Saturday, 27 December 2008

Restaurant Review: Golden Corral

I'm on vacation through the end of the year. I planned to write a post about mashed potato casserole, but I wasn't happy with how the recipe turned out. Instead, I'll start things off with a ridiculous restaurant review. Enjoy.

That's right, I will review the Golden Corral. It's odd that we rarely read reviews of restaurants like this, perhaps it's because we've come to expect what the experience will be like: shitty. As someone who has tried to do better with their life and health I haven't had a chance to eat at a place like this in somewhere around a decade. On my recent trip to Fayetteville, NC (proof that military jobs are not necessarily a positive thing) I found my "opportunity."

Let us take a step back and provide some reason for this. Mostly, I want to give the back story because I feel guilty for eating at this establishment. I was in North Carolina visiting my sister-in-law. Her husband is in the Army, which subsequently means he is deployed in Iraq. She isn't left with a lot of money to feed their four children. Last time I visited I was able to control where we ate by offering to pay, this time I don't have the money to be so generous. 'Tis the season of giving, and I've given all I can. When we suggested an alternative, it was shot down. The choice was to dine at the Corral or dine separately. I begrudgingly accepted the former.

With our excuses - pardon, explanations - aside, we can focus on the experience. This is best described by the sign on the door: corral. It starts with the serpentine line at the entrance where they are kind enough to let you serve yourself a drink before you pay up front for your meal. From there you are set free to find a table and pick from the chum.

Everything is do-it-yourself, yet the freedom seems limited by available choices. You sit at the nearest table, lest your trips to the buffet be too long, or involve a collision with another hungry grazer. Each trip involves stopping to grab a plate, and probably some silverware. Fill with foodstuffs, sit, inhale, repeat.

The food was surprisingly good, for a buffet. As I said, my last trip to a buffet was somewhere around a decade ago. My future wife and I went to Ryan's "Steakhouse" in Dayton, OH. I walked in with pleasant memories of buffets from my childhood, I walked out hurt and confused because I didn't remember the food being so horrible. This buffet was better than that, though that isn't saying too much.

My first course was a salad. Normally these places have okay salad bars, and this was no exception. I was impressed that they had four choices for greens: the standard iceberg fare, romaine (presumably for ceasar salads), spring greens, and spinach. I'm not a big fan of iceberg for whatever reason but I love the other three so that's what I got, a mixture of all three. Throw on some broccoli and carrots, a little cheese, and some dressing and we have a decent basic salad. The ingredients were fresh and it tasted good.

The next course wasn't as great. I had a chicken leg that was pan fried with jalapeno peppers, boiled carrots, a baked potato, "bourbon street chicken," and a hush puppy. The chicken leg didn't have even a hint of spice in the finished product. So much for those peppers. The carrots were boiled to death and relatively flavorless, but my son liked them - he also just began walking. The baked potato was cold, though it was cooked through. It was the only thing I didn't finish on that plate. The hush puppy wasn't remarkable, I threw it on there because they are a rarity up north. The bourbon street chicken was the star of this course. It was the sort of sweet greasy mess that tastes great, even if you can feel yourself dying when you eat it.

It had a dark, redish brown sauce covering small pieces of dark chicken meat that are fork-tender. The initial bite is sweet and smokey, the sweetness lingers and a richness from the fat kicks in. Everything goes down easy and I was instantly hooked. This was the only item I had a second serving of. (Off my wife's plate, thanks!)

Finally, there was desert. It was as I remembered. Cheap cookies, cake, and pies with the ever popular soft-serve ice cream. My niece had gummy bears in her soft-serve. I choked back the disgust at that thought and made myself a plate. A spoon of banana pudding, piece of no sugar added blueberry pie, and somewhere around a scoop of vanilla soft-serve. The pudding was terrible. The banana was too thin and the vanilla wafers in it were basically liquefied. The soft-serve was soft-serve, how can you go wrong with everything comes out of a box? The pie wasn't anything to write home about, but it wasn't too bad. No sugar added means that you could actually taste the blueberries. I couldn't finish the pie, I'd had too much by then.

One thing struck me as exceptionally odd about the Corral, they have servers to bring you your drink. Soda machines are incredibly easy to use, and they are at least no less hygienic than the rest of the buffet. Why pay people to walk around and refill drinks instead of just putting another station at the buffet? I realize that someone has to collect dirty plates, it's just an odd accompaniment to all of that self-service. Anyway, I left our server a generous tip for putting up with the five kids at the table. We didn't pay for 4 of the kids, they were young enough to eat for free, so it worked out to about a 30% tip for getting us drinks. I think she earned it.

Now I'm left to ponder this. I felt dirty eating there. I don't know if it was guilt because I enjoyed some of the slop, even though I knew it was horrible for me. Perhaps I've become a snob and I think I'm better than those that eat there. I like to think that isn't the case, but we are poor judges of ourselves. I'm not worse for this trip, certainly nothing a few days at the gym couldn't cure. I think what's eating me is that the money spent at this place could have gone towards cooking a truly good meal at home. I hope to make that the subject of my next post.

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