Friday, March 28, 2014

Return to the Levittown OCB, Levittown, New York

A few weeks ago when the weather was still bad, we decided that we wanted to go to OCB and we did not want to take the drive out to the east to the other Long Island Old Country Buffet. After the last experience we were reluctant but with some improvements that we saw on that visit we decided to give it another try.

Things were better. For one thing, when we went in there were clean tables. During our meal the young man responsible for our table - there were still too few table people for the size of this restaurant - was attentive and did come and clear the dishes regularly. At OCB, that is all the table people have to do. You get your own soda, soft drink, coffee, or tea so you do not have to rely on a server to come if you want a refill of your drink.

They also did a better job keeping the food out on the buffet. While there were a few times during the night that there was more than one of the same thing out - and they still have this idea that it is OK to replace an entree/meat dish with a vegetable side dish - they actually did come later on and take away one of those duplicate (triplicate) vegetables and put out a tray of smoked sausage - which is a favorite of mine and rarely seen any more at the OCB's here on Long Island.

Oddly, I was somewhat hoping for the charred overdone steak. The steak was well done but not crispy as it had been. (If I can't have it rare or medium rare, I would rather have it incinerated rather than grey.)

The floors were slightly cleaner - though it was clear that this was not through any employee's efforts but that there had been less spilled on the floors under the tables - it was a cold weeknight and while busy it was not crowded.

I had to write this article and not just make a footnote on a past article to give credit to this OCB for its progress in improving. There is a lot more to go but it seems that the change in management and new employees have made a noticeable difference. Keep it up and this will be an OCB worth going to which is something it has not been (not sure it ever was) for a very long time.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Back to the Southern Smokehouse, Linden, New Jersey

We recently were back at the Southern Smokehouse in Linden, New Jersey and this was one of our best visits there yet. The Southern Smokehouse is a buffet that is a combination of Chinese buffet and Southern Barbecue. This is an odd combination but here it seems to work.

About a year ago Southern Smokehouse added a smoker and while they always served barbecue ribs, now those ribs are being made in a smoker on the premises. The Southern Smokehouse has been a go back to buffet for us since we first were tipped off about it a few years ago. We only get to go when we have a reason to be in New Jersey. The buffet is not far from the Goethels Bridge from New Jersey into Staten Island, New York but for us this is an expensive trip in tolls crossing two bridges. Tolls and gas can cost us more than dinner. So we don't get to Southern Smokehouse as much as we would like to.

My reviews of this buffet restaurant have been mixed in the past and the biggest problem that we have encountered here has been the service. I have been contacted by others who have come to this buffet who have said the same thing. I am happy to say that on this last trip the service was much, much better and we had two servers who seemed to share the tables on one side of the dining and were making sure that dishes were cleared regularly from the tables and that drinks were refilled. This visit was a great improvement over past visits in this regard. The food has always been good and remains so.

We went this time on a Friday night. We have been here on Friday nights before. The buffet was busy but not crowded. We were told to find out own table. We selected a table in the dining area to the right side of the door. The restaurant is set up with a dining room on each side of the buffet servers which are in the center. For some reason, this side seems to get the better service.

There are not many buffets that regularly serve real barbecue ribs and here, as I say, you are getting ribs from a smoker. The ribs are served at the carving counter and grill and are served to your plate by one of the cooks behind the counter. You will be offered one rib or two ribs - ask for more if you want more each trip up. The ribs are meaty and moist. The rib meat falls off the bone as you eat it and you can see the red smoke ring on the rib meat. These are full size ribs and not baby backs. They are cooked with barbecue sauce but you may want to add more when you get your ribs from the small serving tray of sauce that has a large brush in it along with barbecue sauce. The sauce is neither overly sweet or spicy. It really adds a nice flavor to the already good ribs. While I make most of my meal here ribs, there are many other good things here as well.

The flame grill is cooking steaks. The steaks that they are cooking are called in some areas Romanian steaks. These are also called diaphragm steaks. This cut of steak tends to be a little fatty but very tasty. They cook two small steaks joined together and you get both when you go up to the grill.  It would be nicer if these steaks were cooked to order. They are not. Mostly you will get a well done steak. In spite of that, the steak is tasty.

They are also carving a large whole roast turkey at the grill. This is so much nicer than the turkey breast that so many buffets (and menu restaurants) serve. The turkey is good. We enjoy "real" turkey and this is a treat.

Also at the side of the grill is pizza - which looks a lot better than most buffet pizzas. The slices are larger than most found at buffets. I did not try the pizza though I was tempted, but I was too full from the rest of everything good.

Along the buffet there is fried chicken, barbecue chicken, meatloaf, fried fish, various Chinese meat dishes, and many side dishes including one of the best home-style Southern macaroni and cheese at any buffet. The mac and cheese is thick with cheese and gooey when you spoon it from the tray onto your plate. The taste is as good as it looks. There are also french fries, sweet potato tots, mashed potatoes, home skillet fried potatoes with onions, and baked potatoes. There was corn on the cob and kernel corn, string beans, carrots, collards, and other vegetables. One thing that we both noted on this trip was that there was an excess of garlic used in all of the side dishes (except the mac and cheese). This put us both off a bit - while tasty, it was too much.

I tried the fried chicken and while it was good, it was too similar to OCB. It looked better than that. My wife told me to try the meatloaf. She said it was one of the best buffet meatloaf that she has had. She does not like meatloaf that is cooked covered in catsup. This meatloaf is cooked in a vegetable tomato sauce. It is a very light, reddish sauce. It is not sweet and it makes the meatloaf very moist. It was good. (I prefer the catsup type but this was different and good.)

There are two soups on the buffet. This night there was turkey soup which has been on the buffet each time that we have been there. There was also cream of mushroom soup that was excellent. I was surprised that this usually bland soup could be so good. There was a hint of cheese mixed into the soup.

There is a large salad bar that also has cold desserts on one side. When we went up for salad, the green lettuce tray was empty and the mixed greens tray was almost empty. A gentleman who had taken the last of it and seemed to be waiting for more told us that it was on its way out. We waited a short while and when it did not arrive we both made salads from the vegetable toppings and tomatoes that were on the salad bar. I also took some of their pasta salad - which looked to be a cross between the usual macaroni salad and pasta salad. About two minutes after we returned to our table the salad trays came out and they were full again. One consistent thing about Southern Smokehouse has been that trays are filled as quickly as possible. Other than on the salad bar for a short period, I have yet to see an empty tray here that was not quickly refilled - and with the same item. I do have to comment about the pasta salad. It did not taste very good and the pasta was dry and hard. I ate no more than the first bite.

Desserts are few but good. They bake on the premises. There were three sheet cakes - two chocolate (one with sprinkles on a hard frosting and one with a lighter frosting0 and one cherry topped cake. There are cookies and there is hard - scoop yourself - ice cream and toppings for a sundae. Over at the salad bar there are fresh and canned fruits, puddings, and jello. On the hot buffet there was a tray of hot bread pudding. Over where the Chinese foods were there were fried Chinese buffet-style donuts with sugar.

It was a very satisfying and great tasting meal. The restaurant is clean and well taken care of. If they remain consistent now in quality of service this already good buffet will become a great buffet. It seems to be well known in the area. If you are going through or are near Linden, New Jersey try it.

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 was a website and it is still listed at the side of this page but when you go there the URL has been "parked" with a message that the site will return. In the interim, there is a Facebook page for this buffet.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Return to Yummy China Buffet, East Meadow, NY

We decided to go back to Yummy China Buffet in East Meadow on Long Island in New York. We had just gotten a circular in the newspaper with their menu stating that their price was $15.99 with free soda - as it had been when we first went a month or so ago. This, that first time, was a sudden reduction in price from the usual $19.99 every day for dinner that this buffet opened for business with a number of months ago. In my first review I mentioned that it was uncertain if this price would remain in effect and that is still uncertain as the advertisement that we just received said that the price was for a limited time and showed it through March. This buffet is priced just right at $15.99 including the soft drink.

So we went back and were very pleased - again - with the meal that we had. For the most part the same dishes were on the buffet with just a few exceptions. We went both times on a Friday night so it may just be that this is the usual Friday night offerings. Everything that we had was good so there really was no disappointment that there were not other dishes that they show on their rotating buffet menu.

The best thing here in my opinion is a dish that they call Yummy Pork and I mentioned this in my first article about this buffet. This is a large piece of pork with the skin on that has been slow roasted to the point that the meat is moist and just pulls apart. The addition of the skin still on and roasted with the meat in whatever seasonings that they are using makes this delicious. I was very happy to see that this was there on the buffet on this second visit.

This time I also went up to the sushi bar to see what would happen if I asked for sushi without rice. There was absolutely no problem having this made for me. The sushi is served at a sushi bar with a chef making sushi to order from a menu - all is included in the price of the buffet. There are various rolls, sashimi, and also platters. The people at the table next to us were ordering sushi platters and they each were given a tray sized platter with various assortments of sushi. The platters have different names on the menu that sits on the counter next to the chef and each is described with what it includes. I ordered a salmon roll without rice. I was told that it would take ten minutes as there were two other orders in ahead of mine. This is the only drawback with this type of sushi service at a buffet as the one chef is doing all of the work to order. It was not a problem and I waited until he put my plate of salmon roll up on the counter for me to take. It was a roll of six pieces and he even  garnished the plate. I went back later for another roll. I was very happy. I can't eat rice - though I would love to - and I love sushi. Getting sushi without rice at a buffet has always been a challenge and I always wind up taking the rice and leaving it on my plate after I eat the fish.

I also tried the baby clams in black bean sauce. These ere very good and I rarely eat cooked, steamed clams. These clams were small, in the shell, and cooked in a very tasty sauce.

My wife commented during the meal that everything tastes like it is supposed to. That may sound like an odd comment but at many Asian buffets, the food is a bit different from what you would get if you went to a non-buffet Asian restaurant. Here the shrimp tastes like shrimp, is not mushy or hard, and has just the correct texture. This is true here for just about all of the dishes.

I had commented in my last article about this buffet that there had been no beef dishes out on the buffet. On this night there was beef with peppers. There was also a full tray of crab legs - which are individual legs and not clusters.

Everything is well tended and served at the correct temperatures. There is someone from the restaurant always checking the buffet and making sure that nothing needs to be replaced. If it does, a new tray come out from the kitchen shortly. The trays that are out are also stirred and not allowed to dry out.

Be aware, as I had suspected in my first article, that the soda served is not name brand. It is fine, it is just not Coke or Pepsi. It is included in the price and that helps to make it OK. 

Service here was again very good. The young lady who took care of our table cleared our dishes promptly and refilled our sodas without our asking.

I am very much hoping that the price here remains at $15.99 including the soda. Soda at buffets is about $1.99 or more in this area so when that comes off the price for comparison, the buffet dinner price becomes $14.00. Other than one buffet near to the location of this buffet, other Asian buffets on Long Island are starting at $14.99 without the soda. So this buffet's price - at this price - is very good for the area.

I feel that starting out with the $19.99 price hurt business at this buffet. On a Friday night, this buffet should have most of its dining room full. While there was a steady turnover of tables less than half of the tables in the small dining room were full. Two of the tables had regulars who the owner knew and came over to chat with several times. All of the employees here are very friendly to everyone! But if people are not coming, I have to wonder why. To start out with a high price and then see a need to lower that price to bring in business means that a lot more advertising needs to be done to let people know of the new price. They did send out this circular in the newspaper but it took them almost two months to do so. The other possible problem is that formerly this was a very run down Chinese buffet and many do not realize that it is under new ownership, far, far cleaner that it had been, and the food is much, much better. Taking over a failing restaurant can be a big problem as the former reputation remains with the location sometimes. I saw this before with a restaurant that was associated with a former restaurant in the same location that had problems. This can be overcome with good word of mouth and a lot of advertising to let everyone know that this is not the restaurant that once was here.

As I was leaving after a fine meal, I started thinking that this buffet has all of the markings of a Top Buffet. The price is the only concern and if it stays where it is at the present time, this buffet could be a best Asian buffet.  We will keep an eye on the price and on the consistency of the restaurant as a whole and see.

I do recommend Yummy China Buffet and Sushi Restaurant. Try it if you are in this area!

The Yummy China Buffet and Sushi Restaurant is located at 398 Merrick Avenue, East Meadow, New York 11554. The telephone number is 516-486-2525. There is no website. The restaurant is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 11:30 am to 10:00 pm. Prices are the same for weekdays and weekends. The lunch price is less. The restaurant is closed on Mondays.

Friday, March 07, 2014

The OCB Remodel That Wasn't a Remodel

This past January I wrote an article that OCB announced by email to local customers that the Levittown, New York Old Country Buffet would be closed for remodeling. The email included a photo of what the new remodeled OCB's look like - separate food stations, each with an attendant and brightly decorated. I was looking forward to this. I was skeptical in the article that this particular OCB could provide the level of service needed for the "new" Old Country Buffet concept, but I was looking forward to it.

We passed the restaurant several times during the time of the "remodel" and the restaurant always looked open as usual. One of our readers did go to this location - after the makeover - and wrote a comment that all that it looked like they did was put in a new carpet and maybe repainted.

I have had so many negative experiences at this particular OCB location that I was hesitant to go to see for myself. One night when we wanted to dine at OCB and the weather was not permitting us to travel out to the OCB in the next county, we went to Levittown to see the "new" remodeled Old Country Buffet for ourselves. An email coupon just received helped in our decision to go.

We walked in on a weeknight to a semi-crowded restaurant. We looked around to see what the picture showed the remodel should be. The restaurant inside and outside looked exactly like it always had - with the exception of the artwork on the wall. This OCB used to have large framed black and white photos of restaurant scenes in the 1940s. They were pleasant and interesting. Where those pictures once were are now what amount to advertising posters for Old Country Buffet. Not paper posters tacked on the wall, but canvas prints that are not framed. The walls may or may not have been painted. The restaurant seems darker but it was hard to say that the brown paint on the walls was new. In some places it did not look new. As to new carpet - only one section of the restaurant looked to have carpet that was replaced with the same carpet that was always there before. If you look closely, the pile is not as worn as it is in other parts of the restaurant.  New or not, it was dirty.

There are no food stations. The same buffet servers that have always been there were exactly the same. There was no cook to order grill. The same carving station was still there with steaks brought to it from the kitchen through the same heating unit in the wall that is the way food comes from the kitchen - if anyone goes to look to see if there is anything there.

What was different were the employees. Had they read our articles and finally made the necessary changes. The few people around the buffet that were working were new. The managers - two were evident through the night - were new. Perhaps something good was afoot.

We paid at the cashier who appeared to be a manager. He was very pleasant and suggested that we try their cream of broccoli soup as if it was something new. It is not new. We walked through the dining room looking for a table. There were tables that looked vacated but were full of dishes. We walked on and there were two tables that were definitely empty - but both were filthy with food not wiped off of the tables. We looked for someone to come an clear one of these tables for us. There was no one in sight. We went to the lesser dirty table and I cleaned it myself with napkins and water from the beverage area. So, new employees or not, something else had not changed.

I still kept wondering if the remodel actually had happened. Someone else did as well, because we overheard someone asking about it. The manager at the cashier said that oh yes, they had a remodel and a lot of work was done. If a lot of work was done, other than changing the pictures on the walls to posters, none of the work is evident.

So what happened during dinner. Eventually, a young man came to pick up the plates that were stacking high on our table. He actually, after that did show up semi-regularly to take away used dishes. On the buffet there were three trays of mashed potatoes out, two trays of the same ribs, no rolls the entire night, at one point a half full tray of carrots was removed and replaced with another tray of mashed potatoes. A manager did come out to say to the only person who was trying to keep food in the buffet trays that there were "complaints" and that he needed to do a better job. Which seemed to result in just putting out anything that came through the wall holding heater no matter how many other trays of the same thing were out. There was no rolls out the entire night, nor was there corn bread. There was a roast beef at the carving area that was near raw and had fat congealing on the top. And then there was the steak.

There was no steak out on the carving board. I went over to the young man who was carving when he was able to get back to his job there from running all over the rest of the buffet serving area and asked if there was steak. He was pleasant and most importantly spoke perfect English - another new face - and he opened the cover over the steak tray. I looked in. There were three small steaks inside - all charred black. He reached in with his serving fork and put one on my plate. I looked at the steak and smiled - not out of pleasure but humor - I had to keep myself from laughing and could not keep in a small laugh as I walked back to our table. The steak was not just well done but incinerated. It was covered top and bottom with a thick charcoal crust. If you read this site regularly you know that I like rare to medium rare steak. Now, I do like a steak that is charred like this on the outside and red rare inside. This was something else. The steak was about a quarter of an inch thick throughout. OCB steaks start out fairly thick - at least three quarters of an inch> This one had been burned away a half inch. I expected to get to the table, try it, and just go back to the buffet tables in hopes of finding something else - the main thing not being put out was meat.  I am going to admit something here that I can't believe I would admit. It was charred, burnt, and crunchy. It tasted good. I think it reminded me enough of what a steak should be - just on the very outside - that I liked it. I did eat the whole thing. I doubt though that anyone else would have enjoyed it. My wife, who likes meat very well done, made a negative face when she saw this steak. For much of the meal she just ate vegetables.

When it came to dessert, we knew going into the restaurant that there was a sign on the door that said that the ice cream machines were broken. They were up front about this literally up front as you entered and could not miss the sign. People were still complaining that the ice cream machines were broken. The result of this, though, was that all other desserts disappeared fast. When we got to dessert, there was nothing left. A woman came from the back and started pulling desserts from the refrigerators that are behind the dessert counter. She put out what was there and that went just about as fast as the desserts had before. But she was making an effort - and that is something that was not happening here in Levittown in the past.

The meal should have been much better. Other than the dirty tables and the usual dirty floors, there seemed to be an effort being made. The effort needs to be much better but it is a start. It is enough to bring me back again to see if there are further improvements - or at least if there is not a slip backwards - as seems to be the norm here when things appear to get better.

The remodel was not a remodel. It was just - well, nothing.

Some observations -

The carpet - I don't understand why carpet is used in these restaurants (and while OCB is not the only buffet to use carpeting in the dining room, this location always has dirty carpets). If tile were used, spills and things dropped could be picked up - by an aware staff - quickly and cleaned easily.

Cleaning tables for the next customer -  I watched the two young men who were working in the dining rooms. Yes, there were just two in the whole restaurant. They were both doing the same thing. They would take the dirty dishes away and leave the spills and dropped food on the table. They did not come back to clean the table further - which is why we found only two tables to choose from and had to clean the least dirty one ourselves. I have been to many OCBs and many other buffets. This does not happen anywhere as badly as it does in Levittown - and now with new employees it did not change.

One of our readers who works for OCB or the parent corporation, Ovation Brands, Inc. wrote to say how many employees should be out working in the dining room and around the buffet tables. The Levittown OCB does not come close to the minimum number of employees stated by this corporate employee. We have also been told that at many OCBs this is intentional to keep expenses down. This is not the place to cut expenses. Service needs to be as good to keep customers returning.