Friday, June 12, 2009

Cactus Willies Steak Buffet and Bakery - Lancaster, PA

In 2006 and in 2007 I reviewed and re-reviewed a small buffet chain called Cactus Willies Steak Buffet and Bakery. At that time the chain had only six locations - five in Maryland and one in Pennsylvania. Since then two of those locations in Maryland have closed.

I recently passing through Lancaster, Pa on a Sunday night on my way back from a trip and wanted to stop there for dinner. As I have written many times before, Lancaster could be called the buffet restaurant capital of the country - if not the world, but the one problem is that 98% of them are closed on Sunday. Of course, Cici's is available, as are several Chinese buffets, but my good wife was not inclined on this night toward Cici's and I really did not feel like Chinese food. We then remembered Cactus Willies. It was good when we were last there so that was the place.

We arrived at 6:30 and saw on the door that they close at 7:30 pm. The last time that I was there the hours on Sunday nights were to 8:30 pm. Sometimes when you go to a buffet an hour before closing you can expect empty trays that will not be refilled and the buffet serving taken down some time before closing. I was a little hesitant, but we were there. As it turned out this was not to be a concern. You pay as you enter - as at most chain buffets - and you are escorted to a table. The layout of the room has not changed any since I was there in 2006 and in 2007 so I will not go into a description again of the room layout or the buffet servers. Read my two previous articles from July 28, 2006 and April 20, 2007 for that information. The price of the meal has gone up $1.50. It is now $11.99 with refillable soft drinks at $1.59.

My experience at this visit was actually a cross between my first visit and my second and my recommendation that you will read from 2007 is going to be a bit tempered down now. The food at Cactus Willies at this time at this Pennsylvania location on a Sunday night is fine. It is not great. It is not bad. It is ok. There was nothing wrong with it. All was well after the meal. It was just not up to the quality and taste of what you get at other brand chains. Many things were tasty. Some things were not.

There are three soups offered. This night one was vegetable soup, the other was called Manhattan Clam Chowder but was actually the white cream New England Clam Chowder, and the other was Minestrone. Since Minestrone is basically vegetable soup I wondered why two such similar soups would be offered. I tried the "vegetable" soup. It was thin with the usual canned vegetable soup bits of vegetable in it. Nothing spectacular and not what one might call "hearty". Had I re-read my 2007 review before going I should have chosen the Minestrone which I described then as good, savory, and thick. It did not look that way in the soup server.

The salad bar is quite extensive but you must look beyond the cold buffet server to the counter across the aisle because significant cold dishes are there - some that I first considered missing from the salad offerings. The salad bar included several local Pennsylvania Dutch prepared salads. As I noted in the past articles, this Cactus Willies includes some local specialties on the buffet. On this night they were on the salad bar. One was PA Dutch Chow Chow, which, unlike southern chow chow, is sweet pickled vegetables. Another is a combination of two things found on the salad bar - cottage cheese and apple butter. The cottage cheese is just your average cottage cheese, but you take a few spoonfuls of apple butter and dollop it over the top of the cottage cheese. Try it - it is very good. Way back when this area was first attracting tourism to see the Amish people who live today with no electricity and travel in horse and buggy, one of the things the restaurants would advertise was that the PA Dutch meal always includes 7 Sweets and 7 Sours. Chow Chow and Cottage Cheese with Apple Butter were always part of those 7 Sweets and 7 Sours. (These dishes are far from exclusive to Cactus Willies in this area and you will find them in almost every PA Dutch buffet here.)

Back to Cactus Willies - I went up to the steak grill for flame grilled steak. Now, on my last visit, the chef asked how I wanted the steak and then cooked a steak to order for me getting it just right. On my first visit, the chef looked around at what was on the grill and guessed which one had not been sitting there too long to be rare or medium rare. I order my steak rare or medium rare depending on the circumstance of how it is being cooked - if from what I can see rare will result in raw then I order medium rare. If it seems that the steak has just been sitting out, I order rare in hope of not getting well, well done. This night was just like that first night at Cactus Willies. The gentleman picked up one of the steaks that had been sitting on the side of the grill, cut into it and showed it to me - it was just pink on its way to gray well done. I told him that it was too well done and he picked out another one. This time the inside looked slightly pinker in the dark light near the grill. I did not want him cutting into every steak that was there so I took it. When I got back to my table I saw that it was more well done than the first one he showed me and it got thinner along the way which made the rest of it really well done - which if you enjoy well done steak is fine, but I don't. The steak did have a nice taste and it was not tough. While we were eating there was a family at the table across the aisle from us and the father was telling the grown son that he likes the steak at Cactus Willies much better than the steak at Old Country Buffet because the steak at OCB is always tough (which very, very often is true - so it is not just the OCB near my home). He really was enjoying the Cactus Willies steak and went back three or more times for more. Had it been cooked to my liking I would have also.

There were barbecue spareribs on the buffet that were cooked in a nice barbecue sauce. The ribs were good - though they had been sitting a bit in the server. They had the one dish that my wife loved at Cactus Willies when we were last there and we have not seen it at any other buffet or restaurant and that is Turkey Pot Roast. It is made with turkey thigh meat which looks like beef and is cooked in as sauce with potatoes, onions, carrots, etc. just like Pot Roast. She once contacted them for the recipe but could not get it. She and I both took some. She enjoyed it, but I did not think that it was near as good as I remembered. What I remember as a savory gravy was now thin and had an odd under-taste to me and a similar odor from some seasoning. It was not bad, but I did not like it this time.

Fried chicken was real fried chicken and not the broasted-style that is common in this area. It would have been better if it were crispy - rather it was on the soggy side. There is grilled chicken at the flame grill. Also at the grill were a tray with two remaining hot dogs. They had been either steamed or boiled and were a bit gray so I passed that by. There is a taco bar and you can create tacos, burritos, and nachos. There was also fried shrimp.

Side dish offerings included the usual assortment of vegetables - kernel corn, string beans, very good stewed tomatoes, mashed potatoes, seasoned fries, and on. There was macaroni and cheese that looked more promising than it tasted as it was bland. There is pizza but this is another one of those items that you have to look for because it is part of the dessert counter. I missed it and by the time I saw it we were heading for dessert.

There is a wide assortment of desserts including hot cobblers, puddings, cakes, cup cakes, pies, cheesecake, and soft serve ice cream with sundae toppings. There was also several candies out including gummy worms. The cup cake was good. The soft serve was icy.

As it turns out the time that we arrived posed no problem at all. The trays remained full the entire time that we were there and they were seating new tables all the way to around 7:15 pm. The staff did start cleaning around the buffet servers but this did not interfere with getting more food. As we were eating dessert they actually came over and asked if we wanted anything more from the salad bar as they were going to close that down - not the other servers but just the salad bar. They asked and had we or anyone said yes, we want more salad they would have not closed it down.

Service this time and on our last visit was excellent. The young man who was our server was there quickly to take away dirty plates, bring more soft drinks, and make sure all was well. When he saw that I had taken ribs he brought packages of hand wipes. All excellent. When we were in the midst of dessert he brought a tip tray with mints in it - a reminder to leave a tip which is fine as many at buffets need this reminder. We actually did tip him more than we usually would because his service was that good.

So - as to my recommendation. Let me put it this way - if I have no other buffet to go to I would probably go back. If you are in this area on any day other than a Sunday there are so many excellent buffets to go to . If I had to rank this against the other buffet chains this was definately be number 4 - below Golden Corral, Ryans, and OCB (yes - even OCB). I have only been to this Pennsylvania location. There are three others in Maryland - I would try one of those to compare. Had this visit been more like my second visit, I would have been happier. I am not even sure that I would say that this was an off-night. There is nothing really wrong with the Lancaster Cactus Willies but there is so much better to enjoy just minutes away from here.


SkippyMom said...

It would be so wonderful and so much easier for you readers to peruse former reviews that you have written if you linked to it. I don't know if you don't know how to do it, but I would be more then willing to help you do so.

It is too time consuming and really? A pain to go back to see what you said in "this month, that year" - if you linked then it would be so easy to go back and then come to the current review.

I do enjoy your blog - that is the only downfall to trying to read it.

Robert A said...

I have thought about adding this in the past and I certainly know how to do it. It would create quite a long list down the side of the page beyond the list of the restaurant links. But it is something to still consider.

It is very easy to search this site. There is a search box at the top left of the page that will search only Art of the Buffet. Put in any restaurant name or any phrase or word and it will return the results to easily scroll through.

Thanks for the suggestion and I will keep it in mind.

SkippyMom said...

No what I meant was link within your newestest post, no a long list down the side.

There is a link button on the "New Post" screen - you highlight the name of the restaurant within your post [or the year] copy/past the URL from the original post and ta-da it highlights the name and your readers are able to link.

The link will appear in the post. If you would like an example go to any of your fav' blogs and look for a high lighted mention in a post, then click. I have them all over my blog. :)

That was all I meant. Going to the search and what not is just a pain [really - see I am lazy :)!] so I forego seaching your archives and take in the present review for what it is worth.

Take care and post more! Please! We are headed to PA this summer and can't wait to try some of the places you mention.