Friday, July 28, 2006

Cactus Willies Steak Buffet and Bakery

On the recommendation of one of our readers I found this buffet chain that is currently celebrating it's tenth anniversary. One of our readers submitted a comment about this buffet chain to our site this past week. I went to the website that he listed and I discovered that the chain has six locations - five in Maryland and one in Pennsylvania. As the Pennsylvania location is in Lancaster and today I happened to be an hour from the restaurant, my wife and I made a special trip. I wish I could say that it was an entirely worthwhile trip, but I am going to have to give this buffet chain a mixed review.

We visited the restaurant on a Friday night. There was a short wait to get in and a man ahead of us made a comment that there had been no wait when he came in the middle of the week. The wait was no problem. You pay ahead of the meal and order your soft drinks. The price of the dinner buffet is $9.49 for adults. Children from 3 to 12 pay $.60 x age. There is a $1.00 senior (60+) discount. Drinks are additional at $1.49 for an unlimited soft drink. They serve Pepsi products. With the drink the price is slightly higher than meals at other chains. There is lunch and breakfast buffets. Adult lunch is $6.79 and breakfast is $7.69. Kids at lunch pay $.50 x age, There is no kids price listed for breakfast. A breakfast feature is steak and eggs. There are extras offered that are usually included at other buffets. There were ten steamed shrimp offered with the buffet for $4.99 - NOT unlimited shrimp for $4.99 plus the buffet price - but 10 shrimp on a plate. There was also a crab legs special similarly offered extra. This was two small crab leg clusters on a plate for $5.99 plus the buffet price. Don't waste your money - I saw both plates (at the cash register) and they are not worth it.

All of the seating was booths. We were seated promptly after paying. A hostess seats you and offers to explain the buffet. You leave your receipt on the table and a server picks it up and brings your drinks. Silverware is on the table with napkins. You get your own plates at the buffet tables. There are four double-sided buffet tables, a grill, and a L-shaped dessert bar. On the buffet tables are signs that say that children under the age of 9 are not allowed at the buffet tables without an adult - WONDERFUL! Though it should be age 12.

To start, at the end of one of the buffet tables were two soups and chili. The two soups this night were minestrone and Italian wedding soup. The minestrone had plenty of vegetables and was good. There is another full buffet table of salad greens, toppings, and dressings. There were prepared salads and a variety of dressings - three fat-free dressings which were the only fat-free offerings in the entire restaurant. All of the salad dressings are Ken's. There is an emphasis in this restaurant on the name brand items served.

The other hot buffet tables have entrees, sides, and vegetables. Here the problems started because there is very little choice of anything plain. Everything was fried, beef, or pork. There was fried chicken, fried catfish, fried shrimp, fried calimari, in fact if it can be fried it was there. There were barbecue pork ribs. They were well-sauced and tasty, but not as good as the St.Louis ribs were at OCB (when they had them). They were not fall off the bone good. They were meaty. The website talks about carvings - this night there were none - and therein lied the problem. My wife looks for plain - not fried - choices and as we were both told very recently to watch our cholesterol intake and this restaurant posed a problem. I felt bad for her that we came because she had a HARD time finding something to eat - which has never happened to her in any buffet restaurant. Many, many people these days must watch their cholorestrol and would be in this same predicament here. There is steak "grilled to order" but in reality is not grilled to order but grilled and set aside until you ask for a piece and then they try to find a piece done the way you want it. Now, a man ahead of me asked for a well done steak and was told that the crowd was too large to wait for a piece of steak well done. There was no one behind us so where was this crowd that prevented this man from getting his well done steak? There is also a sign that limits one steak at a time up at the grill. Ok, but you are not getting a full steak but a two inch by six inch strip. You may come back as many times as you like for another strip. The steak is cooked on a flame grill and the first piece I had was excellent. The second piece was good. The steak here is far better than that at OCB, somewhat better than at Golden Corral, but not as good as the steak at Ryans.

There is also grilled chicken - that is marinated in something and cooked on a flat grill. It was tasty, but not really plain enough to make my wife happy and qas greasy. Also at the grill was a hot dog broiler.

There is a taco bar with soft and hard tortilla shells, along with chips for nachos. There was a good assortment of toppings. The taco meat was tasty but a half hour later I was tasting that taco meat all over again and had some regret that I had eaten the taco. I have had tacos at OCB and Ryans with this never happening. Almost five hours later I am still belching taco. (Sorry to be so descriptive - but ya gotta know)

They claim to have a pasta bar with sauces and meatballs. All that I saw was spaghetti and tomato sauce next to it with shells on another buffet table that were swimming in butter or oil and were meant for the shrimp Alfredo next to it.

We were there on Friday night so perhaps the abundance of fried fish and fried foods was due to the night - but this is not seafood night according to the "special night" menus. There was baked salmon also - one of the few other dishes not fried.

There was a good assortment of vegetables - some plain and some in butter. There was mashed potatoes, French fries, mac and cheese, and sweet potatoes. There was a baked potato bar on the grill. Also at the grill were sauteed mushrooms and onions - for the steak. There was a sign over a vat proclaiming a special bourbon sauce for the steak and chicken.

At the dessert bar you can also find pizza, garlic bread, and rolls. The dessert selection was not bad with an assortment of pies, puddings, mixed puddings, custard, cake, cookies, hot cobblers, fresh fruit, canned fruit, sugar free jello, pudding, and hot apple cobbler, and soft serve ice cream with a sundae bar next to it.

The service was good. The server came readily to pick up plates and offered to bring more drinks. When he first brought a Diet Pepsi, on first taste it was not diet. As soon as we got his attention as he passed the table we told him and he immediately took it to get the right soda. When he brought it he assured us that this new one was correct. The restaurant was clean - I did get a soiled dish, but that happens in most restaurants of this type. The decor is Tex-Mex, but the food is not. The name is deceptive. I would have assumed that this was a Tex-Mex restaurant and not an all-around buffet. In fact, I must have passed this restaurant many times since it has been in this Lancaster location and I never knew that it was there. There is no local advertising that I have seen.(And while I am not a local, I am here many times during the year - for many years now.)

They are currently having a "Superman Returns" scratch off contest to win a year of free meals. We actually won a two dollar off our next dinner coupon. (But do I want to go back?)

Now, if you do not care about Cholesterol or your heart, I must say that the food was tasty and for the most part good. Many people in the restaurant around us appeared to be enjoying everything and some seemed to be "regulars". Had there been some sliced turkey, perhaps - or a few plainer choices that were not fried, we would have had a meal more of what we usually expect at a chain buffet. The interesting thing is that there was turkey gravy out, but no turkey. Let me put it this way, at almost every buffet that I have been to, there is always something to keep everyone satisfied. I could not say that about Cactus Willies. I could not expect my wife to just eat salad and vegetables. When she walked from hot table to hot table three times with an empty plate, I felt real bad. If we ever do go back (with our two dollar off coupon) it will not be on a Friday night - but then again, should I take that chance and disappoint her again (she is a real good wife and very good to me).

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Good Taste Buffet - Commack, New York

Finding this restaurant was a lucky accident. We had intended to eat at another Chinese buffet in the Long Island town of Commack, but when we got there we found this other restaurant to be a single store front and a line just about out the door. We headed a little further east to look for a restaurant that my wife we sure she had seen driving past. It was right where she thought it should be and that restaurant was the Good Taste Buffet.

The Good Taste Buffet is located in a strip mall in the town of Commack, New York. It is on Route 25 in the Mayfair Shopping Center. The address is 200 Jericho Turnpike. It is a good size restaurant with pleasant decor. Large pictures of the Orient adorn the walls and in the center of the buffet area is a crystal chandelier. The prices are posted on the front door. You enter at the cashier's desk and we were seated immediately. There were a good number of diners for a Friday evening. The price on weeknights is $11.95 for adults for dinner and $12.95 on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Children under 5 feet tall are $6.95 and under 3 feet tall are $2.95. There is a lunch buffet until 4:30 pm and this is $6.45 for adults on weekdays and $6.95 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Lunch for children is $4.45 for kids under 5 feet and $1.95 for kids under 3 feet. Unlimited soda is extra at $.75 at lunch and $1.00 at dinner. You pay at the end of the meal at your table.

The buffet area is large. There are four double-sided buffet tables and a fifth table against the wall. Your drinks are brought to you by your server. You take your own plates. Silverware and plenty of napkins are on the table and knives and extra silverware is available at the buffet area. Soda are Pepsi products - which I suspected and later confirmed when the waiter answered my order for "two Diet Cokes" with "two diets".

The first of the buffet tables had salads, oriental prepared salads, and sushi. There were many different sushi rolls - a number of them I did not recognize. There was tuna and there was also salmon slices without rice, as well as another white color fish, next to the cocktail shrimp. I tried the salmon and the tuna and it was very fresh and cut easily with a fork - many at these restaurants do not cut that easily. Ice was piled high with the serving dishes sitting on top - so nothing was getting soggy sitting on the ice. Among the salads were various seafood salads and kim chee - Korean spiced cabbage. The next buffet table had soup and appetizers. There were three types of soup - the usual hot and sour, wonton, and egg drop. The wontons were large and well-filled. There were a number of steamed and fried dumplings. There were some unusual ones - a sweet potato dumpling stuffed with a peanut filling and a pork and seafood "Chinese ravioli" which was a large, round, flat dumpling about the size of a baseball. It was filled with meat, seafood, and vegetables. There were steamed shrimp dumplings, fried pork dumplings, steamed dim sum, and steamed chicken dumplings. The shrimp dumplings were excellent - you could taste the shrimp and it was a whole, fresh, plump shrimp cooked just right. It was not mushy or bland as these usually are in other restaurants. There are many types of dipping sauces all around the buffet tables but I could not find dumpling sauce. There was a squeeze bottle next to the dumplings on the counter. I took a portion of this in one of the little plastic cups that are available for sauces. I looked like a thick variety of what I was expecting - but it was not dumpling sauce when I tasted it - it was very thick and salty. I believe this is called fish sauce and is made with anchovies. The dumplings were all good - even with out dumpling sauce - so it was not really missed. It may very well be there and I did not see it. In addition to the dumplings there were fried cheese wontons, egg rolls and Spring rolls, fried shrimp, shrimp toast, vegetable tempura, and many other appetizers. Many items are placed with two different, but related appetizers in a serving tray - doubling the variety. The egg rolls were very greasy - oil came out when you cut into it -but that is what made it taste so good. It was not like the dry, small, barely filled egg rolls in other buffets. These were well stuffed and tasted like egg rolls should. (My wife still says they were too oily.)

There were also the BEST Chinese spare ribs that I have ever had at a Chinese buffet restaurant. These were perfectly cooked - well done and crispy with a good portion of meat on each rib. These ribs were not soaking in the red sugar sauce that ribs cook in and are served in at other restaurants. They were not sticky. They were wonderful! A meal of these alone is worth the price of dinner - and this is what I returned to several times during the evening - despite all of the other good dishes - because they were that good.

Entrees are spread across two double sided buffet hot tables. There were the usual dishes like chicken and broccoli, etc. but there was also chicken and cashew nuts, vegetable mei fun, several different shrimp dishes including salt and pepper shrimp that was not salty, had no tails under the batter, and tasted like good shrimp, pork and mushrooms, salt and pepper crabs (whole half crabs), shrimp in lobster sauce - again with excellent shrimp and a very light sauce, several vegetable dishes, and a large pie-like dish called Seafood lovers in Birds Nest - this was a large, baked noodle nest filled with seafood and vegetables. There was shrimp wrapped in bacon - not the sealegs and bacon usually found at these restaurants. At the end of one of the tables was Peking Duck, carved rib-eye steak, and baked ham. Next to this was Oriental pork chops and chunks of chicken that they called chicken cutlets - but these were fried chunks. There was also sweet and sour chicken. There are steamed crab legs, but frankly, there is so much more.

To finish off the meal there was fresh fruit, qumquats in syrup, pineapple with mandarin oranges in a marshmallow sauce, puddings, filled sweet dumplings, cookies, cakes, nuts, and something they call Chinese Peanut Butter Brittle - large cookie chunks. There is also soft-serve ice cream, but on this night the machine was not working when I went to try it - it had been working earlier.

All of the food was very, very good. This restaurant was a delightful find. The service was good. Dishes were taken away regularly and more soda was brought and offered throughout the meal. There is a great variety and lots of food - they claim 88 dishes daily.

For me this restaurant is a forty-five minute drive and with the price of gas I cannot become a regular, but when I am in this area it will become a definite must-stop. The restaurant is open seven days a week and the hours are until 10 pm on weeknights and 11 on Friday and Saturday. There is no website, but the telephone number is 631-543-9583. If you are in Suffolk County on Long Island in New York, try it!

Friday, July 14, 2006

Shrimp, Shrimp, Shrimp at the OCB - Too Bad!

The Old Country Buffet has a new menu feature and it is served Monday through Saturday nights. It is Five Kinds of Shrimp. It consists of five shrimp dishes - though you might not notice. There was popcorn shrimp, shrimp scampi (shrimp mixed with spaghetti), shrimp Alfredo (shrimp mixed with bowtie noodles with cream and cheese), spiced fried shrimp , and coconut fried shrimp.

Not counted in the five was plain, old fried shrimp - which was just like the popcorn shrimp and the coconut shrimp with insignificant differences. The coconut shrimp sounded promising - as the coconut fried shrimp at the Outback is wonderful. This was mildly coconut flavored with no real appearance of coconut and barely the taste. The popcorn shrimp were just small shrimp minus the tails.

The sign says this joins the regular nightly features. I wish it had. The Thursday night St. Louis Ribs are gone. This is a shame as these were great. The usual Thursday night country fried steak and gravy was also gone. Another disappointment. I went on a Thursday night. I hate to think what is missing from the other night's menus, now that there is shrimp.

To be fair, we went back a second night - there was more of the regular menu items missing and the shrimp was just as disappointing. this shrimp feature is every night except Sundays. I will be going to OCB less until this feature has ended. I hope that it is soon.

All in all, the five shrimp feature is a heart doctor's nightmare - cholesterol galore! It is either fried, in oil, or in cheese sauce. And it is hardly worth it for the taste. This feature is the worst that OCB has ever offered. Bring back barbecue or tex mex - former summer features. Forget the shrimp!

Monday, July 10, 2006

Harvest View Family Restaurant and Buffet

When the Family Cupboard Restaurant moved from Harvest Drive to the main route of Route 340 in Lancaster, PA the building remained empty for about five months – then there was an announcement in one of the tourist newspapers that a new restaurant was coming to that location very soon – a new buffet restaurant. The story is that a man in Philadelphia had heard about the empty restaurant and the spectacular view that it had of the farm fields from it’s windows. He came to see the building and decided that he would open a new buffet restaurant there and feature not only local food but also the view. The restaurant is now open, It is the Harvest View Family Restaurant and Buffet. The advertising highlights that it is a “Meal with a View”. It is located on Harvest Drive adjacent to the Harvest View Motel. To find this restaurant you take Route 340 to Clearview Road (there is a large sign on 340 at the turn. You take this road to the end at Harvest Drive and turn right. The restaurant (and motel) is just ahead on the left.

We went to this restaurant with great anticipation of a new buffet. We already knew the location from the former occupant, so the view was not what we were going for; it was the food. We went on a Sunday night – oh yes, this restaurant is open on Sundays – very few local restaurants in this area are. We arrived a normal dinner time – about 6:oo pm. The parking lot had two cars – the motel lot had a few more. Entering the lobby, there is a sort of gift shop with a few items on the counters and display tables left over from the former restaurant. In the corner still trickles the fountain from the other restaurant. There was no one in the lobby and no one at the cash registers. As we approached the dining room entrance, a young lady came out from the restaurant and seated us. The first impression of a desserted room was not a good first impression. The dining rooms are just as they were before, as are the buffet tables in the upper dining room – the room with the VIEW. This is July and this is the beginning of tourist vacation season. The restaurant was empty with a few tables occupied – each with a window to the view. I generally do not sit with my back to the dining room but here the view is the thing and we were seated facing the window, I enjoy the view and that is enough to put my back to the open room. Our waiter came over promptly. He told us that they feature the buffet and, of course, that was what we were having. Soft drinks are extra at $1.50. The meal is $12.99. Young children seemed to be free for the buffet. There is also a soup and salad bar option – as well as menu dining.

Silverware and napkins are on the table with placemats. The beverages are brought to your table by your server and they are refilled regularly with no hesitation. The soup cups and soup spoons along with the desert plates are up at the buffet tables, as are the dinner plates. At first there were no soup cups. We asked for them and they were brought immediately.

We went up to the buffet. It was obvious that an effort has been made to keep much of the look and the buffet close to the former restaurant that was here, and is still in business just a few miles down the road on Route 340. The room has been repainted to a pleasant orange with red trim.

We started with soup. There were two soups offered – located where they always had been at the end of the salad bar. One soup was chicken corn soup and the other soup was potato and bacon cream soup. We thought that the chicken corn soup was tomato vegetable soup because when we looked into the tureen, the soup was red. Chicken corn soup usually looks like chicken soup. We stirred the soup with the ladle to find that there was a layer of red spice on the top and once mixed, the appearance was more of what was expected. I am a chicken corn soup fan. I filled my cup. There was plenty of chicken pieces and corn. There is often a dumpling like noodle (called rivels) or a fresh noodle in this type of soup. There was neither in this soup.

Back at the table I tasted the soup. It was not like any other chicken corn soup that I have ever had. The red spice must have been paprika or chili powder. The soup was spicy and disappointing. Uh oh, Not a good start. At least not what I had expected and I have been eating the local food in this area for over 45 years (I travel to this area a lot.) Beyond the spice and the expectation – as a soup all on its own it was ok, but overly spiced.

We next went to the salad bar. There is chopped lettuce and vegetable toppings. There were a few prepared salads, but nothing local = no chow chow, no apple butter, no cottage cheese. There were a number of dressings that were a good assortment. There were chopped hot peppers and again I wondered if this new restaurant owner thought that he was in a area that likes hot and spicy, rather than “plain and fancy”. The salad was fine. Nothing special but it was fine.

Next came the main course and the selection of entrees and vegetables. The main buffet table starts off with a selection of vegetables. In fact the almost half of the large buffet table was vegetables. There was corn and corn on the cob, string beans, carrots, lima beans, lima beans in barbecue sauce to make baked beans, and broccoli. There also was noodles, stuffing, and mashed potatoes with brown gravy on the side. Moving along to the meats, there was “rotisserie” chicken. It was not rotisserie chicken as it was named but rather more like broiled chicken. It did not look good – it may have been but it did not look it. I passed. There was liver and onions that was a brown liquid in appearance. I don’t eat liver so I passed, but someone who eats liver would also probably pass. There was chicken bot bie (which they called chicken pot pie and later I heard a waitress describe to a diner that it is not like the one most expect at home - a pie shell full of chicken and vegetables. Had it been named properly – bot bie – as it is called locally, that might not have been a problem to have to explain. There was also fried flounder with fried shrimp. There was fried chicken. There was chicken stew (a yellow liquid with chicken floating in it). There were meatballs in a tomato sauce. There were also chunks of ham with a pineapple sauce. At the end of the hot buffet was meat loaf. Next to the hot buffet were rolls and a sweet bread that we think was zucchini bread. It was very good – whatever it was. Wrapped pats of butter could be found here,

Ok – how was the food? It varied. The assortment was great, but the recipes need attention. The vegetables were good, but they were frozen vegetables. Perhaps this is early in the growing season, but we are in farm country and surrounded by corn fields. Perhaps there is no corn on the stalks yet, They are definitely the next best thing to fresh. While spice seemed to dominate some of the dishes, the meat loaf was basically tasteless. Even with brown gravy poured over the top, the meat loaf had no taste. My wife, who likes everything plain, put pepper on the meat loaf in an attempt to give it some flavor. The chicken pot pie was lacking in vegetables that would have given it some flavor - and there was an underlying spice taste, that is not usually in this dish. The recipe usually calls for carrots and celery to be cooked into this stew-like dish. There were neither. The dish was chicken, which was hard to find, with potatoes and dumplings. The chicken stew had an odd tasting spiced sauce with large pieces of chicken and nothing else – stew? I took some of the noodles with my first plate. They were thin and yellow. Eating them, they were like rubber. Later, fresh noodles were put out and I took them because these looked like they should. They tasted fine and were properly cooked. The stuffing tasted like boxed stuffing mix – it was not bad, but it was not what I expected in a restaurant in this area where stuffing is called filling and a significant part of local meals.

Ok – let me get to what was GOOD, There were some very good dishes to be found here. The fried flounder was very good and the fried shrimp that were mixed in were excellent. These shrimp were huge. The breading was tasty – perhaps a corn meal breading on the shrimp and fish. The fried chicken was also excellent. It was perhaps one of the best of the fried chicken that I have had at a buffet restaurant. When I went back for more I went back for shrimp, flounder, and fried chicken. The mashed potatoes were fresh and real. I mentioned the sweet bread earlier and this was very good (and not usually found at a buffet). I did not try the ham, but my wife did and she says that it was good.

The dessert selection is fair. There were pies including shoe fly pie. There were some puddings. What I thought was egg custard was actually rice pudding. It was ok. There were watermelon and orange wedges. There were two cakes. There was also a shoe fly cake that I tried. It was dry and lacked the taste that would have come had it been moister. The ice cream freezer case from the former restaurant was still there and it was filled with Turkey Hill ice cream, which is locally made (the same is found at many supermarkets). It is scooped to your request,

The service was excellent. The servers were attentive and available. They were equally friendly. The restaurant was clean. The view is terrific – as long as you like farms – and, after all, that is what you are in this area for,

Most of the business – on this night – seemed to be coming from the motel. There were few tables filled, but they did keep turning over while we dined, so people were coming in. This restaurant could corner the market on Sunday night dinner for the tourist trade, as very few restaurants with local food are open. Where was everyone?

As I have said the recipes need some attention and the buffet tables need some regular tending. The noodles should never have been allowed to dry out. The liquid liver and onions needed to be stirred up so perhaps it might have looked like liver and onions – which is not a stew, but appeared to be here. The chicken corn soup should never have looked red. The recipes need also to be brought into line with the local tastes – this is supposed to be Pennsylvania Dutch home cooking – not tex mex. Perhaps the local chef does not work on Sunday nights and the cooking was not as usual. At some time in the future I will try it on another night.

I was not unhappy hear – but it did not meet my great anticipation. The food was ok – some of it was excellent, but some disappointing. There is promise here. It is only open a short while and I will hope that it remains open to attract a local and tourist clientele AND better recipes. I would recommend this on a Sunday when there is not much else, I might not recommend this yet on any other night (yet) when you can find better very close by. One other advantage here is that is open until 9:00 pm every night. Most local restaurants here close at 8:00 pm – so if it is getting too late for the other restaurants, you will be able to get a decent meal here.

There is a breakfast buffet until 11 am at $4.99 from Friday to Sunday only. There is a lunch buffet on weekdays for $8.95 and Saturday and Sunday for $10.95. The lunch buffet is available every day until 4:00 pm. There are coupons with $1.00 off each dinner up to 4. These are in the local tourist papers – I found one in the Amish Country News, a free paper found in hotels and tourist locations. I did not see one in the other tourist free papers.

There is a website – There will be a link found in out links listing. The phone number is 717-768-7953. Hmm, just tried the website and got a message that the account for this domain has been suspended - what does that mean? Well, the restaurant is open, so perhaps the website will someday work.