Friday, February 29, 2008

The KING of Buffet Foods

I am often asked if a certain buffet includes lobster on the buffet. Lobster is a great attraction, but you are only going to find all that you care to eat lobster at very high priced buffets. There was a time a few years ago that it was possible to find it on a buffet priced under $30 per adult, but not any longer. A few higher prices Asian buffets still put lobster out with the meat in the shell cut up in ginger sauce. When you find this there is generally a swarm of dinners hovering over the empty tray waiting for it to be refilled - and then when it does come out it is emptied as quickly as it was filled. Often it is just not worth the hassle.

With the scarcity of lobster at affordable buffets, what is the "King" of buffet foods? King Crab Legs! Giant crab legs. Legs so large that if you saw the crab that was once attached, alive, and coming toward you, you would run screaming as far as you could get! But, put cut those legs off that crab, steam them, and pile them high on a buffet table and you will see people run toward them and not away!

King crab legs is the lobster-lover's buffet appeasement. I once heard someone say that the only reason people like to eat lobster is to have an excuse to dip something lavishly into melted butter and then eat it. How true! King crab legs provide the same opportunity. The meat is lobster-like, though less nutty in taste. You get the excuse to use a nutcracker to break the shells, and you get the melted butter - which is mostly what you are tasting when you eat the lobster anyway.

Many affordable priced buffets include crab legs. Some charge an additional cost to the meal. Some provide them in addition to the buffet in a limited quantity. Many that have then just include them in the price of the dinner. The crab legs are often served hot but I have been to buffets were they are also served cold on ice.

What is served will vary as well from buffet to buffet. The more expensive buffets will serve clusters of crab legs - this is several legs and the claw connected at a joint at the top. Some buffets will just serve individual legs, broken apart from the clusters. Even though you may take as many as you want, you do better with the clusters.

Crab legs are cooked by steaming them. Properly steamed the crab leg becomes reddish orange and cream color. The crabs just need to be put in a steamer, steamed, and served. In some parts of the US - particularly in the Chesapeake area of Maryland and Virginia, the crab is covered with a salty, spiced seasoning originally made by the Old Bay Company and then steamed. This gives the crab a unique flavor known to this region. It is quite good. The same spice is used on many seafoods. It is especially good on shrimp.

The King crab leg consists of three sections - the joint at the top where the leg connected to the body of the crab, the upper leg, and the lower leg. There is a joint between the upper and lower leg. If you have a cluster you will have several three legs plus a claw leg connected at the joint. In the Chesapeake region people love this stuff and put it on everything!

Eating a king crab leg has a technique all its own. I was first shown how to eat a crab leg by a waiter who took pity on watching me struggle to get the crab meat out of the shell. Just cracking open the shell at any spot along the leg just leads to frustration. Most buffets that are serving crab legs will have nut crackers available for you to use. If they are not out on the buffet table near the crab legs or on your table already, just ask. What you will not find at most buffets - even seafood buffets - are the little two prong forks used for eating shellfish. For some reason they just do not provide these -and these would be a great help when eating crab legs. Perhaps they think that they will be taken because they are so small. I don't know why but you never get one - even if you ask, they don't have them (if they even know what you are talking about). I once bought my own to bring.

So - I said that there is a technique for eating crab legs. Ok, I shall pass along the secret. First - put aside the nut cracker. You do not need it until you get to the claw. We will start with clusters - the individual legs will be obvious in a moment or so. Take the cluster and hold it at the top and pull the large claw leg down and off. You will rip it from the joint at the top of the cluster. Put it aside for now. Next, do the same for the next leg - which is the longest leg on the cluster. As you rip the leg away from the joint you will probably pull a nice lump of crab meat away with it from the joint. It is sort of a crab lolly pop now. Dip that lump of meat, still attached to the top of the leg into your butter sauce or red cocktail sauce or nothing at all as the crab meat tastes good with nothing on it at all and eat it. Hmmm! That was good and that was easy. You are now really ready for more, but you are going to have to do a little work to get the rest of the crab meat from that leg. You still do not need the nut cracker - you will just mess things up with it so leave it be. You are holding an upper leg that is connected at a joint to a lower leg with a small section in between. Gently break the joint at the top of that mid-section and pull the lower leg and the mid-section straight out from the upper leg. It will be easy to break and when you pull it away you will take two thin, stiff strands of cartilage with the lower leg out of the upper leg. Put the lower leg aside. Take the upper leg in both hands and hold it so that the shell is flat. Go to the end with the joint that just connected the lower leg. Break that joint end off with a snap. Turn the leg around and do the same thing at the top, breaking that joint end off with a snap. You should be left with the whole upper leg in the shell with the ends broken off. Sometimes the ends are difficult to break off - especially if the legs were cooked as single legs or if the crab legs have been sitting too long and the sell has become soft (and tough). Now comes the tricky part. Hold that leg flat in both hands with the orange red side facing you and with a snap break it in half length-wise. Try not to rip it. It needs to break. As you break it pull the top half of shell away and you will slide it off of the crab meat that is inside the leg. Grab a hold of that meat and gently slide it out of the bottom half of the shell. There you have it! Another succulent piece of pure crab meat!

In the lower leg you are not going to find much meat but there is some there. Snap that mid-section off and you will reveal a small triangle of crab meat. Just gently snap the lower leg in half and pull the top of the shell away. You will be rewarded with a thin strip of crab meat (sometimes).

Repeat this same process with the rest of the legs. After you have eaten the meat from the smallest leg you will still find meat in the claw leg and in the top joint. Break the joint apart. It consists of chambers and inside those chambers you will find crab meat to pick through. You may already have taken the majority of the meat out of the top when you broke the legs off, but there is always some meat left there. I have saved the claw leg for last because it requires the most work. You will need the nut cracker now. Take the leg in your hands and break the claw off the leg. It snaps right off using your fingers. Take hold of the upper jaw and break that off by pulling straight up. Now, take the nut cracker and break the claw shell. Just crack - it is not a vise. If you squeeze it apart you are going to wind up with broken shell mixed into a mush of crab. Crack the claw shell and break the shell away from the meat. There is a lump of meat inside - inside that meat is a thin cartilage. Don't eat that. Pull it away with the front of the lower jaw. The rest of the claw leg is the toughest part of the crab legs. You need to crack this with the nut cracker and pick out the meat from the shells. This part is sometimes so much trouble that with the ability to just get another crab leg or cluster I just don't bother with it.

From my years of enjoying king crab legs at buffets I have learned a few things -

1. Clusters are better than single legs because the single legs often sit in the serving tray in the water that has condensed from the steam and they become water logged which effects the taste and softens the shell to the point that it is difficult to break without ripping it. Single legs when cooked are cooked with the top cluster section cut up. The crab tends to overcook this way.

2. Crab legs are best when when they are hot because the meat will separate from the shell easier. As the crab leg cools the shell contracts and traps the meat inside. It will no longer pull easily out of the shell and will often rip in half leaving the meat inside the lower half of the shell difficult to get out (at least without a cocktail fork). As a result do not take too many crab legs or clusters at one time. They will cool off too quickly. Take two clusters or a few single legs and then go back for more hot ones! Please don't be lured by temptation as you look at the uninformed crab eaters pile clusters on their plate. Eat them hot and you will actually get to eat them and not leave the meat in the shell. Remember - it is a buffet. You can go up and get more any time that you like.

3. When crab legs are served cold on ice, expect a long struggle to get the meat out of the shell. Why? Read number 2 just above.

4. Crab leg meat added to other dishes is usually not real crab meat. There is a fish that tastes like crab and this is processed to look like king crab leg meat. If it is not in the shell, it is probably not real crab.

Crab legs are going to get your hands dirty. Your hands will be slippery with butter sauce. The hot, steamy crab juices will drip all over your hands leaving them with that "just out to sea" odor. You will often find wet naps where ever crab legs are served. If not, a quick trip to the rest room will wash the odors of your wonderful king crab feast away.

So now I am ready to go and eat some crab legs! Local Chinese buffets near me include them on the buffets so I do not have far to search. Yumm!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Makkoli Seafood Buffet, East Brunswick, New Jersey

I am always looking for buffet restaurants in New Jersey. On occasion business takes us to the Garden State and we usually drive around looking for a buffet for dinner, find nothing, and head back home. The one buffet that I had found in the area that we usually are in I wrote about a year ago - and it was not good. (Take a look in the archives and I am sure that you will find it.)

One of my readers contacted me and told me about a buffet near his home in New Jersey called Makkoli. He told me that he likes to go there for the sushi. I have not gone to buffets that are primarily sushi because, as some of you know, I have a wife who is a very picky eater - and she does not like seafood beyond shrimp. She especially will not eat raw fish. I enjoy sushi but I will not subject her to a dinner of food that she hates. And the sushi buffets that I am aware of charge a great deal of money for their meals - both at lunch and dinner, weekdays and weekends. So my first reaction to my reader - Art - was just what I have told you. He emailed me back to say that there is more at Makkoli than sushi and seafood. He also shared that the weekend price is $19.95 for dinner, which while high, is not as high as other sushi buffets that I know of. I went to look at their website - most of which is under construction - and saw a picture of a Japanese Hibachi chef cooking at an Hibachi grill. We were all set. My wife could eat Hibachi and whatever else there might be and I could try a sushi buffet. We just had to wait for another trip to New Jersey, which just so happened to come quickly.

Let me say that finding Makkoli was a bit of an adventure. One that included some yelling and swearing. I am sure that anyone who lives in this area of New Jersey would have no problem finding it right off, but for this traveler from another State, well, it was... let's just say an adventure. We wound up passing this restaurant twice without seeing it and we had GPS to assist us. One thing that you need to know about New Jersey is that there are no left turns in New Jersey and every large road is a divided highway with no way to cross to the other side. Every few miles there are right turn arounds that will head you across or get you in the opposite direction - but not knowing the roads and driving at night these are noted by signs that are not lit and usually hidden behind a tree. Each time the GPS said that we were there (we routed ourselves to the address), we would look to where the restaurant was supposed to be and all we could see was a dark field - actually somewhat of a pit. Back and forth we drove and then finally pulled into a shopping center and telephoned the restaurant. We were just a mile or so from the location and with their directions of what to look for and what to turn at we finally arrived. That dark pit that we had been seeing was actually the parking lot a bit lower than the road.

Makkoli Seafood Buffet is a Japanese buffet. The restaurant is located in small shopping center strip mall and takes up the length of about four store fronts. On entering the restaurant it is very bright and modern. There is a dining room along the front wall and then another dining room filling the rest of the space with tables all around the buffet area. The price of dinner at Makkoli is $18.99 from Monday to Thursday and $19.99 from Friday to Sunday. Lunch prices are $11.99 and $13.99. Children under three and one half feet tall eat free. Children from that height to four and one half feet are half price. Soda for all is $1.50 and is refillable. They serve Coke products. Hours on Monday to Thursdays and Sunday are to 9:00 pm and Friday and Saturday until 10:00 pm. You must be seated one half hour before closing.

We went for dinner on a Friday night. The restaurant was busy but we did not have to wait to get a table. We were seated and asked for our soft drink order. We then proceeded to the buffet server. There is a four-sided, large serving buffet in the middle of the dining room. Next to that on one wall is a single sided buffet server. Along the longest wall there is a counter that includes the Hibachi grill, soups, entrees, and appetizers.

We started with soup - as we always do. There were three Japanese soups - seafood soup, miso soup, and udon noodle soup. Below the label for the noodle soup were a list of the ingredients - tofu skins, noodles, seaweed, and scallions. We had picked up empty bowls and looked over the soup choices and headed for the udon noodle soup. Behind the soup tureen there were a few bowls with ingredients in them - but no broth. The broth was in the tureen. We figured out that we were supposed to take one of those bowls and fill it with broth creating the soup. Next to all of this there was a station where noodles would be boiled and the ingredients mixed for this soup. No one was there at the time - there was a chef there later creating these bowls for the soup. Slight confusion but we quickly had our soup (two advanced college degrees should be able to figure a simple thing like this out). The udon noodle soup was excellent. I enjoyed just about everything at this restaurant but I really enjoyed this soup. I almost went back for another bowl at the end of the meal but I was so full - and I had two hours to drive home - that I did not dare.

I moved on to the salad and sushi next and my wife headed for the hot appetizers. There are four sushi chefs working inside the rectangular serving area. On one long side are Japanese salads including salmon skin salad, tofu salad, mushroom salad, chopped lettuce, raw edame beans, and others. There were also plates of sashimi - lumps of raw fish with no rice. There was salmon, tuna, and red snapper. Along a short side were raw oysters and clams on the half shell and cocktail shrimp. A tub of red cocktail sauce was on the side along with fresh lemon wedges. I looked at the oysters - sitting on ice, but they looked dry looking so I skipped those. The clams looked fresher and moister. The shrimp looked great. I was looking for the out of the ordinary so I skipped the shell fish and tried some of the salads and took some sashimi. The mushroom salad was very good - I even made my wife try some. It was large black mushroom slices in a mildly sweet sauce. The tofu salad was squares of tofu with a white dressing on top. Also good. The sashimi - I took salmon and tuna and this was very fresh.

There is silverware available all over the restaurant near the clean plates including forks, knives, and soup spoons. At every table there are chopsticks placed on your napkin, Many here eat with chopsticks. I do - but soon tire of the effort and switch back and forth with utensils.

I went next for sushi. I am not an adventurous sushi eater. I tend to the basics of tuna and salmon. Here there is sushi for everyone - the adventurous and the timid. There was every kind of raw fish - white tuna, red tuna, salmon, red snapper, eel, ocotpus, squid, yellowtail, and more. I tried a few fish that I have never had an opportunity to try before - I still avoided the octopus, squid, and eel. All of these were on rice. Then there were the rolls and those were plentiful and different (at least to me). There was a lobster sushi roll. There was a tempura sushi roll - pieces of fried tempura wrapped in rice and seaweed. All of the fish was fresh. All was kept over ice on plates. The chefs keep an eye on each serving plate and refilled them with freshly made sushi continually as they emptied. Everything was well labeled - as was all of the food at this restaurant. All that I tried were good. If you like sushi beyond what you find in the usual Asian buffet, you will love this. And if you are a timid sushi eater you will be happy too. Be alert to the two signs on the glass above the sushi. Each says that you are not to "waste" the rice with the sushi and if you do you will be charged extra. Meaning - take sushi, eat all of the rice. Do not just eat the fish. If you do, you will be paying extra. I have heard from readers that some Asian buffets have had managers or serving staff come over to them when the left the rice aside and told them that they could not do that or that they would be charged extra for doing that. I have never encountered this - and I am one who usually leaves some of the rice aside so that I will not fill up on it. At least here there are clear signs that are unavoidably seen. No denying and no reason for issue- which is ok. I ate all of my rice.

All along my wife was happy with the hot entrees, appetizers, and side dishes. I tried these next. On one wall is a counter with space behind for serving staff and hot serving trays in the front. The hot foods are found here. Next to the soup are steamed crab shumai (dumplings). These were good. There are two tubs of liquid dipping sauce near by. One was a hot pepper sauce. The other was a sharp vinegar. Neither was dumpling sauce, but perhaps that is Chinese and not Japanese. Watch out for that hot pepper sauce! Along the counter there was Japanese fried rice - made on a grill and not the brown style Chinese fried rice, there were noodles that looked like Chinese lo mein noodles, but are much lighter, there were pan fried Japanese dumplings - verylight, and on and on. There was vegetable tempura. There was shrimp tempura - long shrimp in a light but thick fried batter - excellent. There was grilled shrimp on a stick - with the heads on. There were baked scallops - a real scallop shell (think the Shell Oil sign) filled with chopped scallop with a mayonaise based sauce baked together on the shell. There was a baked mussel that looked similar, if not the same. There was steamed flounder in ginger. There was chicken terriaki and beef terriaki. There were half crabs. There was broiled duck, several other chicken dishes, and other beef dishes. They had excellent spare ribs - Chinese sytle without that terrible red sweet sauce. These were charbroiled with just enough crisp. They were cut into small pieces, each a few inches long. There were also Spring rolls. Oh yes, everyone's favorite, there were king crab legs - individual legs, not clusters. The crab legs were refilled as soon as the tray went low. Everything was continually kept fresh and refilled. There was plenty here for the seafood lover and the meat eater.

If you had not had enough already, there was another big part of the meal to come. A section of the counter was an hibachi grill. This is not a Mongolian BBQ - you do not mix your own vegetables and meat. This is a real hibachi grill just like in the hibachi Japanese restaurants - you know the ones that you see in the movies where the chef throws the knife around to cut the food on the grill. You get it all here -except the show - there is no knife throwing, but there is a chef cooking each hibachi dish to your order. You have your choice of shrimp, chicken, and steak with mixed vegetables. The portion that the chef cooks for you fills a plate. My wife had the chicken. I intended to have the steak but I saw the shrimp being cooked for the person before me and I could not resist. The grilled shrimp were great. The vegetables mixed in were nicely seasoned. My wife's chicken was good. The steak looked really good too!

At this point I was full and satisfied - but I had this urge to go back and try some more great things. I resisted the temptation. But wait - dessert. Along the other short side of the rectangle was cold fresh fruit, jello, and canned oriental fruits. Opposite this was a another buffet server against the wall with - oriental buffet "Little Debbie" type cakes and an ice cream freezer chest along side with barrels of hard ice cream for you to scoop yourself. Good ice cream The usual oriental buffet cakes. Dessert was not spectacular, but with all the rest it did not really need to be.

Service was good. Plates were taken away as soon as you empty them. You are served your soda in a very large plastic glass and it took most of the meal to drink it - but when it was near the bottom the server came over and offered to bring more. The entire restaurant was very clean including the rest rooms.

I have said before that you can often tell that a restaurant serving the cuisine of a particular country - Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Greek , etc. is good when you see people of that nationality dining there. This Japanese restaurant had a good number of Japanese and Asian people eating at it. They all seemed to be enjoying it and this tells me that there is some authenticity to the cooking.

My wife noticed that this was a restaurant where people lingered and did not just eat and leave - and the restaurant did not seem to have any problem with this. Many of the people who were well into their meals when we first sat down were still sitting and talking after we had finished. Another thing observed at the table behind us of a large group of friends is that the restaurant does not have a problem if you bring your own bottle of liquor. That table not only had wine on the table but they also had scotch. The restaurant provided the glasses. The restaurant does not serve liquor so it was clear that the people brought it in with them.

Putting it all together - Excellent! It was worth the effort to find this gem. For what I had I did not so much mind that the bill for the two of us with soda and sales tax with $50. If you are local to this restaurant it may not be an every week restaurant - unless you are better off than I, but it certainly is a special occasion dinner or a splurge! I will be back in the area in a few weeks and I have a tough decision to find a new buffet to tell you about or head back for more at this one!

Makkoli Seafood Buffet is located in the Village Green Shopping Center at 415 Route 18 South in East Brunswick, NJ. To avoid riding in circles as I did - when coming south on Route 18 after you pass US 1, look for the Circuit City on the right and then continue two more traffic lights. You will see a U Haul lot (large sign) and you then make the immediate next turn into the shopping center. Travel though that strip of stores and around into the back where you will come upon another strip of stores and parking lot. Straight ahead is Makkoli. The phone number in case you get lost is (732) 967 - 8900 or for free - 877 - 625 - 5654. There is a website which is linked at the side of this page.

If you are in New Jersey, this is a definite go to!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Return to Asian Buffet, Hicksville, NY

I first wrote about Asian Buffet in Hicksville, New York in September 2005. I have mentioned in a few other articles since then. We have not dined there for quite a while because, frankly, it is priced too high. Friday to Sunday dinner there is $15.99. Weekday dinner is $13.99. These prices are high for a Chinese buffet that is not really out of the ordinary.

On a recent Saturday night we could not think of where else to have dinner in the local area, and after a lot of procrastination, decided to bite the bullet and pay the extra $2.00 each at Asian Buffet. When one lives on a fixed budget, a few dollars extra here and there get to be significant. This restaurant used to place discount coupons in the newspaper, but there have not been any in quite some time.

We got there and were seated promptly. The restaurant was busy but not crowded. On past visits, since prices increased, this restaurant has never been as full as it could be. In fact, on this visit we were surprised to see the number of cars that we saw in the parking lot when we arrived. We were seated in a booth - I should have remembered that the seat cushions in the booths in this restaurant were compressed to a minimum long ago, and, if you are short, sitting in a booth is like a three year old sitting at the "grown ups" table. Your chin is not far from the table top. I pushed over to the inside of the bench where the cushion provided a little more lift. To lessen the total cost of dinner we did not order sodas and were satisfied with ice water.

What struck us as were went up to the buffet servers is the variety of different dishes that this restaurant has to offer. There are many things found here that are not served at other Chinese buffets. Not fancy or expensive dishes, but different. Of course, the usuals are there as well so anyone who does not want to stray too far from chicken and broccoli, pepper steak, and General Tso Chicken will not be disappointed. There is a nice assortment of dumplings - less so than in the past, but still a nice selection.

On the weekend and the basis of reasoning for the $15.99 price is lobster in ginger sauce. Few buffets still offer lobster. The lobster on this night consisted on mostly claws and a few side pieces. There was no meat in the claw and just a few shreds of meat in the side pieces. Perhaps someone got all of the tail pieces, but the tray remained the same the whole time that we were there and there was nothing but claws in the tray. The sauce is tasty but basically what you are eating is breaded coating and sauce with a hint of lobster taste. They also have crab legs, but these are pieces of legs, not whole legs and certainly not clusters.

But, I really want to get back to the different dishes that I sampled and not the shortcomings and price. I have had salt and pepper shrimp and salt and pepper crab, but I have never seen salt and pepper spare ribs before. Salt and pepper spare ribs are three inch pieces of spare ribs with the bones that are coated in a crust with salt and pepper. These must have then been fried, but they are not greasy as one might expect. They were very good. Another dish based on spare ribs was spare ribs in black bean sauce. This was very small pieces of spare ribs in a thick sauce with black beans. The tips and bone are there but the meat and sauce was terrific. Another interesting and tasty dish was a dish of chopped pork spooned on top of a cube of moist, pudding-like tofu. It must have been steamed, though the meat was well cooked. It had a very thin sauce that was mildly sweet and also had a ginger taste, much like the ginger sauce found on steamed fish.

Steamed fish is a special dish not often found at Chinese buffets and when it is the fish is generally full of bones. Here there was steamed flounder fillet in ginger sauce. No bones. The fish was moist and the sauce was tasty. There were a few tiny bones that were left behind, so eat carefully, but for the most part there were no bones.

On the cold server there were several different dishes that I did not try including dried tofu (which I have had before) and, also, slices of cold beef. Back on the hot server there was scallion pancakes - very good, but a bit oily. Not different, but better than the usual are the regular spare ribs. These are coated in what I have termed "over-sweet red sauce" often abundantly put on Chinese buffet spare ribs, but here the sauce does not overwhelm the ribs and they are cooked to a charred outside. For buffet spare ribs they were ok - most are not.

Despite the price I did enjoy the meal. With the tax and tip it still cost $40 for the two of us, which is about six dollars more than usual for a night at the Chinese buffet and that is without any sodas - but many are raising their prices and may soon catch up to this. For the variety of different this buffet is good. I would recommend it to anyone who does not mind the price. If they would start to run newspaper coupons again that would be good on the weekend, I might even come back more often.

As a matter of fact, after this return visit we were again in similar circumstances and we went back again - also a Saturday night. This second visit was as good and different as the first, but I will emphasize different. Many of the dishes that I describe in this article were not there on the second Saturday night. There were other out of the ordinary dishes offered - though I must say not as interesting as those I encountered first and described here.

On this second visit we also had an opportunity to observe another member of the "Lobster Grabbers" club. Search through the archives and read my article on the Lobster Grabbers. This new Lobster Grabber was an immense, older woman who emptied the lobster serving tray into two plates and took it to her table. At first we thought it was for both her and her companion - another immense, older woman, but as it turned out it was all for her. When more lobster was brought out she filled her plates again, leaving very little for everyone else in the restaurant. She ate lobster straight through the meal - even during dessert. They got their check and were eating dessert and suddenly she was up and back again with another dish of lobster. Cake and lobster I suppose is an interesting way to end a meal - of lobster. You see some of the oddest things and the most selfish people at buffet restaurants - especially when lobster is served.

Asian Buffet is located at 276 Old Country Road, Hicksville, New York. The phone number is (516) 433-6688. There is no website. For more detail read my original article from September 30, 2005.

Friday, February 08, 2008


I have already given you my two top buffet restaurants for 2007. I thought that you would find it interesting to see what the restaurant industry picks are. Restaurants and Institutions Magazine and website is the restaurant industries trade resource reporting on industry news, trends, and consumer opinions. In September 2007, based on extensive consumer survery, Restaurants and Institutions rated the buffet chains.

The top three chains for 2007 are -
Number 1 - Soup Plantation/Sweet Tomatoes
Number 2 - Golden Corral
Number 3 - Ryan's.

Restaurants and Institutions went into some detail on their findings. Soup Plantations appeals to consumers age 26 and under. Men rated the food quality higher than women. The ratings given by both men and women for food quality were the top in the category for all buffets. Golden Corral appeals to all age groups, but it is the choice of mature consumers' patronage. Menu variety gets a strong rating from men and also families with older children. Younger diners are more pleased with the restaurant's atmosphere than older diners. Ryan's received its highest scores from customers aged 26 and younger in the areas of intention to return, menu variety, and food quality. Families with young children rated Ryan's above average in value.

I have reported on all three chains and I must say that I do agree that all three are the top three - though I would have changed the order and rated Golden Corral as number, Ryan's as number two, and Soup Plantations number three - but as I am over 26 perhaps that is why I prefer Golden Corral to Soup Plantations.

Soup Plantations is an excellent buffet restaurant and you can read my review of it in my article on September 7, 2007. It is a soup and salad based buffet with that addition of pizza and pasta on the buffet servers. This was a great place for lunch and if you like salad and soup, it is great for dinner as well. It differs from the other two chains that it surpassed is that it offers no meat entrees nor does it offer a traditional meal menu. It is also the smaller chain of the three with only one hundred locations with no restaurant further north than North Carolina, but the restaurant does spread across the country to California where it originated. Everything was fresh, the restaurant was extremely accommodating, and the dining experience was memorable to the point that I look forward to returning when I make that long trip south some time in the hopefully near future.

Golden Corral has risen in my opinion since the take over of Ryan's by Buffets, Inc. and its transformation by its new owners to be more and more an Old Country Buffet clone. A few years back I would have picked Ryan's over Golden Corral, but not any longer. Golden Corral is a meat and potatoes buffet with a large variety of menu items. There is a charbroil steak grill with excellent steaks, but the steak is not the central focus. There are many other barbecue and dinner entrees featured.

Ryan's as I say was a one time favorite and I still enjoy it, though it is hard to ignor the changes that have taken place for the worse since the take over. The steak grill is the central focus at Ryan's with several meats being grilled alongside. There used to be more variety at Ryan's.

If we look toward a trend of healthier eating there is no wonder that Soup Plantations has been selected as number one. It is by far the menu with the healthiest of choices in the greatest variety. It may have been the location that I visited in North Carolina but it was jam-packed at lunch time, mid-week. The restaurant was full with workers and executives on their lunch hour, mothers with children, and shoppers. I have not seen other buffets this busy at lunchtime on a weekday (or weekend, for that matter).

So as a consumer who may or not have been included in the research study done by Restaurants and Institutions, does your opinion agree with their findings?

Friday, February 01, 2008

Pay by Height - Controversy at a Buffet

Whenever buffets make the news it is generally about an issue involving price. An article appeared in New York Newsday recently reporting an incident that took place at a sushi buffet on Long Island.

The buffet has a policy to charge children's prices based upon height. This seems rather unusual, but the buffet claims that it is a common practice in restaurants in New York City. Consumer bureaus and restaurants in Manhattan that were contacted by the newspaper stated that they had never heard of such a practice. I have never been to this buffet and seen the giraffe ruler at the entrance at which they have kids measure up for what mom and dad are going to pay for their meal.

The news story reports that an 11 year old came in with her parents and measured four feet, eight inches tall - two inches over the limit for children's prices. The child was to be charged the full $19.95 adult price for the weeknight dinner. (Just aside - this is a very expensive buffet and that is the reason that I have not patronized it.) The parents, upon hearing what it was going to cost for their skinny, but tall, little girl to eat, complained to the manager who gave them no satisfaction and then left - and, evidently, alerted the "media". The manager had referred the parent to speak with the owner - but the owner does not speak English.

The restaurant's policy - which is posted and not hidden -is that children three and a half feet to four and a half feet pay half the adult price, children under three and a half feet eat for free, and children over four and a half feet pay the full adult price. There is no state law that prohibits basing price on height and this is not a human rights violation - as the parent tried to pursue. It is the right of the restaurant to base their pricing as they see fit.

The story was picked up by the Dr. Phil Show and they would like the child to come on the show. I am not sure why - though I am sure one can spin this into a major tragedy - "Tall child denied her sushi dinner!" Oh yeah! The girl has not accepted the invitation to go on the show - yet.

The complaint by the parent was that the restaurant made an incorrect assumption that a child's height will determine how much they will eat. The newspaper sought an explanation from the restaurant but they will not comment. Another neighboring restaurant - East Buffet - which I have reviewed on this site - also has the same pay by height for children policy. They state that they started this two years ago. I had not noticed when I was last there and perhaps it is not as obvious. East Buffet would comment to the Press as to why they have this policy and from a business point of view it actually makes some sense. They state that when you base the price by age you put the employees and the restaurant in the position of guessing or taking the not always so reliable parent's word about how hold the child is. They state that many parents would insist that a child was much younger than the child obviously was. One incident involved a "child" who was six feet tall and the parents insisted that the child was ten years old. They claim that with the height system there is absolutely no question. The child is measured and the price is established as you enter - no question, no guessing, no confabulating. They did say that this policy is flexible and if a parent insists that their tall child is much younger than the height would imply they will adjust the price down.

A number of restaurants were asked for their reaction to a pay by height policy and they all said that they had never heard of such a thing, but that it would be bad for business.

I must say - on a personal note - that my six year old niece who eats little more than a bowl of rice and some jello and was charged $9 recently when I took her to a Chinese buffet would be better to be charged based upon her height as she is small for her age - and even at half price would have been better than the fixed children's price that I was charged for her meal. I can also see how a tall child could eat much less than a little "round" child. (Pay by weight - wouldn't that be a controversial idea!)

The "Pay by Height" policy for children does make sense as a practical and non-disputable way to determine the price. Other than East, for all of the buffets that I have been to, no place is doing this. Perhaps you have seen this done? Let us know and let us know what you think about this!