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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.