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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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38 Comments Post a comment
  1. Akie #

    I second the explanation about the tofu and pickles. I will agree with you about seafood, but … growing up in Hawaii, the buffet was all about the carbs. This is a place where people had no time for the Atkins diet. I distinctly remember a brunch buffet with a full table of pastries, a waffle bar (whipped cream and powdered sugar and strawberries, I was in child heaven), a pan of hash browns, and a pan of white rice. In addition to prime rib, and eggs, and sausage and bacon, and miso soup and soba. Deliciousness that requires multiple plates, clearly.

    August 15, 2012
  2. It has been way too long since I hit a buffet. My “all you can eat for this many dollars” chops were mostly developed grazing various salad bars where I became adept at building a broccoli spear fence around the always too small bowl’s perimeter to stabilize my jenga-style toppings palace. No broccoli? No problem. Carrot or celery sticks will do in a pinch.

    I did encounter similar vacation trickiness when faced with “all inclusive” stay packages. Especially on family trips after the kids hit their pre-teen “let me sleep in” stage. That situation always raised questions. “If the kids just skip breakfast can we eat/earn back that missed pre-alloted food at lunch and dinner?”.

    It took years before I realized I was completely forgetting to factor in how much it was worth to me not to have to plan, shop, prepare, serve OR clean up after meals. I may be cheap, but I don’t work for cheap, so…..

    August 15, 2012
    • a food fence to prevent the horizontal slide and mixing of non-compatible foods!! brilliant. why haven’t i thought of this? yes, i too get panicked about not missing any meals included with the room price. the term “eat your fill” is one that i expect my kids will hear often in the next ten years. i constantly think that the system is trying to game me

      August 15, 2012
  3. Now i’m so full and nauseous and can’t eat dinner, but I’m waiting for you to talk about the desserts…

    August 14, 2012
    • I do like the miniature dessert offerings at a buffet. How harmful could a dessert be when they are that small? Unless you eat 8 of them, as I do

      August 15, 2012
  4. Wow. I will never look at a buffet the same way again. LOL. Loving this buffet-eating-guide. I’m a total failure at getting my money’s worth at buffets!!

    August 14, 2012
  5. Cloie #

    I want to take my mom and mother-in-law out for a fancy meal to thank them for watching the kids all summer. Are there any buffets in Portland you would bless?

    August 14, 2012
    • hey cloie! if you’re not fazed by gatekeepers the buffet at Salty’s is actually great, and the view is nice if you don’t look too closely at the water. if you can drive a bit the buffet at skamania (I think they have a friday night buffet and sunday brunch buffet) is great and you can hike it off afterwards. i think you have to make reservations–the ultimate sign of a truly classy buffet

      August 14, 2012
  6. Hi Yoona, I started reading your blog a few weeks ago and it has provided me with many hours of joyful distraction while at work. Thank you!

    For many years, I have been a major proponent of the Taste and Waste at buffets. I get full really fast, so I go in and grab a little bit of everything that looks appealing and sample my way around the plate, halting progress immediately on any items that aren’t really doing it for me. Its the ultimate display of indulgent, wasteful American but the only way I can get the full mileage out of the buffet price. Drives my Asian mother-in-law nuts.

    August 14, 2012
    • taste and waste, i like the term although i try mightily to avoid the behavior. reminds me of sushi buffets where my relatives get mounds of sushi but don’t eat the rice (too filling), so that we end up with a bunch of denuded rice mounds on the table. thanks for reading the blog jenn!

      August 14, 2012
  7. I desperately want to go out for lunch with you. Or more accurately, brunch. Because brunch buffets have all the best bars and smoked salmon and YES YES YES please.
    I was, at first, a little sad about your sausage commentary, but I suppose I understand. We can always hit an IHOP on the way home…

    August 14, 2012
    • i worry that i would be self-conscious in any joint buffet eating, but that would be very fun. and let’s be real, a sausage link or two is always making it onto the plate. i was tempted by the chicken mango sausage on offer at the maui buffet but didn’t think i could eat $25.95 worth of it

      August 14, 2012
  8. Lyndsay #

    A very good buffet training manual. I’m especially going to take your brown food lesson to heart. But I must admit – I love them carbs. At a buffet or not – I overindulge on the bread and use up valuable stomach real estate. Can’t help myself! I especially loved the Riemenschneider shout out. Did you know Nathan is a Riemenschneider? Enjoy that vacation… so jealous right now.

    August 14, 2012
    • what do you mean, nathan is a riemenschneider? do you mean a riemenschneider fan? or an actual descendant of the riemenschneider family? either way, i’m sure tom will be suitably impressed. i too indulge in the baked goods on offer, but solely as dessert

      August 14, 2012
      • Lyndsay #

        Descendant. I don’t know much about the lineage – but it’s his mom’s maiden name. I know more about the family’s musical background (Albert Riemenscheider). The sculpting was a really long time ago – Wikipedia wasn’t much help in figuring out the family tree. He’s also a descendant of Benjamin Franklin. Amazing he married a commoner like me, eh?

        August 14, 2012
  9. Shoe #

    I’m still pissed about the sandals post too. Just FYI – we’re mad and we’re about to get organized…

    August 14, 2012
    • will you all wear sandals to the invasion? because i wave my white flag right now if so

      August 14, 2012
  10. I still have dreams about the buffet at the Mandarin Oriental in Kuala Lampur Malysisa! The best part was the kids buffet–imagine a line of kiddie food a foot and a half high and 15 feet long! Your kids would have been in heaven–I know mine was:)

    August 14, 2012
    • again, SE asia. i sense a trend. and potentially a new olympic sport for the SE asians

      August 14, 2012
  11. Patrick #

    Well if you wait till 9:00AM to hit the buffet, of course the eggs are going to be a little rubbery…There’s your problem. Or maybe it’s that you stayed out too late at the actual bar and so 9:00AM is the best you can do. No, because with a hangover, those eggs are pretty good. So, again, eggs win.

    August 14, 2012
    • all my hangovers are solely food-related, patrick. which makes the thought of eggs the next morning that much grosser. and who are we kidding, now that we have young kids we’re cracking the seal on that buffet at 6:30 am, right

      August 14, 2012
  12. vi #

    Hi Yoona!
    New reader and I’m really enjoying your blog. The “eat with your eyes first” rule is brilliant!
    Anyway, I can help with the last picture. Hawaii is super popular with Japanese people, and I think that little corner is to accommodate them. The top row you eat with rice, and the bottom with miso soup. I live in Japan now and see that stuff all the time, the relish and baby pickles is actually quite good. Get Tom to do a taste test first =]

    August 14, 2012
    • ah, brilliant!! thank you!! now i’m only sorry finn isn’t here because he drinks miso soup by the gallon and eats tofu by the pound. he would go nuts. he would certainly eat enough to justify the kid’s buffet rate

      August 14, 2012
    • also i LOVE when hotels cater to japanese people, because it tends to result in good eats. in bali they had a salmon bento box thing they called “japanese breakfast” (not part of buffet) and it was amazing and i still think about it twelve years later

      August 14, 2012
  13. Courtney #

    I remember that buffet at the Pepperwood! That place was crazy! they served mini bagels with their lox – my first mini bagel. I too love buffets. Hilarous post!

    August 14, 2012
    • such fond memories at that place. mostly because of the time with my family. and also because there was no chance of having to share an entree with my brother, which my parents would always suggest at other restaurants

      August 14, 2012
  14. best buffet I ever found was at a hotel in Bangkok, it was located on the 70somthingth floor and whilst it had all the usual recognisable breakfast fayre it also had plenty of things that I had absolutely no idea what they were or what they might be, most of them in lurid shades of colours not found in nature with uniteligible names (i can’t read thai) but they called sausages meat socks so I wasn’t overly confident that the translations were trustworthy anyway so I just tried stuff and by and large emerged a winner.

    It was truly memorable and definitely a hotel I’d recomend if you ever find yourself in that part of the world, cheap and cheerful (think holiday inn not marriot) but with incredible views

    http://www.bangkok.com/baiyokesky/dining.htm

    August 14, 2012
    • meat socks!!! yes. yes! so funny. buffets in asia are generally no joke, because asians love buffets. i hate to generalize but it’s true in this instance. the buffet at the regent (think it’s an intercontinental now) in hong kong is ridiculous. thanks for the rec on the bangkok place.

      August 14, 2012
      • the hotel seemed to cater mostly to the Japanese tourist market, english did exist but was flaky at best. If you’re going to travel though then why not experience someone else’s culture as opposed to transposing your own to them.

        August 15, 2012
  15. Not to be read when one is on a diet. 🙂

    August 14, 2012
    • but i bet you feel super virtuous now. 🙂 unless you read the post and hunted down a buffet

      August 14, 2012
  16. Courtney #

    Buffets make me physically nauseous but appreciate the tips for you buffet-goers. Dave’s quote: “She likes buffets? And she’s giving me shit about my fucking sandals!??”

    August 14, 2012
    • he clearly is angry about the sandals still and i don’t know what to tell him. except that fall is coming and hopefully we can put the sandals behind us

      August 14, 2012
  17. Tom's Sis #

    At the buffet in Costa Rica your rascal nephew tricked me into trying beef tongue. I gagged when he told me. Still not over it actually. Some regional offerings are better left untouched . . .

    August 14, 2012
    • before jay told you, what did you think of the tongue? did you like it, before you knew it was tongue? because if you did, that proves my point, in a way. i say that but i never go for tongue, and they offer it a lot at taco places in portland. but tongue isn’t a regional specialty of portland, so maybe that’s ok. the huevos rancheros at the hotel maya were quite good btw

      August 14, 2012
    • davebarclay1954 #

      I like tongue, but am never afraid to try something new because you never know whether or not you’ll enjoy something without the taste test. I’ve eaten horse meat, rattlesnake, hedgehog and kangaroo on my travels and as long as the meat is cooked correctly it is very tasty.

      August 15, 2012

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