The Buffet at Ameristar Casino isn't worth the gamble.

Crap Shoot 

The Buffet at Ameristar Casino isn't worth the gamble.

Over the years, I've taken a lot of big gambles: on career choices, romances, moves to different cities, on used cars, second-hand Armani suits and fair-weather friends. Some paid off, and some were such disasters that I'm still feeling the repercussions. But when it comes to the local casinos, my luck has always been lousy. Still, I've had plenty of fun losing all that money. Too much fun, maybe, because among my New Year's resolutions was "Stay away from the slot machines" (right under "Stay away from Twix bars" and "Exercise once a month").

I'm thinking of adding another: "No more gambles on casino buffets." Not that I haven't had some lively meals at these jackpots of cheap eats. One night when I was in a deep funk, some friends took me to the old Feast Around the World Buffet at the gilded, rococo monstrosity formerly known as the Station Casino. The food was plentiful if not memorable, but I did enjoy watching a parade of lacquered beehive hairdos, frizzy mullets, four-letter tattoos on bulging biceps and bosomy blondes teetering across the tile floors on 5-inch heels, awkwardly balancing china plates loaded with enough fried chicken and mashed potatoes to feed a family of six.

I used to wonder if the producers of The Jerry Springer Show culled potential guests from the buffet's dining room; the patrons ran the gamut from uptight, expensively attired suburbanites to snaggletoothed yee-haws. One night I watched a nasty family feud at a nearby table. A sloppy Barney Rubble look-alike threatened his frail mother-in-law, saying, "How'd you like me to stick my cigarette in your eye?" She dropped her fork and answered, "I hope Jesus is hearing all this!"

If he wasn't, maybe Cupid was. "If you're into fat men, as I am, the Feast Around the World was a chubby chaser's paradise," confesses my friend Lenore, who has met several obese boyfriends at the salad bar by pretending to drop a roll in front of the crab-and-macaroni salad. "If they stopped and picked it up for me, they were usually interested. If they just kept sticking cold shrimp in their mouths and ignored me, it meant they were married. Or living with their mothers."

Yes, there could be as many games in the dining room as out on the floor. But when the Station was reincarnated as one of the Las Vegas-based Ameristar Casino properties (the company also owns gambling boats in St. Charles, Missouri; and Council Bluffs, Iowa), the tongue-twisting Feast Around the World Buffet was hacked down to simply The Buffet.

But the name change seems to be the only significant renovation. The food isn't any better, and the spacious dining area looks no different. The five serving stations are still called Mama Mia's, Viva Mexico, Farmers' Market, KC Country Barbecue and Chinatown. They're kept tidy and well-stocked, as are the two long salad bars that feature the sort of prepared dishes you see on picnic tables or at church socials -- ambrosia salad, potato salad, cole slaw, all of it extra creamy with mayo.

What better salads to accompany the fare at the Farmers' Market and barbecue stations: greasy fried chicken or a breast of barbecued bird (once so undercooked it nearly pecked me), hulky but tough ribs slathered in sugary sauce, soggy corn cobettes floating in a milky broth, mashed potatoes that tasted like wallpaper paste, and, mercifully, luscious baked macaroni and cheese.

That wasn't the only tasty item I stumbled upon. The pulled-pork barbecue on a yeasty roll made a wonderful sandwich, and I discovered some silken pillows of ricotta-stuffed ravioli in a sultry pesto cream.

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