Thursday, August 4, 2011

TWIOT: How to Attack a Buffet

mmmm, gorging, aaaaahhhh....
The inspiration for this week's blog comes to us from Nick of Future Endeavors. Thanks to him for the inspiration!

As I've mentioned on here a bunch of times, I'm trying to lose weight, trying being the operative word. That means I've had to change my eating habits for the most part. However, that doesn't mean that I totally eschew my roots as a fat guy who likes to eat. Quite to the contrary, I still like to get my omnomnomnom on from time to time. Being on a diet, you HAVE to have one day out of the week where you "cheat" or else you go crazy. The key is limiting yourself to that one day rather than doing it every day of the week. But this isn't about diet discipline. No, this is about buffets.

Yes, that's right, the all-you-can-eat buffet. These come in so many different styles, times of day, meal-types and entree options that the options are almost limitless, but there are similarities that every buffet shares. One is that they all have a buttload of food. Two is that if you don't play your cards right, you'll be bloated and full by the time you've completed your first plate. The beauty of the buffet isn't that you load up on one dish, but that you try a bunch of different stuff and get a "tasting" menu without the pretentious atmosphere and exorbitant prices.

So, what I plan on doing with this entry is giving you, the discerning eater, a strategy when dealing with a buffet. That way, when you go to one next, you can get the most out of it.

Know Your Enemy

There are a bunch of different kinds of buffets, but the four most common you're going to see, at least outside of weddings and other catered private events, boil down into these categories:

Fast Food - This covers things like Old Country Buffet, Golden Corral and Ponderosa. They're really the least common denominator when it comes to buffets, both in quality and in selection. You're probably not going to get a vast selection of foods you've never eaten before unless you're not American or you've been living under a rock for the last 100 years. These are good if you want to eat a bunch of comfort foods for cheap, or in the case of Old Country Buffet, if you have a serious bout of self-loathing and want to punish your body for reasons that may or may not be public knowledge. Ponderosa is somewhat of a step above the other two in way that you actually get a cooked-to-order steak with their, as they call it, "food bar". But then again, you're not getting Black Angus beef either.

Casino - The casino buffet is the evolution of the fast food buffet. For the most part, the food is of higher quality, and you get a better selection of foods you may not have tried before, so obviously, they're more expensive. Even the low-end casino buffets are usually good for having high-end seafood on them, like dungeness crab legs or even lobster tail, but when you get to the higher end places, man, you really hit the jackpot. For example, the Borgata in Atlantic City has been known to have braised "osso bucco" style beef shank, braised beef ravioli and other more exotic style fishes and dishes. All-inclusive resort and cruise buffets are included in this category as well. These are the ideal places to try new things you may not have ever eaten before, or to get a sample of close-to-fine-dining as you can get.

Chinese/Asian - This is by far the most popular of the ethnic buffets, although really, how can it be "ethnic" if so many different cultures are lumped in? Well yeah, I guess it's a fallacious argument, but hey, IT'S MY F'N BLOG, DAMMIT. *ahem* Anyway, a regular Chinese food menu can be super daunting to look at if you're undecided on what you want to eat. It's not because there are so many choices you want, but there a few choices that are your go-tos, and then after that a whole two pages of shit you've never even thought of trying before. Granted, a lot of that is the same thing with different proteins as the centerpiece, but then again, if your Chinese food rotation is lo mein-chow mein-General Tso's and nothing else, well, egg foo young or mei fun may as well be roasted dodo.

So where the Chinese buffet comes in is expanding the rest of the menu to you. It's where I first had Peking duck as well as sushi. Not all of these places have food other than Chinese, but the trend is to include Japanese, Thai and even Vietnamese or Korean nowadays. The big caveat here is that these types of buffets generally have the widest range for quality. There are shit-stain bottom of the barrel buffets where all the meat looks sketchy and everything's cold and not refreshed for hours at a time. There are top-line buffets where all the food looks like real food, nothing sits for more than fifteen minutes without getting something fresh put in and everything is just delicious. There are places that lay in between on all points of the scale. So yeah, the best strategy with these places is to find the good ones and never let go of them.

Brunch - The undisputed King of Buffets in my opinion. It's positioned in a time of day where it can usurp two meals and combine the foods of said meals into one-mega-dining experience where it's okay to get yourself a heaping side of bacon to go with your roast beef and mashed potatoes. Go at least once a year to one of these buffets, which are generally held at country club restaurants or other really nice type places.

Of course, there are other styles of all-you-can-eat or buffet style set-ups that are up-and-coming or that exist at all. The Pizza Hut lunch buffets (not sure how prevalent they are anymore though), Amish smorgasbords or even Brazilian rodizio all have their place in the firmament, but I think they're either too much of a niche or they're still emerging (although one could argue that Brazilian rodizio, which I find as the PINNACLE of dining experiences, has already hit the mainstream in a big way). Either way, what's going to follow would apply to those too.

How to Defeat Them

There's no worse feeling in the world when it comes to a buffet than taking one plate and then being full right after. It's almost like you're Jim from American Pie in the infamous bedroom webcam scene with Nadia. Whether it's the dregs of society like Old Country Buffet or a smorgasbord touched by the hand of God Himself like at the Bellagio in Vegas, you need to have a strategy to maximize your sampling and getting your money's worth. Here's my plan:

Exercise beforehand - It's not enough just to go to a buffet hungry. Your body doesn't have a quota of food for the day. The volume of your combined digestive tract plus your body's metabolism (i.e. how much room you have and how fast your body can clear out said room) are what will determine how much of a buffet you can put away. We all know how you can temper the former, but what about the latter? How do we make sure our metabolism is working hard enough so that it can clear out room our bellies and intestines?

The best way to do that is by having a rigorous workout. There's a reason why Michael Phelps eats the MASSIVE amounts of food while he's training, and it's not because of the pot he allegedly smokes. He needs 12,000 calories in order to maintain his muscular frame. Granted, you're not going to swim the amount of laps he does, but you're also not going to put away 12,000 calories at a single sitting either (to be fair, neither does he). Still, exercise revs up the internal engine, and creates a larger caloric demand, which you can conveniently fill by going for seconds, thirds and fourths.

Drink coffee/caffeinated tea and add some spice - Caffeine and capsacin (the compound that makes spicy foods spicy) are two proven compounds that help boost metabolism. Granted, the shot you get from each pales in comparison to that you get from actual movement and strain, but hey, you should take any advantage you can get, right? There is one big caveat, however. You should get your caffeine through black coffee or non-decaf teas. Drinking soda defeats the purpose because you're intaking calories along with the caffeine (although there are studies that suggest high-fructose corn syrup suppresses the enzyme that makes your body feel full, but I'm trying to help you enjoy a buffet, not turn you into a foie gras-yielding goose). This is most easily done at brunch or at a Chinese buffet, but I say screw it, if you're at any other style buffet, fight the shame you think you'll feel by looking like an old man and drink coffee while you're gorging.

Small samples! - Yeah, I know the mac 'n cheese or the spicy tuna roll or whatever may look fucking delicious, but the point of a buffet isn't to load up on one thing. It's to try everything and have a meal that makes you full but at the same time allows you to taste a bunch of different things at the same time. Pacing yourself is key. You don't wanna go and load up a giant salad to start because that'll fill you up. In fact, unless you can get your roughage in a small dose, skip the salad altogether. You've been good the rest of the week with your fiber intake, one day of no raw vegetables won't kill you. The sheer number of options on a buffet should determine your sampling size. Obviously, the more items that look appealing to you, the smaller your portion size should be. And hey, no one said you couldn't go back for more if you still had room and liked a certain thing. Just don't load your first plate up like you've been wandering the desert and haven't eaten for days.

ETA: Except for bacon. Load up on bacon, because Christ, you can never have enough bacon. Ever. At all.

Avoid pizza - Obviously, this doesn't apply if you are at the Pizza Hut buffet, but unless that's the case, then really, what's the point? A lot of buffet pizzas are terrible, and the starch just weighs you down. I mean, why go for a subpar product when 95 times out of 100, the pastas, potatoes or other grains are so much better and probably lighter in a way too? You'd be better off just letting your corner pizzeria handle that duty.

How to Enjoy Them

Obviously, this is a FAR more subjective section than how to defeat a buffet, because everyone enjoys different things when it comes to their own senses. It's true in what we find beautiful or what we are sexually attracted to or what we find funny. That being said, I find that the buffet is best enjoyed when I find something on it that I didn't like before or never tried before and it turned out to be the best thing ever. I think that's the beauty of a good buffet; it has more than just your average comfort food on it. Hell, and even if it is only foods you've tried before, sometimes, there's a different spin on them, and you appreciate it in a different way.

My Favorite Buffet Items

Just for posterity, I'm going to throw out some of the best items I've ever had on a buffet. A lot of them are going to be local to Philadelphia, so I apologize in advance.

Mashed Potatoes at Miller's Smorgasbord, Ronks, PA - The Amish may shun electricity, fornication and the combustion engine, but boy, do they know how to eat. Amish people may not run Miller's, but their traditions are held fast in the kitchen. When you raise barns all day long, you HAVE to eat heartily at dinner time or else you'll be feeble and weak and not worth the shoe on a horse's hoof. So naturally, these potatoes aren't for the faint of heart. However, they are delicious. I imagine there are several sticks of butter that go into each hotel pan batch, and not only do they add to the flavor, but it enhances its creamy goodness to the point where you're eating probably the most soul-satisfyingly smooth potatoes you can get without venturing over the line to "whipped" potatoes. And really, as good as whipped potatoes are? It's cheating.

Calamari Salad at Chima Brazilian Steakhouse, Philadelphia, PA (locations in other cities) - Yes, Brazilian rodizio isn't the very definition of heaven on a plate because of the side dishes. I go to Chima because I fucking want meat, and lots of it. One time I went, I ate 10 different kinds of animal in one sitting. THAT'S HOW A MAN EATS GOD FUCKING DAMMIT. That being said, you'd be missing out if you didn't give their side dish bar a whirl, because there are some tasty dishes up there that compliment the orgy of animal flesh that is dining at such an establishment. Then again, this side dish HAS animal flesh in it, just not a land-grazing one.

The thing about calamari is that taste isn't nearly as important as the texture. That's why people usually eat it fried, because it's a lot harder to fuck up than it is to cook it in any other way. So the fact that this salad isn't fried and the texture is pitch perfect on it makes it aces in my book. Plus it tastes really good.

Braised Beef Ravioli at Borgata Casino Buffet, Atlantic City, NJ - I mentioned this before, and I'll mention it again. Why? Because it combines two of the best things ever, slow-cooked meat and homemade pasta. Whatever executive chef came up with this idea should be given like five James Beard Awards, a Purple Heart and sexual favors from the celebrity of his or her choice. I swear to God, of all the things that are on this buffet, and believe me, it's a buffet that stretches along for at least 300 feet of pure food arrangement, this is the best by far, and it's not even close.

Soft Shell Crab Tempura Roll at Asian Fusion, Holmes, PA - This may be cheating since this technically isn't a "buffet". It's an "all you can eat sushi menu" which is different because you order off a sheet and you don't self-serve. But I think that's a very pedantic difference to hold up to, so I'm going to ignore it. Anyway, I've always been hesitant to eat soft shell crab because ewwwww you eat the shells too and they're not cleaned out? Gross. But it's not gross, actually. Again, this is where the "leap of faith" or trying shit that you never would have tried before comes into play. I ordered it, ate it and was like NOMNOMNOM and wanted it again. So perfect. Deep fried crab definitely kicks the ass of any other deep fried seafood you can get.

So that's basically it. When the spirit moves you go to a buffet, I hope this helps you not only enjoy it, but make it your bitch as well. Show restaurant proprietors that you can make them feel like they made a mistake giving you all you could eat without feeling like the kid from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory who ate the candy that made him turn all bloated and purple. That, my friends, is the best way to show food who's boss.

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