Friday, March 29, 2013

Mongolian Stir-Fry at Old Country Buffet and Ryans PART 2

See our article of March 22, 2013 for PART I


The next visit was the night I would try it, but when I went up and that the young man who was being trained was gone but a very personable young lady was there in his place. I went up and she smiled - so rare at an OCB from many employees with very special exceptions. I asked for chicken with noodles and vegetables. She filled a large ladle with noodles - thin lo mein style noodles which OCB had previously been using when serving Lo Mein on the buffet. The noodles went in the pan and another large ladle of chicken went on top, followed by a large ladle of vegetables. On top of that a very small ladle with teriyaki sauce went on top and the frying pan went on the cooktop. As it heated she started stirring with a spatula. She mixed and stirred. Steam came up as it cooked and the noodles turned to a light golden color from the sauce. She asked if I would like it spicy and I told her no. There was a large bottle of hot sauce on top of the counter.   You bring your own plate up to the counter and hand it over when the stir-fry has finished cooking. She filled my plate - still smiling. The plate of food smelled very good. It tasted good too!Alright! When properly made this had possibilities and an addition to the buffet that was worthwhile.

My next OCB visit was to Levittown. I wondered if this would be just as good. I did not even bother to try it there. There was a small crowd around the corner of the dessert counter where the stir-fry is. I went over to look at how the food looked coming out of the pan. It was consistently a deep dark brown. They were putting in way to much sauce. I watched as they poured ladle after ladle of teriyaki sauce into each pan. Instead of a pleasant smell coming from the pans, you could smell the sugar coming from the cooked sauce and you could see the dark brown liquid pouring out with the food onto the plates. This was nothing like what I had enjoyed at the other OCB. This was not appealing at all.

I wondered if my stir-fry plate in Bay Shore was a one time experience. The next visit that we were at Bay Shore I tried again. This time the young women who cooked my food was not there, but a new young man was there. He was very pleasant also and had a good sense of humor and attitude as he worked. He was personable and chatted with the guests as he cooked. I asked for the same thing I had the first time. He followed exactly the same process as the young woman had and produced a plate that looked just the same. Then he offered me an egg roll on the side - a light flaky crust, fried roll with vegetables inside.  That was a nice compliment to the stir-fry and it was fairly good. Another visit here found the same good preparation and enjoyable plate - this time with two egg rolls on request.

I would love to say that this is how it always is - but I cannot. Another visit to Bay Shore found a long line at the stir-fry counter. So long that by the time I had finished my second plate from the buffet - after soup and salad - there were people still on the line that had been on the line when I went up to get on it. It was the same personable young man - but he did not seem to be cooking. He was out of multiple items that he needed to cook - and much of the time these people on the line were waiting with him for these things to come out of the kitchen so that he could do his job and fill their plates. This is not a good thing.

One thing is that this is not like a Mongolian stir-fry that you would find at an Asian restaurant or buffet. There the meat and the vegetables start raw and only cook on the grill where it is served to you. There you choose and assemble the dish yourself and hand it raw to the cook who cooks it for you. Here it is all pre-cooked and if something runs out - and there is not much kept on hand at the cooking counter  - the whole operation stops until trays are refilled. Whoever at Buffets, Inc. came up with this process had no idea of its pitfalls.

Has it struck you that the Mongolian Stir-Fry is a weak attempt to come up with a comparable feature as the Seafood Saute at Golden Corral? And that feature is one of the worst ideas that Golden Corral ever came up with because the process of cooking to order like this in a buffet has the potential to back up the entire buffer serving area. At Golden Corral this backs up the steak and meat grill as the Saute shares that space. Lines for both intersect into long waits and confusion of guests who cannot figure out where to stand or what line to get on for which one. Here, at Old Country Buffet, that started to happen on the night at Bay Shore where the line never moved - for lack of ingredients at the stir-fry to cook with. The line started to stretch into the long space blocking a buffet server and access to the buffet area from the dining room next to the stir-fry counter.

At best, I can say that the Mongolian Stir-Fry at Old Country Buffet, Hometown Buffet, and Ryans is inconsistent. I can be very good if the people cooking are well supplied and know what they are doing - and following the recipe that has been set for this by corporate. It can be the opposite in the hands of cooks that are doing their own thing. The other problem is that there needs to be one or two employees assigned to do the job of cooking the stir-fry and nothing else. They cannot be called away to fill serving trays on the buffet, bring out plates for the buffet, or get ice for the ice machine. In a chain of restaurants that have cut back the number of employees that are necessary to properly maintain the buffet and maintain the dining room, a feature food that needs full attention is certainly not a good combination.

Before trying this feature - even in the same location - stop and watch what is taking place as it is cooked. See if they are doing it as it is supposed to be done - and from what I have seen and had come out successfully from the pan is a ladle full of noodles or rice, a ladle full of meat (avoid that odd beef), and a ladle full of vegetables, topped with ONE small ladle full of teriyaki sauce. If you want it hot, ask and they will add hot sauce - but from comments that I have heard by those who had the hot sauce added, don't let them put too much unless you really like to eat things impossibly hot. (Again, I get this from comments of those who thought it would be good.)

So - the Mongolian Stir-Fry is hit and miss. Hopefully, you will find more hits than misses. I have come across more misses than hits.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Mongolian Stir-Fry at Old Country Buffet and Ryans PART 1

This article has been in the works for almost a year. My first encounter with what has now become a widespread feature at Old Country Buffet and Ryans restaurants - and Hometown Buffet was in April 2012 in a Ryans in Hagerstown, Maryland. There the Mongolian Stir-Fry was being prepared at the steak grill with a sign in front showing what it was and how to order. As I noted in an article about that restaurant at that time, there was no one ordering it.

Just about the beginning of the summer, Buffets, Inc. (parent company of OCB, Hometown Buffets, and Ryans) sent out an email to their email list customers announcing the Mongolian Stir-Fry and that it was available at many of the buffets. 

This past summer I saw the Mongolian Stir-Fry being offered at an Old Country Buffet in Alexandria, Virginia. There, this was set up in a corner of the dessert counter with two hotplates set up next to a few trays of the ingredients. I watched to see who was ordering this - no one was. At this point the way the sign read about how the stir-fry would be prepared, the meat and vegetables would be cooked in a sweet sauce or a hot sauce. Neither appealed to me so I passed it by - along with everyone else, apparently.

The feature soon appeared in one of the two OCB's local to me, the Levittown, NY OCB. Just like in Alexandria, there were two hotplates, that here were conduction stove burners, with a few trays of ingredients stuck at the end of the dessert counter - taking away dessert items that once had been served there. When I first saw this here, again, no one was having it. I wondered why. Surely, it must appeal to someone. I went over on one visit to look at the ingredients - there was cooked, cold chicken - much like is served at the salad bar - and there was a brown, dried looking meat very unappetizing. Apparently, this was the beef. It may have been overly cooked roast beef but it barely resembled that.  (On a later visit, a customer asked the young man behind the counter who was the cook for the stir-fry, "What is that?" - pointing at the brown meat. The answer was "Meat.") Again, the sign talked about sweet or hot sauce and I passed it by - with everyone else.

There is another OCB not too far away in Bay Shore, NY and they did not have the Mongolian Stir-Fry. When we were there on Thanksgiving a section of the dining room opposite the buffet servers was under construction. They took out tables to do this and a serving station appeared to be what was being constructed. On a later visit we saw that this was going to be the Mongolian Stir-Fry station. As it developed two conductive cook burners were put into place along with set in trays for meats, vegetables, and sauces. Also around this point Buffets, Inc. was focusing their advertising on the Mongolian Stir-Fry feature - served every day at lunch and dinner at Old Country Buffet, Hometown Buffet, and Ryans.

When the station finally opened in Bay Shore there was still little interest in the stir fry. Interest only started to pick up, at both Long Island OCBs, when the the television advertising became frequent. Then there was some interest in ordering. Just about the same time the sign changed which no longer said sweet or hot sauce but dropped the mention of sweet sauce and talked about adding hot sauce if you wished. The beef, however, still looked the same - crumbled and dark pieces of something - and still unappetizing. They did add small shrimp as another choice.

I decided that I would try it. Not in Levittown where the employees at the cook tops did not seem to know what they were doing - when there was someone even there to cook, but in Bay Shore - but still where was the cook? This was a couple of months ago and they had not put someone at this new station to just take care of the Mongolian Stir-Fry - which is essential. Eventually, they caught on and they started assigning someone there. Here is how my first attempt - yes, attempt - at having the Mongolian Stir Fry went - and this is not present, but as I say, a couple of months back. There was a young man behind the counter and he was not really interested in being there.  I first watched how the stir fry was being made. An amount of noodles or rice was added a fry pan and meat and vegetables were put on top. A measured amount of teriyaki sauce was added and the pan was put on the conductive burner and stirred while it cooked. It smelled good. I stepped up to the counter and asked for chicken the stir fry with chicken and noodles. The young man asked me if I wanted vegetables. I did not realize that this was an option but said yes, I would like vegetables. He looks at me and says, "There are no more vegetables.", and then he stared at me. I glanced down where the vegetable tray was and it was just about empty. The vegetables are a variety of mixed vegetables including broccoli, onion, peppers, snow peas, etc., and they are apparently also pre-cooked. OK, I looked at the cook and said, "Are you getting more vegetables?" This was not late in the dinner service. Unless he was planning on shutting down the stir fry, there would need to be more vegetables. Again, he stared at me. I tried again, "Will there be no more vegetables tonight?" With hesitation he finally said, "Well, I guess I could go and make some." And then there was more hesitation and some mumbling. I decided that this was not my night to try the stir fry feature and just said forget the whole thing and I walked away. That also pretty much ended the stir fry for about an hour when just as we were leaving a tray of vegetables came out.

All right. Was I ever going to get to try the stir-fry? A few more visits to the same OCB and again, no one was there cooking at the stir fry and when there was they were called away frequently to do other things. This was as it was all of the time at Levittown - and still is.  Then there was  a night that we were there in Bay Shore when the manager was with a young man behind the stir-fry counter training.

End of PART I

Friday, March 15, 2013

Two Visits to Southern Smokehouse, Linden, New Jersey

I only get to Southern Smokehouse when I have something scheduled in New Jersey. While the restaurant is only a hour from my home, the trip involves tolls that amount to more than the cost of the meal. I do look forward to my annual two trips to this area and while there are other buffets to try around there, I go to Southern Smokehouse for dinner on both trips.

This is our third year back to Southern Smokehouse. This buffet restaurant is a bit out of the ordinary as it is a mixture of Southern barbecue and country cooking with Asian food. I have written mixed reviews of the restaurant in the past - generally good, but with some problems. The problems have always been about the service here. The food is exceptionally good!

The price of the meal is $12.99 for adults and $12.49 for seniors, and these are every night prices. (The price has gone down fifty cents from last year.) This price includes unlimited soft drinks, brought to your table by your server. The price is excellent - especially for what you are getting here.

Let me start off by talking about the service on these two visits - and, as it happened, we had the same server both weeks in a row. On the first visit the server was excellent. He was very attentive, came to our table a number of times to ask if all was well and when he saw that the drink glasses were low, asked if we would like refills. Dishes were picked up promptly. The restaurant was very busy - and very much so in the section that we were seated. This did not throw him at all. He deserved a decent tip and received one. On the second visit, he was still pretty good, BUT he was not as attentive, had to be asked for drink refills and the empty plates sat on the table for awhile before they were picked up. The restaurant on this night was not as crowed as it had been the week before. So - while, service was far better than it has ever been in any of of visits before, it still remains inconsistent. You can luck out with great service or not - even from the same person working your your table. Service, aside, this buffet is wonderful.

There was a delightful surprise when we came in the first night. A sign at the front announced that they now had added a smoker to the kitchen. A smoker is what makes barbecue good. It smokes the meat for hours to give it a great flavor, keeps in the moisture, and makes the meat just fall off the bone. The barbecue coming from the smoker was now served on the buffet and was also available on a platter basis. At the price, there is no reason not to go for all you care to eat barbecue, along with everything else. What they are serving primarily from the smoker are ribs and chicken.

I love barbecue. I love ribs. In the past the ribs here were OK. Now they are, what I consider, the second best buffet ribs that I have had. (The first best going to a buffet in Virginia.) The ribs are now what they should be. You can taste the smoke and the meat on the ribs can be eaten completely off the bone leaving clean bones behind. Why are they not the best ribs that I have ever had? In addition to the smoker they seem to be charring the ribs afterward. This creates a tougher outside layer on top that was a little chewier than I expected. While some would say that this is the "bark" that forms on the meat closest to the fire in the smoker, here it was consistent on each rib. This did not take away from the flavor but from the tenderness of biting into the rib. The ribs are very good. On my second visit, I decided that because I get smoked barbecue ribs so rarely, I would concentrate my meal around those ribs, and I did. In fact, I went one rib too far in the meal and hit that "meat wall" and could not finish the last one. And I struggled with myself to put it down on the plate and say that is all.

My wife, the picky eater, does not eat barbecue. She does like a lot of Southern dishes and there is plenty to choose from here that is not necessarily Southern. One of the other great things that they have here is a real roast, on the bones, turkey carved at the grill. This is not the usual turkey breast. This is a whole turkey, drumsticks and all. It has been awhile since we have had what I consider "real turkey". This is real turkey. Both of us - on both trips had this moist, carved from the bones in front of you, turkey.

Southern cooking involves a lot of fried foods and there are plenty of those to be found here too. The fried chicken is home-style fried chicken. This is not the broasted or the typical buffet fried chicken. This is fried chicken as it is served in the South as I have had it at Southern restaurants (not buffets) known for their home fried chicken. There was also fried fish - pieces of whole, thin fish fillets (there were a few small bones present) deep fried. The fish was good - a little chewy because it was thin. There were fried sweet potato "tots". Good. There was fried okra - also good.

I know out there there are the readers who say "fried food - terrible!" and are thinking there is nothing here for them. Well, there is barbecue chicken. There is meat loaf - which is served in a thin tomato sauce - not the usual ketchup covered meatloaf. It was good. There are the Asian/Chinese dishes. There is broiled salmon at the grill. There is also on the grill, steak. The steak here is a marinated skirt steak. They cook it on the grill and it is served from the grill. Skirt steak is known by a variety of names - some call it hanger steak, some call it Romanian steak. Skirt steak is not known to be a tender cut of beef. It is known for its flavor. It is cooked thin here and well charred on the outside but it remains moist and very flavorful - especially the char. There was bourbon chicken. There were hot wings. There was rotisserie chicken. There is cold peel and eat shrimp.

What else is there? There are a lot of side dishes - some also Southern cooking. I tried something for the first time on the first of these two visits - cooked plantains. I have seen plantains before and avoided them because I do not like the taste of bananas and plantains are a type of banana. I heard recently - on some food show - that plantains are not sweet like bananas and this gave me the thought that perhaps then they do not taste like bananas. Well, I found out by trying them here that they do not taste at all like bananas - at least when cooked - they are cut into pieces here and sauteed. They have a very pleasant flavor and texture. Of course, I had them again on the second visit and was just as delighted. There are collard greens. There is kernel corn. There is corn on the cob - which seems to be cooked in milk - it was very good! There are string beans, barbecue beans, and black eyed peas. There are mixed vegetables. There is plain rice. There was baked ziti in sauce. There was plain spaghetti with tomato sauce on the side.  There were french fries - hand cut and lightly fried french fries. There are mashed potatoes. There are perogies - which taste good but are a bit tough on the outside. There were sauteed sliced potatoes. And then there is wonderful macaroni and cheese. This is not at all the commercial type of orange, wet, and drippy mac and cheese, but baked, thick, and full of white cheese that pulls when you spoon it out of the serving tray. This is homemade macaroni and cheese. I have written about it here before - it is a must try. And if you like this type of comfort food, you will have to then try and stop yourself from going back and back for more. There is also pizza baked in a brick oven behind the grill. There is more, too.

There is a large salad bar with both prepared salads and make your own lettuce salad with two types of lettuce plenty of toppings and vegetables. There is also cold fruits and cold desserts at the salad bar. There are two soups on the buffet. They were the same both nights we were there - both Friday nights. One soup was a cream of broccoli which I tried the first night and it was very good. The other was a turkey rice soup - which contained no rice (which for me is good as I can't eat rice) but was full of large pieces of turkey meat, celery, and carrots. The broth was thin and full of turkey flavor. There is no doubt that these two soups were made from scratch right here. The turkey soup reminded me of turkey soup that my grandmother served on Thanksgiving when I was a small child.

What about dessert?  The desserts here are limited. There is a hard ice cream sundae bar with toppings. There are a couple of sheet cakes that look good and platters of cookies. Then on one of the hot buffet servers there is a hot apple pie/cobbler. There is fresh fruit and puddings over on the salad bar. The dessert is adequate to end a over-filling meal, but don't come here for the desserts. Come here for everything else.

Something that takes place often at buffets near home in New York is that people take spoons adn serving pieces from one serving tray and use them in another leave them there - transferring whatever sauce was in the first item into the other tray of food. This WAS NOT happening here.  While this is not the fault of a buffet, it is a problem with the people who are eating at the buffet. One thing that we have observed on each of our visits to Southern Smokehouse is how nice the people seem who are dining there - mostly families and polite.

On the drive home after the second meal my wife was coming up with excuses to be in this area again - and I would love to go. Inconsistent service aside, I am going to look forward to my next visit to Southern Smokehouse. I recommend it highly (put up with the service) - if you like this type of cooking. I do, and even my picky eater wife - who avoids eating fatty things and doesn't when she is here - does.

Southern Smokehouse is located at Aviation Plaza Shopping Center which is at 611 West Edgar Road (Route 1 and 9) in Linden, New Jersey 07036. This restaurant is in the very far corner of the shopping center, off in a parking lot cut off from the main part of the shopping plaza. With Home Depot on one end of the plaza and Target on the other end, go past Target to where it looks like you are exiting the shopping center and you will see another parking lot to the side and this restaurant brightly lit on the far end.  This shopping plaza is adjacent to an airport. The phone number is 908-862-1883. The hours on Friday and Saturday are until 10 pm. Weeknights and Sunday nights they are open until 9 pm. They open each day at 11 am for lunch. There is also a breakfast buffet. There is a website and it is listed at the side of this page.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Rules of the Buffet

A new year has begun, and it is time to bring the rules out again for a refresher course. So often I wish that I carried these around with me, printed out. I would just love to leave them on a few tables in a buffet dining room after observing what goes on at the buffet by the people at those tables.

There are two of these rules that are recently most often ignored - and this is just common sense and courtesy. They are Rule 14 and Rule 29. It is unbelievable.  Why must someone take the spoon from the beets and put it into the feta cheese? And why do people think that they are at a cocktail party and stand at the serving tray with their plate and eat while they are standing there. Their table is just a few feet away - can't they wait the few seconds that it will take to walk back to the table and sit down and eat?!? No one is that hungry at a buffet!

Here are all of the rules - read them, follow them, and share them!


1. All you can eat is not a challenge. It is an offer!

2. There is no limit to the number of times that you can go up and get food.

3. Take your food in courses - as you would be served if ordering from a menu.

4. Everyone must pay!

5. No food is permitted to be taken out of the restaurant.

6. Take only what you will eat - do not waste food.

7. For a more social meal, it is polite to wait for the others at the table to finish their plates and then go up together to get more.

8. Take a clean plate every time that you go up to the buffet tables.

9. If you put it on your plate, leave it there. Never return food to the serving tray.

10. Never eat at the buffet tables!

11. Children under 12 should not be going up to the buffet tables alone.

12. The buffet table is not a cafeteria line.

13. Tip the server.

14. Never take a serving piece from one item and use it for another item.

15. Never place your dirty plates on someone else's table.

16. Never use your silverware to serve yourself from the buffet trays.

17. Once you have gotten what you want, don't stand around the buffet tables. Move on back to your table.

18. Children should remain seated through the meal.

19. Do not fill community plates for the "table". Each should take their own plate of what they wish to eat.

20. If you cough or sneeze into your hand, please do not use that hand to pick up the serving utensils.

21. In the buffet, as in any restaurant, children (and adults) should use their inside voices.

22. Don't talk on your cell phone while you are getting your food at the buffet tables.

23. Never bring an animal into the buffet. (this is not referring to medical guide dogs)

24. Never put your hands into a serving tray.

25. Tell your children not to put their hands into a serving tray - and make sure that they do not!

26. Do not carry on a conversation throughout dinner with the people at the tables around you.

27. Do not put anything back into a serving tray that has dropped onto the serving counter - and never put anything back into a serving tray (whether from the counter or your dish) with your fingers.

28. Never put the serving utensil, whether it a spoon, fork, or tongs, up to your nose to smell the food that you have taken out of the serving tray.

29. Do not eat while walking with your plate back to your table.

If you take a plate, bowl, cup, or piece of silverware and you decide you don't want it, do not put it back on the stack of clean dishes or back with the clean silverware. Take it back to your table or put it on the side of the stack where it will not be taken as clean.

Friday, March 01, 2013

The BEST Server

This is not a new award from this site but it is special recognition for the best server - the person who takes care of you at your table - at any buffet that I have ever been to, and that includes a lot of buffets over many years. Her name is Lisa and she works at the Old Country Buffet in Bay Shore, New York. As I have heard, she has worked at this Old Country Buffet since it first opened many, many years ago - and she is still working there. She is one of the most dedicated workers that I have ever seen at any job - not just in a restaurant, but anywhere!

She is constantly on the go making sure that the tables in her section are taken care of. In this job that includes taking away plates and making sure that when a table is empty, it is cleaned and ready for the next guests. We have seen her at work for a number of years and she never seems to falter in what she does. She is always there when plates need picking up and she does so with a smile and welcoming remarks to the guests at her tables.

She has gone beyond what other servers in this restaurant and others do by carrying a spray bottle of cleaner with her all of the time in a special belt holster that she, personally, had made for this purpose. Where other servers here are just carrying around a wet cloth to clean tables, she is sanitizing the table - and the chairs - with the cleaner and then wiping them dry.

She never seems to slow down, and we have watched her work when she has been dealing with physical problems and injuries without missing a step. Currently, she is battling cancer and in this extreme circumstance she continues working, still with a smile and pleasant demeanor and still with all of the energy that she can muster.

As I say, we have seen a lot of good servers at various restaurants and, not just, buffets, but no one has been as impressive as Lisa. She is the BEST server anywhere. Old Country Buffet is very fortunate to have an employee like this.