Friday, June 29, 2007

Some Changes at the China Buffet - East Meadow, NY

In October 2006 I wrote about the China Buffet, located in the village of East Meadow in New York. This is a little neighborhood Chinese restaurant that turned into a buffet a long time back. I would love to love this buffet because it is so close to me.

On the evening that we went back to the China Buffet we had not been able to get into the local OCB as there was a line out the door. This was a Sunday night (Father's Day) and we decided to try the China Buffet once more.

When we arrived the dining room was near empty - does this say something? (OCB line out the door - China Buffet dining room empty) We were seated, ordered sodas (which we later learned are now extra according to a barely legible,handwritten sign, scotched taped to the door (not sure if this is a permanent change or just for "the holiday" - Father's Day)), and went up to the buffet server tables. We could see immediately that there had been some changes. One of the two serving tables was longer. Some items had been moved there and in their place on the other serving table were more dumplings than previously offered. Things looked a bit brighter and cleaner. As we went along there were several other new dishes added. There was a seafood mixture in butter sauce. There were stuffed crabs with "Krab" legs cut up with vegetables. There were whole fried fish. Instead of the usual buffet-style egg rolls there were large Spring rolls that were actually a cross between Spring rolls and egg rolls (tasty and crispy but dripping with oil). There now is also a fourth soup - a noodle soup. On the hot table was a hot apple strussel for dessert that is new.

The Mongolian grill remains in the back of the buffet area. This still makes up for the lack of main dishes - which despite the new additions is still a problem. The advantage of the Mongolian grill is that you can create just about any dish you would like using beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, noodles, and vegetables. When I am at a Mongolian grill I expect to find the meat frozen - a sign that it has not been sitting out long exposed to the air. All of the meat here on this night was not even close to frozen and because of that I did not take the chicken. There was also a lack of serving tongs to take the meat - one in the chicken and one in the beef. I took the beef and used those tongs for the shrimp. But I was not going to take a chance on the pork as surely the chicken tongs had been used to take it earlier by someone.

The added dumplings were nice. There were steamed shrimp dumplings that were actually rather good. There was dim sum. There were two steamed sweet dumplings - a bean paste dumpling that looked like a peach and a steamed cake. This is in addition to the fried meat dumplings that they have always offered. The dumplings were not bad. We tried the steamed cake for dessert and it was good.

One of my complaints in the past at this restaurant was that there were no knives. This night I decided to ask for one and see if they still said they had none. To my surprise - after a bit of translation two knives were brought to our table.

About three-quarters of the way through the meal I started to feel that lightheaded, MSG buzz. Something that I have not encountered in other Chinese buffets. MSG is a food additive that had been heavily used in Chinese cooking to make the meats and vegetables be more tender, be crisper and last longer in storage. I am sure that many Chinese restaurants still use it - menu restaurants always have an option for it to be left out - many do not use it at all any more because many people are sensitive to it and it can result in a headache. If other buffets that I have been to have used it I have not felt its effects. I know that if it is used heavily, I will feel it. I felt it here.

So, as I said at the beginning it would be great if this buffet were great - just minutes away! But sadly, no - not so great. In the front window there was a poster that said TOP in big letters with the name of this restaurant. There was a website listed and the sign told you to go and vote for this restaurant to be one of the "Top One Hundred Chinese Restaurants in the United States". Wishful, aren't they? This is not even close to the top one thousand. Ah, well.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Barnhill's Buffet

Continuing my search for small buffet chains around the country I came across another chain that looks great. It is Barnhill's Buffet and they have locations across the "Deep" South. You will find locations in Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. Interestingly, other than Florida, they are not in any of the states along the East Coast. The chain is under "new management" and claims to have improved - not knowing about the "old" management I will have to take their word for it.

So what would you expect to find in a buffet chain anchored in the South - real Southern cooking, of course. They feature fried, grilled, and hickory smoked meats along with Southern Style vegetables and casseroles. While Old Country Buffet, Ryans, and Golden Corral tend to center their menus around country cooking - this buffet chain goes several steps further into Southern Cooking.

The main offerings start with a salad and fruit bar. Here you will find salad greens and toppings, prepared salads including tuna, chicken, and seafood as well as the usual macaroni salad and cole slaw. This all is complimented by fresh cut fruits. There is soup on the salad bar as well.

Grilled chicken and catfish are served every day. Some locations offer steak after 4:00pm. And then there are the Southern, hickory smoked favorites being carved such as pork ribs, beef brisket, smoked sausage, turkey, and ham. Then, of course, there has to be golden Southern fried chicken.

There is a vegetable and casserole selection for side dishes including chicken pot pie, macaroni and beef, corn soufflé, and lasagna (Southern-style?). The vegetables include corn, fried okra, limas, candied yams, turnips, as well as the more conventional vegetables.

Desserts here sound great. Cheesecake, strawberry shortcake, hot cobblers, banana pudding, pies, and, of course, ice cream and yogurt with toppings.

Selections of all of the offerings vary daily, but they also have features every weekday night - and a special kid's selection on Saturdays. The Monday night feature is the most unusual of all of the buffet chains. On Monday night, in addition to the usual offerings, you can have Breakfast Buffet! There is an omelet bar, eggs prepared, pancakes, and cinnamon rolls. This sounds so great and different. Usually you have to be an early riser or like to eat a really big breakfast to try the breakfast buffet in most chains. Here it is offered Monday night It is also served at some locations on Saturday and Sunday mornings. The other weeknight features are more or less the usual that you will find. Tuesday night is Taco Tuesday and Kids Night. There are Tex-mex features along with hot dogs, chicken tenders, and mac and cheese. On Wednesday the feature is Southern Style Supper when even more Southern favorites are brought out. Thursday night is Taste of Italy night and there are pasta stations. That is a bit different from the usual buffet Italian offerings. Friday night is, what else, Seafood Extravaganza with shrimp, clam strips, fried oysters, baked fish in several varieties, crayfish, and FROGS LEGS! (Yes, they do taste like chicken.)

The restaurants also do catering. They will do full service catering for an event and they also offer party packs of their menu selections. This also is different for a chain buffet.

The restaurants are open from 10:45 am, seven days a week, until 8:30 pm Sunday – Thursday and until 9:00 pm on Friday and Saturday nights. From Memorial Day through Labor Day they are open until 9:00 pm during the week and on Sundays, and until 9:30 pm on Friday and Saturday nights.

Their website, a link will be found at the side of this site, has special offers including money off coupons. (I love saving money with coupons!) I have not been to a Barnhill's Buffet. My travels has not yet taken me to where there is one located. It really sounds great and I would love to try it - especially on a Monday night!

If any of our readers have eaten at a Barnhill's Buffet please post a comment and tell us all about it. How is the food, the service, the maintenance? As I understand it they are trying hard to be good.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Sweet Tomatoes

There are a number of buffet chains across the United States other than Old Country Buffet (and its various incarnations), Ryans, and Golden Corral. I have made a search to find some of these chains and tell you about them. This week I am going to tell you about Sweet Tomatoes. Interesting name - interesting buffet concept.

Sweet Tomatoes is located across the western United States to the mid-west. There are also locations in North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. The company, which started in California, operates restaurants under the names of Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes. Both are the same. The name Souplantation is much more descriptive of this buffet, because its main offerings are soup, salad, pasta, and dessert.

This is a health conscious buffet, though there is plenty on the menu for anyone to be satisfied. The menu offers an extensive selection of both non-vegetarian and vegetarian dishes. Let me start by saying that I have not yet had the pleasure of dining in a Sweet Tomatoes or Souplantation buffet. What I know I have learned second hand, but I think that you will find out enough to decide if you would like to try this buffet.

When you dine at a Sweet Tomatoes you will find a variety of soups and stews, pre-made tossed salads, prepared salads, hot pastas in a variety of sauces and combinations, breads (Focaccia) and muffins, and desserts. The tossed salads include such interesting offerings as Buffalo chicken salad, chicken tortilla, pesto orzo with pine nuts, spiced pecan & roasted vegetables with bacon, and many others. There are the more common Greek salad, Caesar salad, Cobb salad, and more. There are a number of salad dressings to make your own salad concoction.

There are also prepared salads - though the pre-made salads would seem to come under that same category - though I suppose that the difference is one features greens or lettuce and the other does not. Prepared salads include a selection from a variety (menus seem to change every day) including Ambrosia with Coconut, Chinese Krab, Field Corn & Very Wild Rice, Jalapeño Potato, Old Fashioned Macaroni with Ham, Poppyseed Coleslaw, Southwestern Rice & Beans, Tuna Tarragon, Turkey Chutney Pasta, and Zesty Tortellini. There are many others as well. All very different and not the usual buffet salad bar offerings.

While most buffets offer two or maybe three soups, Sweet Tomatoes offers eight at each meal. Soups also include stews, but you may not find stews included every day - as I said, the menus change daily by location. You may find Albondigas Locas (A Meatball Soup), Beef & Barley Stew, Cheese Stuffed Cappelletti Soup, Chesapeake Corn Chowder, Chicken Pot Pie Stew, Classical Shrimp Bisque, Cream of Mushroom (served every Monday), 8 Vegetable Chicken Stew, Arizona Chili, Creamy Herbed Turkey, Lemon Chicken Orzo, Mulligatawny, Ratatouille Provencale, and many more! There is also the simple (though nothing here seems simple) - chicken noodle, tomato, cream of broccoli, minestrone, vegetable (actual several vegetables), a variety of chili aside from the one included above, French Onion, cream of chicken and more. I am a soup fan and my mouth is watering just listing these! There are soups and stews with meat and there are vegetarian soups and chowders.

There are no entrees or side dishes but there is a variety of pasta dishes. There are eight at every meal. Some of the offerings are as good as entrees such as Beefy Meatball Stroganoff, Linguini with Clam Sauce, Spicy Italian Sausage & Peppers, Smoked Salmon & Dill, Tuscany Sausage with Capers & Olives, among others. Then there are pastas with sauces - Vegetarian Marinara with Basil, Southwestern Alfredo Pasta, Curried Pineapple & Ginger, Fire-Roasted Tomato Basil Alfredo, Cilantro Lime Pesto, Carbonara Pasta with Bacon, and many more. For the non-adventurous there is macaroni and cheese. All sound great!

To go with the soup and pasta you need bread! Here the bread is in the form of muffins and Focaccia (pizza-like breads). There si a long list of unusual muffins - all sweet and different. There is also an assortment of Focaccia - some sweet and some with meats or cheese or vegetables - or a mixture of all three. The muffins and "breads" could easily take the place of dessert - but there are desserts here too!

Desserts are an assortment of fruit cobblers, puddings, cakes, jello, fat free and sugar free desserts, cookies, chocolate frozen yogurt, and vanilla soft-serve. In addition there are sundae toppings to add to your ice cream or yogurt - or anything else that you like.

Hours for each restaurant may vary by location - as may price. I actually have not been able to find the price of the meal listed (but that is not unusual as most of the chains do not list prices except at the restaurant). The restaurants all offer lunch and dinner. Most open at 11am and close at 9:00 pm on Sundays through Thursdays and at 10:00 pm on Fridays and Saturdays. There is also a take out menu. You can get large portions of all that is offered or this combo -
a reate your own single-serving salad from the salad bar, plus two 8-oz. cups for either soup,
hot pasta, or loaded baked potato, and a bakery bag for your choice of muffins, foccacia and bread - all for the lunch price.

The closest Sweet Tomatoes to the Northeast US is in North Carolina. There is one in Raleigh, and the next time I am in that area I am going to try Sweet Tomatoes. If anyone has eaten at a Sweet Tomatoes please post a comment and tell us all about it. Is it as good as it sounds?

There is a web site and a link will be found at the side of this site. The web site includes extensive nutritional information for all of the menu items and there is a restaurant locater to find a Sweet Tomatoes or Souplantation near you or near where you are traveling.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Traditional Smorgasbord

We have reviewed many buffet restaurants, but none of them would be considered "true" smörgåsbord in Sweden. The grandfather of all buffets is the traditional smörgåsbord as it is served in Sweden. It has its similarities to the buffet restaurants that we are familiar with, but it is quite formal - and is not approached with the "all you can eat" attitude as many have when they enter a buffet in the United States.

Traditional smörgåsbord is served both in Swedish homes and in restaurants. The word smörgåsbord literally translates to "open sandwich table" but while you may find open sandwiches or food that you create open sandwiches with, the traditional smörgåsbord offers so much more. There is a special smörgåsbord dinner that is served during the Christmas season called julbord. This is an extra festive dinner served in the same manner as smörgåsbord and is eaten in the same way. Smörgåsbord in Sweden goes back to the 1700's when it was served as an appetizer before an even larger meal.

Smörgåsbord is served on a regular table in small platters and dishes. The table is set out with food that is meant to be approached in three or four courses (depending upon whether there is dessert included - which is not always the case). It is definately not the mix everything you can on one plate as high as you can, as some are familiar with.

Dinners come up to the table for "Plate One" or the first course and take selections of cold fish dishes. The "take as much as you want" concept still applies - but it is done with more discretion. After the cold fish is eaten, diners return to the buffet table for other cold dishes which may include salads, cold cuts of meat, cheese, pate, etc. This is "Plate Two" or "the second plate". When this has been eaten, diners come back for the hot entrees, of course, all Swedish delicacies and dishes. This would conclude the meal unless dessert has been included. For the julbord, dessert is almost always included.

Foods found will usually include a number of herring dishes, both hot and cold, and, of course, Swedish meatballs. The cold selections will include fish and meats that can be spread or placed on a piece of bread and eaten as an open sandwich.

What a difference from the buffets that we are accustomed to. ! When I was younger my parents would speak of a traditional smörgåsbord restaurant in New York City, but I am sure in over forty years it is no longer there. Anything that I have been able to find in the U.S.A. that calls itself a smörgåsbord is just a regular buffet restaurant with all that that implies. If anyone knows of any, please share them with us. They certainly do exist in Sweden. In search of one n the U.S., several sources led to a small part of Chicago called Andersonville, which is dubbed, "Little Sweden". While these direct you to where to find the foods to create your own smörgåsbord dinner (especially a julbord for the Christmas season), none have named a restaurant that one can go to for the traditional experience. Cities with significant Swedish populations do seem to have local events that feature a traditional Smorgasbord - as one found in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but these are one time (or perhaps annual) dinners. If you want to taste an approximation of Swedish foods - Swedish meatballs, lingonberries, etc. try an IKEA furniture and home store. This discount warehouse of knockdown furniture is based in Sweden and are now located all over the United States and most of their stores have a restaurant serving Swedish foods - no buffet, all you can eat, or smörgåsbord but you do get to try the food.

Of course, any buffet could be approached like a traditional smörgåsbord, as all of the elements are there. Anyone up for trying the Three Plate approach at Old Country Buffet? It would take a lot of discipline for most buffet lovers.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Old "Friends" Turn Up Everywhere!

Way back I wrote two - or maybe three - articles about a couple that I named, "The Lobster Grabbers". (Check back in the archives for a good read.) These are two actual people, presumably a married couple - older - who would run up to the buffet server in a particular Chinese buffet when they would see the tray of lobster come out from the kitchen and fill multiple plates with every bit of lobster that they could grab. In this particular restaurant the lobster would be served hourly (if the owner decided he wanted it to come out). This would leave ZERO lobster for everyone else - often for the rest of the dinner. Not only is this a blatant breaking of our rules of buffet dining (which I am sure they know nothing about) but is also incredibly RUDE. Obviously, they ticked me off. Week after week they would be at this same restaurant at the same time that we would be there. Week after week the same thing. After a while the restaurant discontinued lobster on the buffet, but this did not stop our "friends". They switched this behavior from lobster to sushi, taking every piece of sushi in the serving tray.

I did not stop going to that restaurant, but I did go there much less often. Not just because of the Lobster and Sushi Grabbers, but that was part of it. We have been going to a nicer Chinese buffet (usually on Friday nights) a bit further away - one that I have written about, but will not name - but if the Turkey Incident comes to mind you have a clue. With the price of gas this is not such a good thing - but the sushi is great (if you get there early enough) and the variety is better than at the closer restaurant - which is not so close (about fifteen miles, one way). Anyway, it seemed far away had the advantage that the Lobster/Sushi Grabbers would not be there - as not many are crazy like me that would drive a distance for a buffet. And besides there is no lobster there.

Well, wrong - last Friday night we are just sitting down to dinner at this farther away buffet, and my wife said to me, "Your friends are here." "What friends?" I asked. "Just at the table behind us - your friends the Lobster Grabbers." "No." "Yes!" And there they were.

We had just stared our soup and I had not gotten up to the Sushi yet - and it was reaching the time that at this restaurant they make the sushi for the rest of the night and put it all out - with no replacement. I finished my soup and headed for the sushi bar, before they could get up there.

Now, I did something that I should not have done and justified it in my head by reasoning that if I wanted sushi tonight I better take what I will want now - and not do the proper and polite thing and take some and go back for more. Yes, I broke a rule! I went to the sushi counter and I filled a plate - taking what I anticipated would be all that I would want. I got back to the table just as the couple descended on the sushi counter. Each filled three plates overflowing.

As they used to do with the lobster - and as they do with everything else that they take - they spread the six plates out on their table and ate from them scattered. Of course, as we have written about before - and not just about the infamous Lobster Grabbers - when people do this they tend not to eat all that they take. This is wasteful to the restaurant besides being terribly unfair to the other people dining at the same time.

Now, I have my own plate full of sushi - much more than I would take at one time - and I, alone, ate every piece - my wife does not eat fish, much less raw fish. Was I correct to do this under the circumstances? Absolutely! When I went past the sushi bar again - most of it was gone.

Through the meal they moved on to filling plates with entrees, side dishes, if it was there they took it and spread the overflowing plates around on their table. A lot was left over and not eaten. It surprises me that the restaurants do not say anything to them - but looking at them they do not look the trouble maker type - so they get away with it. I was so tempted to take out my cell phone camera and sneak a photo of both them and the table full of plates. Including it here like a Wanted poster. My wife advised against it. Well, anyway, they left the turkey alone - which by the way IS worth fighting over as it is the second best turkey that I have ever had in a restaurant.

Will I go back again soon to see if they are there again? I will go back, but when depends on the gas prices (isn't that terrible?).