Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Unlikely Vegetarian Haven: Red Robin Gourmet Burgers

Well, I said from the get-go I don't shy away from chains, and I mean to put paid to that statement. On my top five list of cravings, Boca Burgers always hover somewhere in the top three (polenta and ice cream have at times displaced it), and at some point two years ago, I realized that Red Robin does them very well.

I long considered Red Robin to be the kind of place that you'd stop after a day spent at an amusement park, with a couple of cranky kids in tow, because inside you'd find only a slightly less circus-like atmosphere in which you could (for a price that's only slightly lower than the robbery-on-Main-Street-U.S.A. prices of Disney World) pick up some consistently mediocre food that would make the whole family happy, or at least silently greasy. And yeah, it is that place, but let me say a few words in its favor: bottomless steak fries.

I really dig steak fries.

The menu at Red Robin is pretty basic: burgers. Mostly, these are $9-$10 burgers with fries. There are variations on burgers in three sections: actual burgers, chicken burgers, and other dishes that have burger associations: salads with grilled chicken sliced on top, wraps that are just burgers in a tortilla, and sliders and a prime-rib dip. For no apparent reason except perhaps as a nod to the two people who would go to Red Robin that don't like burgers, there's now Macaroni and Cheese and a Pesto Pasta on the menu, but... why?

So, these burgers. They come with all kinds of toppings: guacamole and bacon; barbecue sauce and onion strings; fried jalapeƱos and pepper jack cheese; onions and mushrooms; a fried egg. You can add an extra patty to any burger, if the original third-pounder isn't enough for you. Any burger, including the chicken sandwiches, can be swapped out for a Boca patty, and this is where my love begins to bloom.

6662FA86-E60B-49A1-90E2-21C5DEDFBE79.jpgI order the Banzai Burger just about every time I visit: Boca patty drenched in teriyaki sauce, grilled pineapple, cheddar cheese, tomato, and mayo. Now, Boca patties aren't hard to cook -- they need only the slightest heat to become edible -- but they are really, really best when they've been done on a grill, and that's what happens here. Sure, they still come out looking pale and a bit squashy next to an actual beef burger, but, you know what? It's good. And unlike nearly every other carnivore-invested restaurant I can think of, the upgrade to meatlessness is free. (Which, yeah, at $9.49 for the Banzai, it should be).

My tip for dining at Red Robin without losing your mind is very simple: eat in the bar. It's open seating (so no wait, even on a Friday night); it's 21 and over (so no kids complaining about their chicken strips); no one ever goes to that side to celebrate their birthday (so no singing or visits from Red, the restaurant's costumed mascot); and the service is fast, friendly, and efficient. Do I want more fries? Heck yeah, I do, and thanks for the refill.

It's cheesy to say this, but some of the best restaurant service experiences I've ever had in a chain restaurant have been at the Eugene Red Robin. The staff is courteous and professional; they know the menu inside and out; and they pay attention. I've even had a good experience here when the place was taken over by the Eugene Police and Firemen for a fundraiser.

And -- they never scoff at my Boca order. I absolutely give them points for that.

Location: 1221 Executive Parkway -- right next to VRC at Goodpasture Island Loop.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday - Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Red Robin America's Gourmet Burgers and Spirits on Urbanspoon

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