sizzler or that type of steak, but we have had Outback Steakhouse and Longhorn Steakhouse before. Those restaurants offer comparable pricing to Lone Star, but the steaks at those establishments are best described as "good," and they become memorable only when daubed with the sauce that accompanies them. Not so Lone Star. The peppercorn ribeye ($21) and the cajun ribeye ($21) we ordered were soft, chewy, and flavorful in all the right ways even without additional sauce. The fourteen-ounce peppercorn ribeye comes with a brandy cream sauce that was highly recommended to us, but it hardly needed it. The cajun ribeye (also 14 oz) had no extra sauce, but it had been infused with its flavors, which were spicy but not fiery in such a way as to complement the natural flavor of the beef rather than overpower it. That's not an easy trick; most steaks err one way or the other. In all cases, the food was prepared artfully, and it melted in the mouth on contact.

When I asked the general manager Paul Rinaldi what made his restaurant different, he replied with a single word: "fresh." They source food items locally and regionally, a great many of them fresh and prepared from scratch right in his kitchen. That applies to the piquant sauces, the zingy garlic mashed potatoes, the achingly soft dinner rolls, and even the strawberry lemonade. I could say more about this strawberry lemonade. My wife is a huge Red Robin fan, and always gets the strawberry lemonade, but she and I agreed the one at Lone Star tasted better. The fresh strawberries at Red Robin, we now realize, must not be matched by fresh lemonade, because it was here at Lone Star. Note that you only get one refill at Lone Star for the lemonade, though soda refills have no such restriction.

The freshness is certainly apparent in the dishes. We also briefly sampled the salmon ($17), an eight-ounce filet that was moist and flaky, as you might expect. What you probably expect less is its unique saturated flavor that hints of soy and ginger until you find out it's none of the above--it's actually from the homemade bourbon sauce it was marinating in for six hours that very day. The green onions atop it provided just the right counterbalance and crunch; the entire ensemble was "close your eyes and chew" levels of good. Like the steaks, the salmon comes served with two sides.

One side I recommend in particular is the wedge salad, which is big enough to be considered an appetizer salad (or, for a not-very-hungry person, perhaps the entire dinner salad). It was huge, with chunks of real bacon, strips of red onion, plentiful bleu cheese dressing, zesty bleu cheese crumbles (these were the real secret to the salad's success), a sprinkling of diced tomatoes, and fresh pepper grated on top.

There are, naturally, other appetizers you could choose from. The coconut shrimp ($9) offers six crispy jumbo fried shrimp that manage to taste like coconut--there was almost no "shrimp" flavor to them (meant in a good way, since the mark of poor seafood is to taste fishy). It could also be due to the very fresh nature of the coconut strips used. The sweet chili sauce provided with it was extremely mild, and one of the few things not that memorable about the meal.

The Texas Rose blooming onion ($6.50), on the other hand, was memorable in every way. You've likely seen these huge onions cut into blossom shapes, breaded, and deep fried at your local state fair, but the batter used was almost certainly devoid of most flavor, as was the sauce provided. Nothing could be further from the situation at Lone Star, where the batter reminded of curly fries (the spicy kind) and the sauce gave a kick like cajun mayonnaise (without actually being mayo, of course). I could have eaten this appetizer as my whole meal, it was so good. It was also big enough to serve that purpose, so if you're ordering this as an appetizer, be sure you have friends to share it with.

We tasted also the pumpkin cheesecake ($6), which was light and airy somehow--not words I normally associate with cheesecake. It was very sweet, helped along by the drizzle of caramel across the plate. We finished things off with the peach bread pudding served with a dollop of ice cream ($5), a standout for its contrasts: hot and cold, sugar and spice, pliant and crunchy. Quite simply, it tasted like autumn.

The restaurant seats 400 people and can get rather busy when the nearby theme parks let out for the evening. There's a full bar here, which may also attract its own set of visitors. Throughout the dining area, we found the lighting subdued and welcoming, as was the choice of country music playing overhead. When the crowds became thicker and the conversations resultingly louder, the music became irrelevant, if not outright inaudible. I suspect the masses descend especially heavily on Wednesdays, when bottles of wine are sold at half the usual price.

The quality of the food is high, but the prices are pretty low by comparison. The steaks compare favorably to Capital Grille, but there you'd pay $41 for the steak that costs $21 here at Lone Star. The entree prices are similar to Disney's restaurants, though the quality far outstrips Disney's items.

We will definitely be back. Even the cheddar-bacon BBQ steakburger ($9) sounds mouth-watering to me now that I know what to expect from this place. It's hard to tell from the road sign or the menu, but the food really is different from other restaurants in its peer group.

Lone Star Steakhouse is located at 8550 Vineland Ave, not far from Downtown Disney. The telephone number is 407-827-8225, and it opens daily at 11am, with closing at 11pm (or later, on busy days). 

Kevin Yee is the author of numerous independent Disney books, including the popular Walt Disney World Earbook series and Walt Disney World Hidden History.