|Something sweet and jiggly, please|
The manager of the restaurant -- which is the new prototype for this North Carolina-based buffet-and-grill chain -- told me that the well-laden dessert station in the restaurant, called the Brass Bell Bakery, always offers a selection of sugar-free gelatin cubes along with the pies, cakes, cookies, soft-serve ice cream, two kinds of fruit cobblers, very good bread-pudding and old-fashioned banana pudding made with vanilla wafer cookies.
I had never been to a Golden Corral, assuming it was one of those dumpy, 1980s-style cheap steakhouses like a Ponderosa or a Bonanza (or a Ryan's Grill & Buffet, which still seem to be doing a beefy business out in the suburbs). Actually, the Northland's Golden Corral has more in common with the casino buffets -- but without the pungent aroma of cigarette smoke and the clanging bells and sound effects from the slot machines.
"The customers aren't as fat as the casino buffet crowd," said my friend Truman after we walked into the dining room. "But they're a lot older."
True, the demographic skews heavily geriatric in the early evening, particularly between the hours of 2 and 4 p.m., when senior citizens can eat for $5.99. (You have to be over 60 to get the special price, but Truman looks older than he is so he conned his way into the discount.) The dining room had more than a few patrons in wheelchairs or carting oxygen tanks behind them as they piled up plates with macaroni and cheese, fried catfish, meatloaf, fudge brownies and Jell-O cubes.
Truman and Bob didn't care much for the featured baby back ribs -- which the company is heavily advertising -- but thought the cooked-to-order steak and smoked brisket (available only during the dinner hours) was very good. "And you can't beat the prices," he said. "All you can eat for less than $12."
Like all buffet operations, not everything on the hot line was tasty -- the "ethnic" cuisine, including Chinese dishes, dried-out pizza and a make-your-own-tacos station, was pretty frightening -- but the basic home-style fare was great: pot roast, fried chicken, collard greens, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, baked spuds, barbecued chicken and rotisserie chicken. And Jell-O cubes for dessert, baby. Just like Grandma used to make.