It's a short ride from Western Sizzlin' to the LongHorn Steakhouse.

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It's a short ride from Western Sizzlin' to the LongHorn Steakhouse.

The opposite of mad cow disease appears to be infecting the brains of some restaurant owners around town. It's not exactly a disease, but rather an obsession: to open as many new steak restaurants as possible in an area that's already saturated with them. For example, the upscale Capital Grille, part of the Atlanta-based Rare Hospitality Inc. restaurant group, is scheduled to open one of its top-of-the-line steakhouses on the Plaza in February -- just a couple of blocks from the equally pricey Plaza III and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse.

And on the Kansas side, another Rare Hospitality concept -- the much less expensive, less glamorous LongHorn Steakhouse -- is celebrating its first month in a Leawood shopping center that's within easy walking distance of Hereford House, Yahooz, and the similar-sounding Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon.

Don't get me wrong. I don't have a beef with more alternatives to the reigning steakhouses. But we haven't heard this kind of cattle call since the 1970s, when the city was glutted with low-price, no-frills "family" steak restaurants, such as Ponderosa and Western Sizzlin'. The LongHorn Steakhouse is several cuts above the budget beef joints, but like its biggest competitor, the Texas-based Outback Steakhouse, there's a formulaic, prepackaged feel to the concept and the menu. The conceit of the place is that it's an old cowboy roadhouse, complete with loud country music, neon beer signs, and various cowpoke-type gee-gaws strewn all over the place. But it no more has the feel of an actual roadhouse than an episode of Gunsmoke evokes real life on the 19th-century prairie. It would have helped if this newest local LongHorn Steakhouse (there's already one in Independence) had started with the saucy pizzazz of the chain's first one -- in an Atlanta building that once housed an adult bookstore, according to manager Jeff Lang. But this restaurant's owners picked a free-standing suburban building (where Tony Roma's and Li'l Rizzo's spent their short Leawood lives) and, after a massive renovation, opened a boot-kickin' quasi-roadhouse right next to a tidy Hallmark shop.

The menu, however, is shrewdly designed with the unsophisticated diner in mind. Nothing too spicy, nothing too ethnic, nothing too creative.

The appetizers have been inspired either by diner staples (french fries doused in chili and melted cheese, a tomato-and-onion salad) or by the stuff served at other chain steakhouses. The Outback has its much-publicized fried onion specialty, and the LongHorn, not to be outdone, has the Texas Tonion: petals of sweet Spanish onion dipped in a heavy batter, deep-fried, and dusted with a peppery paprika- and cayenne-based concoction they call "prairie dust." That dust made for an intoxicating experience, especially when we dipped the petals in the mayonnaise-based sauce that came along for the ride, spurred on by garlic, a splash of tomato paste, and a hint of those prairie dust spices. There's also a grilled shrimp appetizer described on the menu as "seasoned with zesty spices," although the skinny things were so unzesty that the accompanying cocktail sauce, loaded with horseradish, was a welcome relief.

When my friend Bob saw the table tent with the color photographs of two featured steaks, a Kansas City strip grilled with a peppercorn crust and a filet topped with a layer of melted blue cheese, he asked our server, "Can I get the blue cheese crust from the filet on top of the Seven Pepper Strip?"

To my amazement, the server agreed. He had seemed just the type of young waiter to snap, "No substitutions" (and later did, but that's another story). The resulting concoction was pretty wonderful, I have to say, although I told Bob I doubted any other customer would ever request the same innovation. That was the night I ordered a slab of medium prime rib, which arrived pink and warm and surprisingly bland. Maybe I should have ordered it as the menu dared: "If you're bold enough, ask for it with Cajun spices." But by that point I was already so full of prairie dust that I could have flown to the Flint Hills.

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