Believe it or not, I’d never been to a Red Robin before. But for the past week they’ve been running TV spots for their limited time “Oktoberfest Burger”: a yummy looking burger with “Swiss cheese, beer mustard onions and black forest ham on a toasted pretzel bun”. It sounded so delicious that I made the executive decision last Friday to drive to Northlake Mall and get one. Of course, Lisa came along, and as I was telling her about wanting to get one of those burgers, she said that we’d recently gotten a Steak ‘n Shake flyer in the mail which advertised an almost identical Oktoberfest burger. So I went out and had one those yesterday, too.
Red Robin’s Oktoberfest Burger:
Steak ‘n Shake’s Oktoberfest Burger:
So… which one will reign supreme? Read on to find out!
PRESENTATION: The Red Robin burger was assembled perfectly and came wrapped in paper, which is always nice. The Steak ‘n Shake burger was sloppily assembled, like most fast food burgers. Red Robin should win this one… however, it barely ekes out a win because you almost can’t see the meat for all the toppings. Oddly, the “sit down” burger came in a plastic basket, while the “fast food” burger came on a ceramic plate! Life is odd sometimes. ADVANTAGE: Red Robin
TASTE (MEAT): The Red Robin burger was thick, juicy, beefy and cooked exactly as I’d asked (I prefer my burgers barely medium; I just don’t trust most restaurants to be safe. Now if I was eating a Pat LaFrieda burger at Minetta Tavern, that’d be different). The Steak ‘n Shake patties were thin, as Steak ‘n Shake patties are. They were decent, but nothing special. If it were just about the meat, Red Robin would win this duel completely. ADVANTAGE: Red Robin
TASTE (OVERALL): But it’s not just about the meat, at least on a burger like this where the toppings are crucial. The “Black Forest Ham” on the Red Robin burger appeared to be some type of cold cut that was neither cold, nor cooked (perhaps just heated through). The “beer mustard onions” were simmered in a cloyingly sweet Bavarian style mustard. They might have tasted fine on their own, but they somehow clashed with the burger. And what’s with that giant, pretty-but-tasteless hunk of lettuce on the Red Robin burger? It seems so out of place on an OKTOBERFEST burger, ya know? The ham on the Steak ‘n Shake burger, by contrast, was sliced slightly thicker and had been left on the flat-top to get a beautiful sear around the edges. And the mustard Steak ‘n Shake used to simmer the onions was a surprisingly spicy whole-grain horseradish mustard. I greatly preferred it to Red Robin’s. I will say, however, that the “pretzel bun” on the Red Robin burger was much better, with a stronger “yeasty”, “pretzel-ly” taste than the Steak ‘n Shake bun. Still, when all’s said and done, I prefer the taste of the Steak ‘n Shake burger over Red Robin. ADVANTAGE : Steak ‘n Shake
FRIES: This is more of a philosophical debate than a practical issue. If you prefer steak fries, Red Robin wins. If you prefer skinny fries, Steak ‘n Shake wins. Most Red Robin burgers come with “bottomless steak fries”, which is nice. But I made the rookie mistake of ordering the “Parmesan and garlic” variety (after so many happy memories of the Gordon Biersch in Atlanta). Red Robin’s version was slightly disappointing: the first batch had a bit too much garlic oil on them, while the second batch had too little. Even so, the garlic flavor was just a bit too strong for multiple servings. I should have ordered plain fries and asked for malt vinegar on the side. And while cold Steak ‘n Shake fries are one of the saddest things on the planet, the fries I was given yesterday were piping hot and crispy. When Steak ‘n Shake does them right, they’re pretty doggone good! ADVANTAGE: Tie
VALUE: I believe the Red Robin burger was $8.99. The Steak ‘n Shake burger is $5.49 regularly, but I had a coupon which got me the burger and fries for $4.49. While the Red Robin burger was more filling overall, I think Steak ‘n Shake wins here. ADVANTAGE: Steak ‘n Shake
AMBIANCE: I was always under the impression that Red Robin was a fast food place that had table service… much like Steak ‘n Shake or Showmars. Come to find out, it’s more like a burger-centric Chili’s or an Applebee’s than a fast food place. Our waitress was super-friendly and welcoming, and did a great job. Although Red Robin was a bit loud, it was also nice having TVs so I could keep my eye on college sports. The Steak ‘n Shake in Gastonia, by contrast, is kind of depressing. I’ve been there a few times, and it never seems like more than four tables are occupied at any given moment. It’s always quiet there, and you can hear the kitchen staff over the customers. My waitress was friendly and was… fine. But she had no enthusiasm at all. ADVANTAGE: Red Robin
INTANGIBLES: Red Robin has two additional Oktoberfest items: a “Hot Pretzel Bites” appetizer and a Sam Adams Oktoberfest Milkshake (and yes, it’s made with actual beer). All three items were listed on one of those promotional cards restaurants stick inside their regular menus. One thing I really got a kick out of was looking at the waitress and telling her, Ron Swanson style, that I wanted “everything you have on this card”:
The Pretzel Bites and milkshake were great by the way. I liked the beer cheese dipping sauce, while Lisa liked the mustard. So that worked out great. And the shake was much better than you might think. The vanilla soft serve, vanilla syrup and caramel were mixed with just enough Sam Adams Oktoberfest to make the whole thing creamy, delicious and just a wee bit potent. It might not become a regular item in my house, but the milkshake was surprisingly good! On the other hand, Steak ‘n Shake is significantly cheaper and much closer. Red Robin is slightly too expensive and definitely too far away for us to go on a lark. Steak ‘n Shake could theoretically happen any day. ADVANTAGE: Red Robin
THE FINAL VERDICT: It seems like Red Robin won most of the individual categories here, but I’m actually giving this to Steak ‘n Shake. While the Red Robin burger was more “upscale” – comparable to a Chili’s or pub burger – the flavors just worked better on the Steak ‘n Shake burger.