Friday, June 30, 2006

Outback Steakhouse All You Can Eat Event

Every year on the Thursday before the Fourth Of July, the Outback Steakhouse hosts a charity event for the Boomer Esiason Foundation for Cystic Fibrosis. It is a tailgate party for a high school all stars football game held at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. This is not a pull a grill out of the car trunk and cook some burgers before the game tailgate party. This is a full blown, Outback Steakhouse buffet! Seating is under a tent and the Outback sets up two buffet lines - they serve you from the line, but you get whatever you want. The cost is a donation to the Foundation - about $150 per ticket. (We get free tickets because our living history group is part of the entertainment at the football game.) The website used to talk about the dinner and the price - this is missing from the current website. It is possible that this is now by invitation only. This special dinner runs for two hours from 4pm to 6pm - just before the game.

If you love eating at the Outback this is your dream come true. Many of the specialties on the Outback menu are there - all for the taking and as much as you wish. The serving line starts off with honey wheat rolls. There is Caesar Salad. The hot trays start next. The salt-encrusted baked potatoes are there with sides of butter and sour cream. There is shrimp off the "barby" and the famous - and scrumptious - fried coconut shrimp. There are hot wings. There is grilled chicken breast. There is steak! There is rack of lamb. Special sauces for the shrimp are on hand. At the end of the line are the "Bloomin' Onions". Take one back to share with your table - or take one all for yourself! It is served with a spicy Russian dressing. The entire buffet line is repeated so there is very little wait.

For dessert, the Outback girls come around to all of the tables with slices of cheesecake - with and without raspberry sauce. Cans of soda - cocacola products - and bottled water are unlimited, as is beer.

The food is the same as it is at the Outback Restaurants - everything is spiced. It is good, but it has a distinct spice and a slight heat. It is cooked on large flame grills behind the buffet table and keeps coming out to fill the serving trays.

I do not think that this is repeated anywhere else. There are other sponsored charity events for this organization with Outback involvement all over the US. It is an experience. The money goes to a worthwhile charity. You can reach the Boomer Esiason Foundation at

Friday, June 23, 2006

New Look at the Old Country Buffet

The OCB near me in Levittown, NY has just had a renovation of the interior of the restaurant including some small changes in the buffet tables. The work took only a few weeks and with little interference to the operation of the restaurant. I suspect that all of the Old Country Buffet restaurants are getting or will be getting this "face-lift".

The new look has replaced the brass rails with fabric curtains that topped the dividers in the room with wooden posts and an semi-opaque Plexiglas that has dried weeds inside. It allows some light through but you cannot see through. For a few visits in mid-renovation the tops of the dividers were bare and I thought that this made the room much more airy and open. My wife said that she did not like that people on line could look across the room and watch you eat, but I said to her that I did not see how that mattered, as once you were inside you could see the tables anyway. With the new wood and glass tops to the dividers the room is closed in again, but the wood is much heavier and darker in appearance than the brass was and I think that the room now looks too closed in.

The walls used to be a light beige. Now the wallpaper is a medium pale green with a textured finish to look like stucco. (Wait until a kid splashes food on that and see how well it can be cleaned!) It adds to the new darkness of the room. Despite the spotlights in the ceiling the room is dark. The booths have new hanging light fixtures - no longer large, white glass fixtures, but narrow, green glass fixtures. Not so bright. The sticker visible inside the glass says, "maximum 100 watt bulb". The bulb in the light said 75 watts but gave light much more like 40 watts. So, in my opinion - and everything here is mostly my opinion - the room is now dark.

The walls are now decorated with poster-size, framed, black and white photos from the 30's, 40's, and maybe 50's. Each looks like a depression-era photo. The theme of each photo is related in some way to food. There is a picture of a butcher shop and another of a lunch counter. All dark - rather depressing, actually. All in all, it adds to the darkness of the room.

OK, already, the room is dark.

There are also some changes to the buffet tables and the beverage area. The greatest change is to the salad bar. The main salad fixings bar has now been divided to include a taco bar in the center. The taco bar is something that had been a regular feature and then disappeared several months ago. This is a welcome addition and it includes not just taco fixings, but also nachos, chicken taco filling, and beans. The toppings for the tacos are all right there- sour cream, cheese, salsa, olives, lettuce, peppers. What is missing is taco sauce and the meat needs it. A mild and a spicy sauce would be welcome additions. To do this taco set up, however, resulted in the salad bar being cutback on that table and spread to the second salad table. At the second salad table the very popular, pre-mixed Caesar salad that used to be set out in two serving dishes has been moved into one larger serving dish - but not as large as the two combined. There is now croutons and cheese on the side. A week ago it was grated Parmesan cheese. Tonight that was gone and was replaced with shredded yellow American cheese and another container that looked to be shredded Romano cheese - but when I put it on my salad and tasted it, it turned out to be rather bland Swiss cheese (not good on a Caesar Salad). Tonight there was also an equally large bowl of Greek salad with additional Greek dressing right at the side. I had been hoping for additional Caesar dressing on the side - but no such luck. The Greek salad had regular black olives, not Greek olives, and feta cheese. It pretty much looked untouched - where the Caesar bowl was mostly empty during the night.

The beverage area has been re-arranged. Gone are the water spigots. They are replaced with filtered, bottled water in a cooler. There is one on each side of the beverage table. The ice tea containers have been replaced with ice tea machines - seemed like a good idea as they should make more tea as it is needed automatically - they do not and the unsweetened ice tea, as usual, was empty at 7:30 pm. The order of things has also been rearranged with the new problem of getting ice - if there is any, and then having to move back on the line to get ice tea. You would think that with the changes there would have been a change to a self-filling, ice making machine. No - same old ice containers on top of the soda machines that must be refilled by hand and are often left empty for a long while once the ice runs out.

There is also now a poster in the lobby that talks about being polite standing on line and following some rules of standing on line - it starts off by saying that there are no rules for the buffet. Well, I guess, they have not paid heed to this site. There are rules for a buffet - and OCB diners would certainly benefit from them.

A message for the Old Country Buffet chain - you are welcome to post in your lobby the web address for this site = buffets. Your customers need to see the rules. You may not print these rules, however, without my permission first - with recognition and a fee.

There are signs on the tables advertising a new five shrimp special coming in July. I am hoping that this will not replace the St. Louis Ribs, which are still the best of the chain buffets.

So, if your OCB makes renovations, let us know. Post a comment and tell us about them.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Let's Talk Turkey

In last week's article I listed that the best turkey may be found at the Bird-In-Hand Family Restaurant and Smorgasbord in Bird-In-Hand, Pennsylvania (located on Route 340 in Lancaster County). To explain why I like this turkey so much I have to relate a little story.

My wife and I are living historians - reenactors of the American revolutionary war period (the 18th Century). A few years ago we were at the reenactment of the Battle of Monmouth - this is Monmouth, New Jersey. The event was the 225th anniversary of this battle. We were in an encampment that we were sharing with our unit and a "sister" unit. The ladies from the "sister" unit were cooking with the help of my wife. Dinner was being cooked over a large, open camp fire. On the menu were rolls of beef and turkey. The turkey was cooked in a large pot over the fire. In the pot was a whole, large turkey and some vegetables. When it was time to eat and I went over to the turkey expecting a roast-looking turkey. What I found was a turkey floating in a full pot of liquid- as if it had been boiled. Oh my, I thought. This is not going to be good. I like turkey, but I do not think that I will like boiled turkey. I reached into the pot with a serving fork and poked at the turkey. The meat came falling away from the bone. I took several chunks and put it on my plate. With a bit of reluctance I tasted it. OH MY! This was delicious. This was the best turkey that I have ever had and I really like turkey. It was moist. It was tasty. It was tender. I went to my wife and asked how was the turkey made? She said that as far as she saw it just cooked in the pot for the afternoon. I asked her if it was boiled and she said that she did not think so. I pointed out that the pot was full of liquid. I told her that she must talk to the other women and ask what the recipe was.

Well, it took a while for my wife to find out how that turkey was cooked - and when she found out (almost a year later) it turned out that the lady who cooked it really did not know herself. She said that it definitely was not boiled. She recalled just putting the turkey in the pot with cabbage and some other vegetables and letting it cook. Apparently, the vegetables put out the liquid - as no other liquid had been added to the pot. She said that she just put it all in and hoped for the best - well the best is what we got - but as to duplicate this - not so much a recipe but a recollection. Now why did I tell you this long, non-buffet related story? I figured that I would never have that good turkey again.

And then I went to the Bird-In-Hand Family Restaurant and Smorgasbord. On their buffet table are two serving trays of fresh turkey. One is dark meat and the other is light (white) meat. It is covered in a liquid broth. Hmm, you might think - wet turkey. Not so good. Well, let me tell you that this turkey tastes just like the one at the encampment - wonderful! It is moist. It is fresh. Is is not some carved, dry turkey breast. It is not sliced turkey layed dry in a tray. It is a real turkey, less the bones and every good part of the turkey. It is better than a whole roast turkey carved from the frame to your plate. It is the best! There is gravy on the side of the buffet for the turkey - it adds to it, but it is really not necessary.

If you are in the Lancaster County area, make an effort to get to Bird-In-Hand (quaint name, right- very Pennsylvania Dutch!) and go to this restaurant. Choose the buffet just for the turkey. Of course, there are lots of other good things to find there - as I have reported before.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Best

This week I am going to name some of the best - all related to buffets and all you can eat restaurants. The comparisons are of these type of restaurants only - so for example, choosing the best steak is the best steak at a buffet - there may be better steaks at regular restaurants but that is not what this site is about. So anyway, with that out of the way - the best...

The BEST STEAK at a buffet chain - This is goes to Ryan's. The chains compared are Ryan's, Golden Corral, and Old Country Buffet. The steak at Ryan's has better taste, is cooked to proper order, and is tender.
THE BEST STEAK at any buffet - This definitely goes to the buffet at the Wild, Wild West Casino Buffet in Atlantic City. This steak is cooked to order on a char-grill and is as good as any restaurant steak. I have traveled 150 miles each way just for this steak.
The BEST CAESAR SALAD - This goes to Ryan's. This was a tough one. I am very partial to the Caesar salad at the Old Country Buffet, but then I had the one at Ryan's. At Ryan's you assemble the salad yourself, add the Caesar dressing, the croutons, and the cheese. It was terrific. Not too salty - as it was at Golden Corral - and because you make it, it always comes out right. At Old Country Buffet it is pre-made and if not enough dressing is added to it by the person who makes it, it is watery and weak.
The BEST DESSERT BAR - This goes to The Mountain Gate Family Restaurant in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. This obscure, little, family-run buffet had the absolutely most complete dessert bar of any buffet restaurant, catering hall, or restaurant for that matter. See our review of this little find on April 30, 2006.

The BEST TURKEY - This goes to The Bird-in-Hand Family Restaurant and Smorgasbord in Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania. This is going to sound odd, but the taste is what is important here - this is not turkey at a carving station. It is not a turkey breast, sliced and laid out. It is pieces of turkey cut from the bone - separate trays of light and dark meat - and served in a clear broth to keep it moist. This is never dried out. It tastes great. One of these weeks I intend to do an article just about this turkey. Keep a look out for the article.

The BEST SOUP at a chain buffet - This goes to Ryan's for their chicken noodle soup. The noodles are plump and fresh. The broth is not too salty.

The BEST SOUP at any buffet - This goes to Bird-in-Hand Family Restaurant and Smorgasbord in Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania. The soup is the Chicken Corn - a local specialty made here just a bit differently - thick and cream-like, but not a cream soup. It is excellent.

The BEST RIBS - This goes to the Kansas City Barbecue Pork Ribs at the Old Country Buffet. These are a summer only feature (now available Thursday nights to Saturday nights). They fall off the bone and are sauced just right. There is sauce on the side to add if you like.

The BEST COMPLETE BUFFET - This goes to Shady Maple Smorgasbord in East Earl, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. This may also be the largest buffet. It has an extremely large assortment of entrees, side dishes, cooking grills, salad bar, and dessert bar. See my review of this great buffet on September 10, 2005. It more than doubled in size both in seating and the double length buffet serving area several years ago making this the place to go for both locals and tourists, and there is still a wait to get in on Saturdays all year and then during the "season" on week nights. Come Monday for Steak Night. Of all the buffets that I have been to this one is my favorite.

The BEST SEAFOOD BUFFET - This goes to Captain George's Seafood Restaurant in Williamsburg, Virginia and a few other Virginia and North Carolina locations. The crab and seafood dishes go on and on along several schooner ship serving bars. See my review on September 1, 2005.

The BEST SUSHI at a non-sushi only buffet - This goes to the International Buffet in Carle Place (Westbury), New York. There is a large variety of sushi served here. It is fresh and the sushi chef is behind the counter refilling and taking requests. There may be other restaurant buffets that serve only all you can eat sushi, but this restaurant has this great sushi and a large variety of other non-sushi and non-Asian choices.

The BEST CHINESE BUFFET - Without question this is the Peking Restaurant in Williamsburg, Virginia. This is a very inexpensive, but very complete Chinese buffet offering a variety not found in most others. The food is excellent. See my review on August 30, 2005.

In a future article I will continue the list. I wish that I could name the best service at a buffet, but it varies from server to server, and from visit to visit at almost all of the buffets. There are good servers and there are not so attentive servers - at all of the restaurants.

I have not been to them all - some of you may have been to some I have not yet gotten to. If you have another BEST buffet, tell us about it in a comment to this article. If you disagree with my humble opinions (this whole thing is my humble opinion), then let's hear from you as well in a comment.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Golden Corral - Winchester, Virginia

With the dissappointment of the buffet that we found in Stephens City, Virginia (see last week's article) we headed for the Golden Corral for our next night's dinner. I have reviewed the chain in general - look in the archives of this site in August 2005. I will focus this article on the Golden Corral in Winchester, Virginia.

We went on Sunday night - the night before Memorial Day - and guess what? There were people there - unlike the empty restaurant the night before in Stephens City. There was actually a line to get in. We did not have to wait long and we were through the line to a restaurant that was busy, not overly packed, but a good crowd. So this was where everyone headed when they want buffet in the town of Winchester. The crowd seemed to be a mix of locals and weekenders.

At Golden Corral you pay as you enter and you get a tray with a dish and your beverage. You pick your table (at least here you did - others you are seated by a hostess). When you get to your table a server comes over and introduces him/herself and leaves a card with his/her name on it. The server here is VERY important - much more so than in the other chains, because not only does the server bring your drink refills but also your clean plates. And this is the main problem with the Golden Corral. An attentive server will bring you a stack of plates and keep bringing them. An inattentive server will bring an extra plate each and when he/she notices - if he/she notices that you might need another clean plate brings one - maybe. This was one of those nights that looked promising. He brought a stack of four plates - two for each of us - right at the start, but then getting more was an effort to find him. In fact he came by once and asked if all was good - I looked down at the dirty plates - which he had not picked up for awhile and had to tell him we need some clean plates. They came - but you should not have to ask. I have wondered if this is their way of metering what you take - no clean plate means no trip back to the serving counter. Or perhaps it is just a poor server. This accomplishes nothing as it pushes one to break the rules (my rules) and overload the plate that you have.

On this night perhaps it was the server. When we went for soup (I like soup and the soup here that is good is the chicken noodle - tasty broth with thick, homemade noodles) there were no soup spoons in the container. We went back to the table and looked at the teaspoon - which we would later need for dessert - and decided to ask for soup spoons. We asked our server. At first he was confused - "You mean that there were none up by the soup. They are up by the soup." "No, there were no more there." "Oh." It took a moment. Yes, we want you to find us two - not a hard thing to do. Check in the kitchen at the dishwasher or alert someone who washes things and get two clean soup spoons. Finally, he said that he would go look for some. He never did come back with any - just sought of ignored that we had ever asked. We gave up and used the teaspoons - no big deal, if you don't mind eating ice cream with a spoon used for chicken soup. I gues that is what extra napkins are for.

The food was good. The first peice of steak - they are carving large steaks from a charbroiler right there on the carving station - was ok. Not too tasty and needed steak sauce (a good steak never needs steak sauce). When I went back for another peice the cook carved a peice from a very, very thick steak - almost two and one half or three inches thick. It looked great, but had a liver taste (no, it was not liver). This absolutely needed steak sauce to mask that taste and I did not finish it because of the underflavor.

This was carving night on the special menu. There were not many carvings - turkey, ham, steak, and a cajun sausage that was too spicy to enjoy - hot and spicy lovers would like it. There were many other meat choices on the buffet including baked chicken, meat loaf, fried chicken, and other meats, shrimp, and fish. No complaining that there was not enough to be found.

The pizza is has a flat, cracker-like crust. It is not as good as some found (but not all) at OCB and that found at Ryans. There was no taco bar. There have been at others or perhaps none of them have it any longer. The salad bar is extensive with many prepared salads - chicken salad with large chunks of meat - and a variety of salad greens and toppings. There was a Ceasar salad bar that had Romaine lettuce pre-tossed with dressing with more dressing to take at the side and shredded parmasean cheese and croutons to top it off with. It was very good (but on the salty side).

The dessert bar was good. There were cakes, pies, puddings, and ice cream. The soft serve ice cream is creamy and good.

So when in Winchester and you are looking for a buffet restaurant, head on over to the Golden Corral.