Friday, June 26, 2009

Best Buffet - Huntington Station, New York

First, this is not an article about a BEST buffet, but rather a buffet that cleverly named itself, "Best". Several times over the past few years I have written about an Asian buffet on Long Island, New York that WAS very popular by the name of EAST. East Buffet had a fire in its kitchen a little less than a year ago and the restaurant closed. The restaurant closing was very surprising to many as it appeared that the restaurant was doing quite well and, as I say, was very popular. There was always a crowd and on some nights a wait to get in. The restaurant was a destination for many Asian people who the buffet focused its unusual and authentic dishes toward. But just like that, it closed. The damage from the fire was not evident outside and news reports centered it on the kitchen. The owners of East also run a buffet in Queens, New York, a borough of New York City. At the time there was a big fuss and stories in the news that the remaining East restaurant would not honor gift certificates that had been purchased for the East restaurant that had closed. Time went by and then there were further news stories - yes, this buffet was so popular that it sparked news stories - that the Huntington Station location that had burned was being purchased by a new owner. Eventually it was learned that the restaurant would be called Best. Now, note, E A S T - B E S T, hmmm. And when the sign went up on the front of the building several months ago it looked like they just moved the letters around - same letters and took out the A and just added a B. If you drive by and do not look close you would say that East is still open.

Best opened its doors in April with little fan fare. There were no newspaper ads. No big Grand Opening signs. The only way anyone knew they had opened was a few lines in the major newspaper on Long Island that said that the restaurant opened and the reviewer ran in during the day to look around inside. It seemed odd that the reviewer did not eat there. Over the month two reviews surfaced. Neither raving about the restaurant. Both making excuses that they went on a weeknight and it should be better on the weekend. Comments were made about dried out dishes and empty trays left unfilled. What was made known was that while there are new owners, the kitchen staff and chefs were the same former employees of East - and that Best would accept those gift certificates from East - a generous offer considering the owners of East refused them at their other restaurant. In May, a full page advertisement was taken out in the newspaper by Best. They tooted their horn, as they should, about their "grand opening" (a month late) and offered a 10% off coupon to come and try the buffet.

After what I had read about the weeknight buffet, I was reluctant to go on a week night, but then I decided that if this restaurant is going to survive it better be good any night of the week - and at the prices they are charging - they better not be short changing weeknight diners. So on a Thursday night, we took our coupon and went to Best Buffet.

The building is exactly the same as it was when the restaurant was named East and as I said the logo sign outside is identical with the substitution and interchange of the letters. The inside also has not changed at all with the possible exception of new table tops, though it is very possible they are the same and we just did not take notice before. The arrangement of the buffet servers is the same - the buffet servers are the same ones. There is still a counter around the back wall with chefs behind making char grilled appetizers, sushi and sashimi, slicing Peking Duck, and carving Prime Rib.

What is different is now you pay as you enter. The cashier - what she always was - takes your money and then seats you at your table. There is a floor sign board next to cashier's desk that has the prices. I wish we had read this board closely when we were going in, but it had not occurred to either of us that this board would hold any surprises and we just went up to the cashier who was beckoning us over to pay her. When I was told the price it seemed a bit high to me - almost $50 - considering the coupon and that the dinner price was supposed to be just $21.99. With the coupon that made the price $19.99 each. It was all a bit of a rush and we were escorted to our table. HAD WE READ THE SIGN FIRST we would have known that a 12% tip is automatically added to all checks. I did not know this. I generously tipped the server when we finished our meal. There was nothing said when we paid. The note on the sign was not obvious. I never figure that I need to look for the "fine print" when entering a restaurant. The price does include unlimited soft drinks or hot tea. The soda was neither Coke nor Pepsi but rather some off brand.

The price of the dinner is $21.99, Monday through Thursday nights, with lunch on those days plus Fridays at $11.99. Lunch is until 3, dinner starts at 5. Children's prices at those times are $9.99 and $6.99 respectively. Children's prices are for any child under four and one half foot tall. Children under three feet are free. Dinner on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday is $26.99 with children at $12.99. Lunch Saturday and Sunday is $16.99 with children at $9.99. There is a very obvious sign at the cash register that if you would like a lobster one will be brought ot you at the additional price of $5.99 each. All of these prices will have 12% added to them for a service charge (tip) when you pay. This is the most expensive Chinese/Asian buffet on Long Island. East was an expensive buffet restaurant as well, but it was not this expensive. East had always been a special occaison favorite so if this was as good or better, then the money might be worth the increase. Read on and see.

We started with soup. There are four soups offered. There was wonton broth with wontons in a steamer next to it, hot and sour soup, seafood soup, and New England (white) clam chowder. Over in the dessert section there are two additional soups, both traditional Chinese delicacies which are eaten with dessert - red bean soup and a sweet peanut soup. I took some of the hot and sour soup and I took a bowl of the wonton soup. The hot and sour soup was very good. It was flavorful but it was not too spicy. Too often hot and sour soup is overloaded with red pepper flakes and black pepper making it overwhelmingly spicy hot. This soup was seasoned so that you could taste the flavors of the ingredients in the soup. The wonton broth was basic and the wontons were bland. I wondered if they were filled with chopped chicken rather than pork, but the sign over the steamer identified them as pork wontons. They were too bland for pork - or at least not seasoned as wontons usually are. The wontons were bland and dissappointing.

I moved on next to the Sushi Bar. The fish offered on the sushi bar consisted of salmon, eel, and whitefish in various combinations and styles. It was good, but not knock me over wonderful sushi. I don't care for eel, not a fan of whitefish, so salmon was the thing. I tried dried salmon skin sushi, spicy salmon sushi, salmon rolls, salmon on rice, salmon alone, a smoked salmon rolled with cream cheese and salmon in combination with whitefish.

While I was eating sushi my wife had moved ahead to dumplings and appetizers. She picked grilled chicken charred on a stick. She gave me a taste and it was almost cold - just room temperature to say the least. She had taken tempura also and it was also just room temperature. Hmm. I went up to take appetixers and dumplings. This is where the old East excelled. There were always excellent appetizers off the grill. I took an assortment - pan fried dumpling, a shrimp ball, grilled short rib slice, grilled pork chop, a shrimp tempura, and a fixed for me by the chef Peking Duck with self added sauce, shredded cucumber and scallion. I also went over to take a look at the cold buffet that had a variety of prepared salads, salad bar, and several cold Chinese dishes. I took from the cold buffet a rolled tofu pancake filled with mushrooms, a braised slice of tofu, and a small ball of mozzerella cheese from an Italian appetizer salad. The items on the grill were all sitting on top of vegetables and this all was sitting on hot serving trays - each with a heating control at the side. Each of the items from the grill were just room temperature. I purposely took pieces toward the bottom nearest the supposedly heated tray just to be sure I was getting hot food. As it sat on my plate it got colder. Had each been hot it would have been good. As it was, it was just fair and dissappointing because it should have been hot and would have been good. The cold items that I took were also dissappointing. The rolled tofu pancake had an odd filling that did not resemble mushrooms. The piece of mozzerella cheese that I took was hard and bland. The Peking Duck was very good though the duck was very salty. It was warm and tasty. The pan fried pork dumpling also came from the grill and was just warm. The shrimp dumbling was from the steamer so it was hot. It was very unusual with several whole shrimp mixed with corn kernals in a batter and seemed to be fried before it was steamed. It was not as good as it seemed it should be. It was ok.

Entrees here, as they were when this was East, are varied and very unusual. There are two double buffet servers that are filled with double rows of trays with many different items. On top of each set of trays going along and down the middle are additional ceramic dishes with more items. Now, before I go further let me say to those who are asking - is it fair to compare Best to East, which is gone forever? You can't help but compare the two. They may call this Best but this is East under new management. Even all of the dishes still say East. Many of the selections are those that were found at East. The average guy walking in who had been to East who did not look close at the sign would tell you that this was still East. (Just not as good.)

So the entrees - what makes them unusual? How about quail? Ever had baked pumpkin with 5 spices? There were many dishes with seafood. Scallops in black pepper sauce. Chinese style steak. Fillet mignon in a semi-sweet sauce. Dried sauteed string beans. Peking pork chops. There were several variations of crab including large snow crab legs (pieces and not clusters - but big pieces), half stone crabs, stuffed crabs (at the grill), and a whole cold crab at the cold buffet server. There were so many Chinese entrees that you don't find on the usual Chinese buffet that it is impossible to list them all without going on forever. Along with all of this there were common items as well - fried rice, lo mein, spare ribs, boneless spare ribs, fried fish, mixed oriental vegetables, fried sections of flounder, shrimp with lobster sauce, and on. And this is only the oriental offerings. There was chicken marsalla, seafood lasagna, fettichini alfredo, fried potatoes, and chef carved prime rib - along with other dishes. Was there enough choices - absolutely. Were they good?

The temperature of the food from the hot buffet servers varied greatly - and again, too many dishes were just warm and got cooler as they were on my plate. This was not just the dishes that were added on top down the middle but the food in the trays in the hot steam table. Everything was tasty, but it need to be hot. Some items that had just been placed out from the kitchen were nicely hot, but this was too few and far between. And it just should not be. If the steam serving table is set properly everything should remain hot. It does in the majority of buffets - why not here? Some things I purposely went to the bottom of the tray to take so that it would be hot. It made a difference for some dishes but not for all. At one point hot shrimp tempura came out of the kitchen and I purposely took some just to see if it was different from the cool piece I had earlier - and it did!

One of my favorites from the old East was the Italian eggplant Parmasean and the fettichini alfredo. Odd that these would be found at a Chinese buffet and be good, but they were. They were here on the buffet as well. The fettichini was close. The eggplant was covered with cheese that was hard (again, mozzerella) and did not have much flavor. Ah well.

It is important to mention that just because something is labeled it does not mean here that what it says is what it is. There was a hot tray labeled chicken terriaki. My wife likes chicken terriaki and took some. She took a bit and looked at me. She took another bite and said to me, "I don't think this is chicken. It does not taste like it or feel right in my mouth." I tried a bit and it was not chicken but fish. My wife does not eat fish. She does not like its taste or what it feels like eating it. This fish was particularly stringy. Wrong labels is not a good thing in a world full of people with alergies.

Let's move along to dessert. Now, dessert here, as it once was at East, is the most unusual of all of the Chinese buffets. I mentioned earlier about the two Chinese dessert soups. There was a hot tray half full of boiling water with egg custard cups in the water. There are a variety of cookies. One was a winter melon cake. There are a number of small cakes - each just a small sample. But, of course, you take all that you care to. I tried what was called "small cheesecake". It did not taste at all like cheese cake but was very good. It was like a ball of coconut covered gelatin. A cake called Chocolate Mouse Cake was actually a thin layer of chocolate cake with a thick layer of chocolate mouse gelatin on top. I tried a blueberry cheese pastry that had no cheese but was good with blueberries in a pastry bowtie. A lemon cake was two small layers of cake with no lemon on top but rather apricot. Despite the names, it was all good and a very far step from the usual "Little Debbie" cakes that all Chinese buffets are serving lately. There was also fresn fruit, melon, puddings, jello including one called grass jelly, and soft serve ice cream. Dessert was very good.

Service was very good. Plates were cleared quickly and soda glasses were refilled. Oddly, the servers were not oriental but hispanic, as were many of the people behind the counter at the grills.

Was the food not hot because it was sitting too long because this was a slow week night. No. The restaurant was not full but it was busy. There were many people dining and there were tables full throughout the time we were there.

What I learned about this buffet is to watch what is being put out and go right over to get it. Take it while it is hot because if it stays - even in the hot servers - it will not remain hot very long.

IF the food had been consistently hot we both would have been very happy. If the food was consistently hot and the price was less we would go back. I am sure that eventually, perhaps when there is a coupon, we might go back to see if this buffet can get its temperatures correct. I really want to tell you to make sure you do not miss the wonderful variety and unusual dishes that are here. I can't do that with the temperature of the food as it was. If someone of influence from Best Buffet is reading this please make note of this. Perhaps this too is what made those other reviewers warn about week nights - but you know, weeknight or weekend, there is no excuse or reason for cold food from hot buffet servers with temperature controls that can be raised or on hot tray servers. And a health inspector with a food thermometer would have a field day giving out fines.

Best Buffet is certainly not BEST. It is OK, but not best.

Best Buffet opens at Noon every day. There are a variety of conflicting signs about closing times. The best guess is that it closes at 9 every night except Friday and Saturday when it closes at 10. The address is 179 Walt Whiteman Road (Route 110 N) in Huntington Station in New York on Long Island - about a little less than half way to the Hamptons. Their business card shows a web site - , however, while I am writing this it does not work. If it ever gets connected I will link it at the side.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Italian Buffet Nights at Saporito, Wantagh, New York

In my never ending quest to find buffet restaurants of different cuisines, I got very excited when I saw an advertisement in a community newspaper for the grand opening of an Italian pizzeria restaurant named Saporito in the village of Wantagh on Long Island in New York. At the top of the ad was a box that said "Dinner Buffet" on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and for the unbelievable price of $7.95. On the other side of the page was a box that said "Lunch Buffet" weekdays for $6.95. This ad was a page of specials and they appeared to be "grand opening specials". I had to find out more. A quick web search came up with a number of restauants around the country with the same name, though they did not appear to be part of a chain. Apparently this is a common name for Italian pizzeria restaurants. Translated saporito in Italian means "tasty". I did find a web site but it mentions everything about the restaurant but a buffet. Before it was gone I had to go and try it for myself.

This is a newly opened Italian take out restauant with booths and tables set up in the front of the restauant. Its main buisness seems to be pizza and some very nice looking pizza was being served at the counter to the number of people who were coming in for take out orders. There is a small parking lot in front of the restaurant with enough spaces to accomodate the few tables inside. The windows of the restaurant are covered in signs about their specials. Not one mentions "buffet". We went in and walked to one of the empty tables and sat down. There were a few tables occupied around the restaurant with more people at the counter ordering take out. In a short instant we were acknowledged and in a minute or two later we were asked if we needed menus or were we ordering the buffet. The buffet was located at the side of the restaurant between two soda cold cases on a shelf. There were five countertop hot servers and a soup server on the shelf. Small, but adequate. Drinks are from the soda fountain or bottles from the cases. Drinks are not unlimited and are not included with the buffet. There is a sign that says that they are waiting for their license to serve wine.

We went up to the buffet. There we found chicken soup, spagetti, tomato sauce (seperated from the spagetti in its own tray in the spagetti hot server), chicken francias, chicken with brocolli, meatballs, and sausage with peppers and onions. In front of the soup server there were short stacks of china plates, bowls, and silverware rolled in paper dinner napkins. There are also napkin dispensers on each table. The server brought a basket of garlic bread and very nice rolls to our table.

Of course, I tried everything. The food is what is expected at local Italian restauants. One of the best ways to judge an Italian restaurant is the tomato sauce. Is it too sharp? Is it to sweet? This tomato sauce was just right. The spagetti was kept in a light oil so that it would not stick together. You put the sauce on the spagetti yourself as you like. The chicken francias was good. The batter was not overly eggy and the sauce did not have a sharp taste of wine. The taste was good. I have had the dish made better in other restauants but it was good. The chicken mixed with brocolli was a sauteed dish of small chunks of chicken with sauteed down brocolli with a light garlic and oil sauce. This was another tasty dish. The pork sausage with peppers and onions was cooked in oil. There were both red and green pepper slices and these were cooked with strips of onion. The sausage was sliced into thin pieces and the dish was well cooked. It tasted very good. It is served with the oil that it is suateed in and there was a bit too much oil that the food sat in. This was fine for the taste, but I would have preferred that it had been less oily. The meat balls were the usual Italian take out restauant meatballs. They were served in tomato sauce and the perfect and quintessential complement to the spagetti. They were as good as any meatballs that I have had at similar restauants or in real Italian meatball hero sandwiches. (Hero sandwich = hoagie, poorboy, sub. In NY they are hero sandwiches.) There is no pizza on the buffet. Too bad because their pizza was very tempting. This was the Wednesday night buffet. On Thursday night the dishes will change - for example pasta ala vodka.

There is no dessert included with the buffet. I don't need it but if you have to have it there is a dessert menu that you can order from to supplement your buffet (at additional cost). There is also no salad bar - again, I did not need or miss that.

Keep in mind the price of this meal. It is $7.95 each - for all. Compare this to any other buffet price. Compare this to Cici's at $5.99 to which this excels for what you are getting. This is a small restaurant and they are new. By the size and the number of items, this is not what the average buffet goer is going to expect - but that is ok. For the money, you are getting a great meal. I have paid more for lunch at some menu restaurants.

The restaurant was very clean. The serving trays were kept an eye on. They were tended, refilled, and stirred. Dishes were eventually cleared from the table, but they seem to just be getting used to the idea of the buffet (and they are new). I think that a crowd of typical buffet diners would throw them. I have two suggestions to the management. One is that they need to make sure that more clean dishes need to be kept out next to the buffet 0r replaced more regularly. The other suggestion is that when new food is placed into a serving tray it cannot be poured on top of what is there or just be mixed into (which is what they did) but that the proper way to do this is to take what is in the current tray and put it on top of the new food that is going in.

I was very happy with my find. But the big question - is this just a special offer or will it remain? It will remain - every Wednesday and Thursday night. And weekdays for lunch! Wonderful!

I do not understand why - other than the ad in the community paper - that the buffet is a big secret. Why no sign? Why nothing inside the restauarant about it? Why nothing on the website? I can never understand why a restauant looking to bring in business in these difficult times does not make their great features well known. Yes, they ran an ad, but had I not seen the ad - and I am sure many have not - if I drove past the restaurant nothing outside (or inside for that matter) would say "BUFFET". To the observer, outside, it is just another pizza restaurant, of which, in this area there are many.

I will definitely be back! I recommend that you try Saporito Pizzeria Restaurant's buffet (either lunch everyday during the week or dinner on Wednesdays and Thursdays) if you are on Long Island or traveling through Long Island. (This is on the way to the Hamptons - not nearly as far east, but on the way!) Take note that the hours of the dinner buffet are from 4:00 pm to 8:00 pm and hte lunch buffet is served from 11 am to 3 pm. The restaurant's address is 1378 Wantagh Avenue, Wantagh, New York. Their phone number is 516-221-7773. They have a website with no mention of the buffet but photos of the restauant and take out menus. The website is linked on the side of this page.

Finally, an Italian Buffet I can get too! Mangia!

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.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Ryans Buffet - Chambersburg, Pennsylvania

I know that there have been comments made on other articles that criticize my continuing to talk about Ryans and their recent takeover by Buffets, Incorporated. But the change is a reality and since I have just dined at an actual Ryans (and not a Fire Mountain) for the first time since the takeover is complete, I feel that it is only fair to tell you about the experience.

I have been to the Ryans in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania before. As I see, this is the furthest north Ryans on the East Coast - other than a Fire Mountain in Mechanicsburg, Pa. The restaurant is located on Route 30 just before it crosses I-81 which is a major north/south corridor.

I had read that some of the Ryans restauants were now including the beverage in the price of the meal as Old Country Buffet does. This was not so at this location. The meal was priced lower than OCB charges near me (though I suspect because of its Metro - NY location it is much higher than in other parts of the country) The adult price at this Ryans was $9.69 on a weeknight and the soft drink was $1.89. Added together this is still a dollar less than what I pay at OCB.

In the past at the restaurant even during the week someone would seat you at your table. Here we were neither told to wait or to seat ourselves. We sat ourselves, which was no problem as there were plenty of vacant tables throughout the restaurant. This was a Thursday night so that was not surprising - though weeknights at home at OCB are generally busy.

There were three soups and the homestyle chicken noodle soup has not changed. It is still made with thick, doughy noodles. If there were to be any influence from the Ryans chain to the OCB chain I wish it would be this soup.

There are still two buffet servers comprising the salad bar and the assortment of salads, prepared, salads, and toppings has not changed. The Ceasar salad is still a prepare it yourself area of romaine lettuce, dressing, and cheese. This is nice allowing you to determine how much or how little dressing you would like on your salad. There is chicken salad on the salad bar and on Fridays they add tuna salad. There is also a seafood salad, unlike that served at OCB. All of this is as it has always been in my experiences at Ryans.

The entrees and the side dishes are now a mix of what has been served at Ryans and what is served at OCB. The steaks are still cooked to order and served fresh off the flame grill. Other items that used to be served from the grill (smoked sausage and the like) were moved to a carving and serving area to the side of the grill. This was Thursday and that meant under the new nightly features (at Ryans and OCB) that it was Barbecue Thursday. According to the Ryans website that should have meant that I would find smoked sausage - which I did in two forms - and pulled pork barbecue. There was no pulled pork barbecue. There were some type of barbecue ribs but they did not look that appetizing. There was a smoked sausage ring that had to be carved - with no one around to carve it - and there was smoke sausage cut up in a tray with peppers and onions.

On the buffet servers, to my wife's delight, was a tray of chicken pot pie, made like it used to be (before it was discontinued, brought back in an odd form, discontinued again, and now back the way it was). There was broiled fish that looked exactly like the plain broiled fish at OCB. This had not been at Ryans before - at least not in this form. There was fried chicken. There was rotisserie chicken. There were cheeseburgers (not off the grill but in a tray on the steam table). There was a chicken terriaki with pineapple dish that was very much like the same dish at OCB but the pieces of chicken were much larger. There was no pizza which is something that you would always find at Ryans in the past. Spagetti is now improved and served as it is at OCB which means it no longer is sitting in a tray full of water causing the pasta to become overly soft. It now is served in a small amount of butter-like sauce that keeps it from sticking together.

Side dishes were much as they have always been as was the taco bar. Taco meat here is much less greasy than it is served at OCB.

I am certain that the cut of steak that is used at both chains is the same. Here it was not as highly seasoned as the steak that I have been served at OCB. It is just as tough.

The meal was not without its faults. Too many items were drying out in the serving tray. I took what looked like fluffy white rice and it turned out to be large hard lumps of dried out rice - inedible. There was no grill chef anywhere to be found for a while. I actually had some difficulty chosing entrees as I walked around the buffet. This is to my personal preferences, but I do not recall that problem at a Ryans before.

Dessert remains as it always has at Ryans. Full cakes are served sliced into wedges - no sheet cakes. There were pies and sugar free pies. There were several hot cobblers, puddings, etc. The dessert area was full and there are two soft serve ice cream machines - one with yogurts and one with ice cream.The ice cream was VERY icy and not creamy. (Another plus for OCB that has very good soft serve.) Missing from the ice cream area were the candies that were always out - gummy bears, and the like. Perhaps it was the night or perhaps they are no longer served.

The service was ok. Dishes tended to collect until they were noticed and then were taken. Drinks did get refilled.

Maintenance of the hot buffet servers was not what it should be. Items needed to be stirred and tended. This is an issue of management and employee supervision - and more than likely not due to the overall ownership of the chain. Chains and location owners - not just this one, but all of them - should be sending out "secret" inspectors who go into the restauant on several nights and dine. This is the only way to protect your brand name and your investment.

The restaurant was clean - the dining room, the serving areas, and the restrooms. The decor was no different than it has ever been and typical of other Ryans that I have dined at.

Was I not happy at Ryans? No. Is it up there with the best, as it had been The Best of the Chains? No. The best of the chains now is Golden Corral - and this is not just me saying so but also restaurant industry evaluations and surveys.

As a side note, I had an opportunity to go to another Ryans two nights later. Generally, I would have jumped at that chance. I passed and chose another buffet to have dinner at.

If someone has no idea that there is any connection between Ryans and OCB they will never be able to tell by dining here. Overall, it is pretty much the same. This particular location has been better in the past. We will chaulk it up to a slow night or an inattentive manager.