American Buffets: In Defense of Gluttony Golden Hometown Family Stockade

by Greg Beets Golden Corral

9710 N. Lamar, 834-9911;

3607 S. Lamar, 442-3472

Ryan's Family Steakhouse

1813 W. Parmer, 835-9663

Sirloin Stockade

5607 N. Lamar, 451-5357; 8828 Research, 453-1075; 1723 N. I-35, 218-8600

HomeTown Buffet

2500 W. Parmer, 388-0004 It all goes back to that first Thanksgiving dinner, the one the Pilgrims invited the Indians to before killing them: the United States was founded on big, ugly appetites. These Puritans of Fortune saw an opportunity to regentrify the so-called New World in their own chosen image. And while their dogma was one of do-unto-others, their M.O. was to take everything they could and feel guilty later, when guilt no longer mattered.

Sadly, you can't just go out and bum-rush a piece of land these days. However, you can recapture some of the imperialist glory of our past simply by going to your nearest American food buffet. What is American food? It's whatever Americans say it is! An American Buffet spread could feature anything from tacos to egg rolls to salisbury steak. You could call it a giant melting pot, so I will.

The food at American Buffets is never great, nor is it pretty, but there is a lot of it. The fact that we have 96 food choices spread before us is way more important than the fact that 81 go untouched. We certainly don't need to have 96 choices of anything, but if we can get it all for $4.79 (gratuity not included), why the hell not?

While the inherent wastefulness of such a system may seem obscene to outsiders, the pursuit of value is the glue that holds us in bondage together as a society. Value makes us feel productive without actually working and it offers immediate gratification in the form of pennies saved and pennies earned. Sure, it's a pathetic grasp of a reward, but value is as close to the American Dream as most of us are likely to get, so if you don't eat more than your money's worth, you should be ashamed of yourself.

In Austin, four establishments dominate the American Buffet playing field. Golden Corral, Sirloin Stockade, Ryan's Family Steak House, and HomeTown Buffet are almost interchangable in their food service vision. All four restaurants dish out a big slice of American Buffet earmarks, including:

*A rotating menu consisting of 3-6 meats such as fried chicken, meatballs, ham, and the generic "fried fish."

*A cornucopia of vegetables that taste just like canned.

*Salad bars where iceburg lettuce and ranch dressing are king and queen.

*A choice of 2-4 soups devoid of flavor except for salt.

*Endless refills on soft drinks

*An in-house bakery that pumps out big, fresh dinner rolls and soft, warm cookies, just like the ones your mother was supposed to make.

*A soft-serve ice cream machine and toppings bar pawed incessantly by loose children.

Much like the Christian Coalition, many of these restaurants revel in exploiting a nostalgic image of The American Way to satisfy their own economic ends. Not surprisingly, the word "family" is bandied about like an overcooked, butter-drenched carrot on a stick, but some marketing ploys go much deeper. According to a table tent from HomeTown Buffet, owner C. Dennis Scott wants his restaurant to embody "the value of hard work, the spirit and love of the family... and the quiet, gentle strength of hometown pride." Similarly, Golden Corral's company beliefs (spelled out in a management recruitment brochure) include the promotion of "strong work ethics," "the free enterprise system and private ownership," and, of course, remembering "to give thanks to God for the opportunities given to us." While such values may be hard to swallow for some, the food values offered by American Buffets make it all go down easy. After all, who needs freedom of speech when your mouth is full?

In terms of both quality and choice, Golden Corral's "Golden Choice Buffet" is the hands-down victor among American Buffets in Austin. They were the first of the so-called "family steak houses" in town to expand a glorified salad bar into a bona fide buffet with the potential to be a meal unto itself. They were also the first to have a carving station on evenings and Sundays with plenty of roast beef, turkey, and ham for the minions. In addition to the daily meat choices, Golden Corral always has spaghetti, pizza, and cocktail tacos. I also like Golden Corral because a lot of the servers there can tell whether you're drinking Coke or Dr. Pepper on sight.

Ryan's Family Steak House comes close to the Corral in terms of choice, but suffers a bit quality-wise. To be fair, it was seafood day, which is not the easiest thing to pull off on a buffet. Surprisingly, the seafood creole was only five or six shots of Tabasco short of respectable, but there was no excuse for the cold peel-and-eat shrimp to be right next to fish illuminated by heat lamps. In addition, the iceburg lettuce in the salad bar was wilting from neglect. I'll go back, but only if I'm in the neighborhood.

Sirloin Stockade is the stalwart veteran of Austin family steak houses. Unfortunately, their role has been one of catch-up ever since Golden Corral opened. While they have added an in-house bakery and carving station in the past few years, Sirloin Stockade's facilities aren't built to handle the full-court press of a true American Buffet. As a result, food choices are limited. However, Sirloin Stockade does offer the best deal in town on steak 'n' buffet combinations. You can often get a five-ounce cut with the buffet for just a dollar or so more added to the price.

HomeTown Buffet is the only American Buffet in town not birthed by a steak house. Therefore, the buffet has the full and undivided attention of the entire staff, resulting in fresher food and better presentation. The selection is similar to that of Golden Corral's, with the exception of curve balls like cheese toast and sausage patties with sweet and sour sauce. HomeTown Buffet also has a mascot named H.T. Bee who waddles about the restaurant, wooing children and adults alike with stinging charm. It's almost enough to get your mind off the Norman Rockwell paintings staring at you from every angle like a suburban chamber of horrors.

Let's face it. As our society of consensus falls prey to greed and fanaticism, for better or worse, the American Dream bleeds. The American Buffet may well be the last thing we can all agree on. It is a culinary version of Jesse Jackson's Common Ground: food that no one loves, but no one really hates, either. Maybe we can all get along! n

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