how to win a buffet
I love buffets. L-O-V-E them. I remember growing up in Beaverton and going to the breakfast buffet with my family at the Pepperwood Inn off of I-217. I remember mountains of chilled shrimp, in the shell. I remember raw oysters. I remember crab cakes. That buffet was my training ground.
Now that I’m 35 and actually have to pay for the buffet, I only eat at them when I’m on vacation. In San Diego last month we got a breakfast package at the Park Hyatt and got to partake of their buffet every morning for FREE. It was a beaut. A smoked salmon bar, homemade yogurt and granola parfaits in miniature glass milk bottles, plump little applewood chicken sausages, the works. Unfortunately it was such a dignified buffet, and I was so preoccupied trying to keep my kids from knocking over the fresh-squeezed juices on display, that I felt weird trying to take photos with my phone for this post.
But now I’m at a regular Hyatt in Maui, and it’s not the kind of place where anyone at the buffet is going to notice if you are taking photos, or indeed, even tripping and falling into the food. So I got my pics. But I didn’t eat at the buffet, because I knew in about two seconds that this buffet is not worth the $25.95 price tag. Plus they had birds flying through the restaurant (more on that in my next post). Anyway, here are some tips on how to win a buffet.
1. Seafood at a buffet is your friend
The thing about a buffet is that there’s a vast array of food, and only a finite amount of space in your stomach in which to hold it. What this means is that if the buffet has a seafood component and you eat seafood, you will be starting here. Because seafood is expensive. Seafood is also a pain to cook at home. When I see a display of smoked salmon laid out at a buffet, I feel a sense of satisfaction and imminent victory, because I know that I am going to own that buffet. Ignore the twinge of embarrassment that you may be taking too much salmon or smoked trout. Ignore the servers who may be looking at you askance. They are trained to make you feel bad about taking the seafood. There’s a famous seafood buffet in Portland at a place called Salty’s. It’s a great buffet, but I hate it because they have a person stationed behind the crab legs and raw oysters who doles out your serving. I always come to play and even I feel sheepish asking a real live person for my fourth helping of crab legs. What a freaking buzzkill.
Anyway, rest assured that if the buffet couldn’t handle the financial hit from your seafood consumption, they wouldn’t be offering the fish. Don’t forget to take a gander at all those darling little accompaniments when loading up on your omega-3s. Capers? Chopped egg? Creme fraiche? Yes please. Leave the bagel out of it, because that’s filler, and you don’t need me to tell you not to carb-load at a buffet.
2. Now is not the time for sausage
I like sausage and bacon. I like them a lot. But here’s the thing about sausage and bacon–you can get both at IHOP. A buffet is your time to try new things, to branch out, to sample the things you never get to eat.
The other thing about sausage and bacon is that they are very brown. My mom taught me that you eat first with your eyes, then with your mouth. So when I eat at a buffet, I am mindful of color and composition. I will throw guacamole on my pancakes just to have something green on the plate, and like to put my bright berries in a little mound in the middle of the plate, for visual appeal. Anyway, about the meats–nothing is as unappetizing as a plate full of brown sausage, brown bacon, and brown oatmeal. I know that, because that’s what Tom eats at buffets. Tom has latent Midwestern tastes which come to the fore in such situations. Oatmeal! Besides being really cheap and readily available at home, oatmeal requires a bowl, which takes up so much plate space. Ugh! Tom says he needs the extra fiber on vacation. Whatever. I usually throw a berry or two on his plateful of brown when we get back to the table, just so I—I mean he—has something pretty to look at.
3. For the love of God don’t go for the eggs
I have no idea how you cook scrambled eggs in bulk. Maybe there is a special trough pan for that. I do know this: when you cook eggs in bulk, they aren’t being cracked from pristine eggshells. They are coming out of a large milk carton, or worse, a vat. I also know that when you cook eggs in such vast quantities and then keep them over a sterno can for an hour, what you get is something that is not fit for human consumption. But I always notice that everyone takes a scoop of the eggs! It’s like we are programmed to expect eggs at breakfast, and having been offered them, we are powerless to resist, no matter how rubbery or tasteless. You don’t need eggs. Unless they are part of an omelette bar, or the huevos in huevos rancheros. Which leads to my last two points.
4. Waffle bar, omelette bar, crepe bar: you had me at bar
I find it really annoying when a non-buffet restaurant charges for omelette fillings by the ingredient. Like, you can have an omelette with 3 of the listed choices, but the fourth is an extra $3.00. Everyone knows that all good omelette combos have at least four ingredients. Take your classic Denver, for example. You’ve got the peppers, you’ve got the ham, you’ve got the onion. So you’re good! WRONG. You forgot the cheddar cheese. Don’t try arguing that cheese is not technically a filling if it’s melted on top of the omelette. I may know someone who has argued that, and been rudely shot down. Or I may not.
The three ingredient thing is particularly annoying because it’s not like you are getting more food with that fourth ingredient. A three-egg omelette can only hold so much filling. So if you order a fourth ingredient, the cook is going to have to reduce the volume of each of your first three ingredients. It’s a net gain of zero food for you, and no loss for the restaurant. Man, now I’m getting all upset. In fact, now that I’m writing this I feel like it could be a legal violation to charge extra for a fourth omelette ingredient. Potentially an unlawful trade practices claim there. I have to remember to ask my coworker Josh—a consumer law expert and a fellow fan of buffets—to look into that.
Anyway, that’s why I love omelette stations at buffets. You can have five ingredients if you want! Six, even!! Who’s going to gainsay you? Certainly not the guy in the chef’s hat who drew the short straw in the kitchen and is now grudgingly making your omelette creation in the cutest little fry pan you’ve ever seen. You can even have TWO omelettes! God I love this country.
5. Partake of the regional offerings
As the child of a German teacher, Tom traveled to Germany a lot as a kid. When he waxes poetic about Germany, it’s usually about one of two things: the Riemenschneider altarpieces, or brochen. Tom talks about brochen as if they are the most magically delicious bread product ever known to man, and the dude knows his bread products. Over time I have built them up in my imagination to the point that my mouth starts to water when I hear the word, and I’ve never even seen one.
Well, I looked up “brochen” recently, and it turns out that “brochen,” in German, means “roll.” But I get it. Because everything tastes better when it’s foreign. Which is why you should have the huevos rancheros at a buffet in Southern California, or the ha gow at the buffet in Vancouver, B.C., even though shrimp dumplings can be a bit heavy at 9:00 AM. The regional thing explains why I ate nasi goreng for five straight days at a buffet in Bali, even though nasi goreng is basically fried rice, and I avoid fried rice like the plague at Chinese buffets back home.
Here in Maui, they have the regional papaya on prominent display. Also this, which confuses me:
It appears to be a collection of regional pickles, plus tofu, and nori. I’ve seen a lot of buffets in my time but haven’t run into this kind of buffet station before. I was trying to figure out if this was part of the omelette bar but by that time I’d been taking pics in the buffet for five minutes and a couple of the buffet employees were talking to each other in Hawaiian while pointing in my general direction. So I had to leave. But now it’s killing me. I may have to send Tom in for some reconnaissance.
Happy buffet-ing, y’all.