Before one high school Homecoming Dance, my friend Tanner and I convinced our remarkably patient dates to accompany us to China King, an all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant. We figured there was no better preparation for a late night of furious dancing than endless plates of General Tsao’s Chicken and Crab Cheese Wontons. This ended up not being true, though the results were less catastrophic than our other double-date to Casa Bonita.
Hoikkaido Seafood Buffet, located at 4598 Brown’s Hill Road in Pittsburgh, is a step up from the heat lamps of China King (and the sub-Taco Bell gruel of Casa Bonita). Its variety of food is pretty impressive, offering dishes like octopus salad, kim chi, and stuffed pork buns, as well as the legally-mandated staples of sweet and sour chicken, lo mein noodles, and pizza. Most of it isn’t bad, either.
But I’m less infatuated with Hoikkaido than I was with China King seven years ago.* I think that mostly has to do with my age; the older I get, the less pumped I am about endless tables of greasy food. Based on the number of elderly people at the average buffet, though, I suspect this will flip at a certain point in my life, as shown in the projection below:
It wasn’t the atmosphere that turned me off. Hoikkaido’s cafeteria-style table arrangement makes the restaurant packed and noisy, but with buffets, this sort of high energy is way better than the alternative. Nor did I mind the background music, which was 100% cheesy pop ballads. A restaurant that serves both seaweed salad and corn dogs is a restaurant that shouldn’t take itself too seriously, and the overwrought soundtrack made the naturally ludicrous aspects of the restaurant all the funnier.
It’s the food I mind. No, not even the food…the economic value behind the food. As I said earlier, nothing I ate was unpleasant. I enjoyed the sushi and had a really good time sampling various appetizer-style items. But the price for entry is eighteen dollars, plus 20% tip for waiters who bring water (and scan your plates to make sure you don’t take food you can’t eat, a sin for which there is an $8 charge). For over twenty dollars, I want tastes that really pop,** and ideally some extra food to bring home in a doggy bag.
This may sound strange to friends who frequent more expensive restaurants than I do. In New York City, for example, $20 is the average price of most vending machine items.*** But I am not a rich dude, and it pains me to part with my pennies. In Pittsburgh, this hasn’t been a problem, as I’ve found some high-quality, inexpensive places. $20 is more than I’ve spent anywhere else, more than I spent on fresher, spicier sushi in Squirrel Hill, or bolder, richer noodle dishes at Bangkok Balcony (a bit apples and oranges, that last comparison, but I’ve honestly don’t go out to eat ALL that often, and I’m running out of restaurants I’ve been to).
But how could a restaurant that serves everything possibly compete dish-to-dish with restaurants that specialize, you ask? Well, it can’t, and that’s the inherent problem with buffets. Financially, I’m sure they can’t put the price tag any lower, thanks to their wide variety of dishes, some costly (all those crab legs, though spindly and served with fake butter, can’t be cheap). But buffets doesn’t really make financial sense to someone like me either, for whom non-Dollar-Menu-orders are still a major splurge.
Buffets with friends are a lot of fun, of course. And buffets are good for scouting unfamiliar foods; over the course of the evening, I learned I don’t like shark, while a housemate learned he doesn’t like kim chi. But rather than being in a hurry to go back, I’m planning to use that information for the next time I order off a menu, thanks. And if I just want to gorge myself, well, there’s always Casa Bonita.
* Seven YEARS ago?? Holy crap, I’m getting old.
**And snap, and crackle.
***Source: Sarah Palin’s Alaska.