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.
But the tables are deceptive. Though almost everything looks good, it rarely pays off in the taste department. On Thursday nights, The Buffet offers bacon-wrapped filet mignon, which sounds like a sensational deal until the meat is brought to the serving area on a big platter, all prepared in two temperatures: well-done and almost well-done.
My friend Barbara, a gambling devotee, took a few bites of her filet and pushed it away, grumbling that it was dry and flavorless. "What a waste of a steak," she muttered.
Mine at least had a faint blush of pink at the center, but it was so chewy and tough that I gave up on it, too. I'd already spat out a chunk of swordfish in pesto sauce that was as sour as a lemon drop. I was, however, able to enjoy a moist if bland slab of baked salmon.
"Is there a sauce to go with the salmon?" I had asked the woman in the starched white jacket at the serving station. She sneered and pointed to a bowl of red cocktail sauce. "Use that if you want," she said. I didn't.
Barbara's daughter Jennifer had wandered indifferently through the quartet of serving areas and returned with a plastic plate from Chinatown. She seemed especially intrigued by the little fried wonton purses called Thai Money Bags.
"In Thailand they're called Tung Tong and usually filled with minced chicken or pork," I said brightly. Jennifer took a bite and shot me an odd look. "What the hell are these filled with?" she sputtered. "Bean dip?"
I took one of the crunchy balls from her plate and bit into it. The tasteless, colorless goo might indeed have been refried beans. In fact, few of the so-called ethnic dishes bear any resemblance to traditional foreign fare. At Viva Mexico, for example, there's a cheesy glop labeled "Enchilada Pie" and, in another vat, chopped chicken in a cornstarch-based sweet-and-sour sauce with onion, green pepper and pineapple rings called "Guatemalan Chicken."
I later described that offbeat dish -- which tasted vile -- to my Guatemalan-born friend Carmen, who said she'd never heard of such a thing. As an Italian-American, I had certainly never tasted meatballs as spongy as the marble-sized polpetta drenched in watery tomato sauce at Mama Mia's, where I could also get slices of six different pizza pies, including one topped with that popular Italian combination, chopped ham and canned pineapple.
My friend Bob, who usually adores buffets of any kind, found fault with everything he sampled here, particularly the small fried shrimp breaded in thick, chewy batter. He was equally scornful of the grayish guacamole at Viva Mexico and the barely defrosted little shrimp on the salad bar.
"This place, makes the Old Country Buffet look like the Peppercorn Duck Club," he said.
Jennifer was even more caustic. After pushing aside her Chinese fare, she returned with a plate of chilled melon cubes and boiled new potatoes.
"You can't fuck up a new potato," she said.
You can't do much damage to sweets and pastries, either, which is why the sumptuously outfitted dessert area is a safe bet if you want to linger over a cup of the restaurant's incredibly bitter coffee. Jell-O cubes haven't gone out of style at The Buffet, but only the sugar-free version is prepared free of canned fruit cocktail. The sugar-free chocolate-cream pie tastes chalky, but it's still an improvement over the taste-free, dry chocolate iced brownies.
However, a moist and flavorful pineapple upside-down cake had a delectable caramelized pineapple crust. A fluffy cheesecake topped with a layer of jam was also lovely. Barbara buried a swirl of soft-serve ice cream under layers of hot fudge, chopped cookies and candy, sparking enough of a sugar buzz that she was soon panting to visit the clanging slot machines. We followed her out, noting that a long line of customers -- many with comp dinner passes -- were waiting to get into the restaurant.
"Do you think the food tastes better if you don't have to pay for it?" asked Jennifer.
"No," I said. "But it doesn't taste worse."