Buffet the Appetite Slayer

Mr. Tokyo, 5965 West Ray Road, Chandler, 940-8999. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Back in the 1970s, my wife and I were Peace Corps volunteers, teaching in a dirt-poor West African village. One of our students was really special, a gifted, hardworking kid who loved learning English. We promised him that if we ever had enough money, we'd bring him to America for a visit. At the time it seemed like an empty promise. By the end of our three-year Peace Corps stint, we had a five-figure bank account. Unfortunately, two of the numbers were to the right of the decimal point.

A few years later, however, we found ourselves running a temporary budget surplus. So we flew Moulaye over, borrowed my in-laws' car and set off on a six-week tour of America.

As you might imagine, our guest maintained a state of almost perpetual astonishment. Once he ran screaming into the house, warning us about a deadly green mamba snake coiled in the backyard. It turned out he'd spotted the garden hose. He was fascinated by straws--your lips never touched the glass, he marveled. We took him to the Voice of America studio in Washington, D.C., where a friendly announcer gave him the chance to broadcast greetings to friends and family listening half a world away, on the edge of the Sahara Desert.

America was teeming with wonders--he admired Manhattan's skyscrapers, Niagara Falls, paved roads, the absence of flies. But nothing, absolutely nothing, inspired more stupefied, open-mouthed wonder in our visitor than the all-you-can-eat restaurant.

Moulaye could scarcely grasp the concept. Back home, most of the villagers spent each day plotting where their next meal might come from. "You mean everyone can eat as much as they want?" he asked, scanning the dozens of dishes set out at one buffet stop. That's it exactly, we told him. He stared at the tables of plenty, thinking the idea through. Finally, he said: "You couldn't have this restaurant in Senegal. It wouldn't make money. People would eat until they burst and died."

It's not only hungry Africans who, tempted by unlimited bounty, might eat until they burst and died. During my recent foray into all-you-can-eat land, I saw plenty of otherwise well-fed Americans who also found it hard to resist temptation.

Why do people flock to all-you-can-eat restaurants? Price and quantity are the two essential components of the formula. Where else can you get such a low-cost fill-up? But, I wondered, where does quality factor in the equation?

At Mr. Tokyo, a new Chandler buffet, the quality factors in a lot higher than I had dared to anticipate. Now, no one will confuse the self-service, Americanized Japanese dishes here with the fare you'd find at most full-service Valley Asian restaurants. But for the most part, the food is fresh and tasty. And the $10.99 dinner tag--the price includes unlimited sushi and soft drinks--does nothing to diminish Mr. Tokyo's charms.

The proprietor changed concepts from fast-food parlor to all-you-can-eat buffet a few months ago. The move seems to have paid off--on a recent visit, I had plenty of dining company.

This shopping-center storefront isn't going to wow anyone with its looks, but the place is clean, tidy and brightly lit. The principal decor motif is a long mirror on the side wall. If you like to read while you eat, check out the stack of Japanese newspapers. If you prefer to listen to music, piped-in light rock furnishes aural diversion. You'll have to make do with plastic plates, forks, knives and chopsticks. But, let's face it, no one here is expecting fine china or sterling silver cutlery.

And with Mr. Tokyo's sushi, who needs them? If professional duty hadn't obliged me to eat my way through the rest of the lineup, I'd have rooted myself in the sushi section. There's quite a variety, and something fresh was always on its way out of the kitchen. Over the course of an hour, I snagged salmon, mackerel, snapper, roe, California rolls, tofu pouches, and yummy tuna and sea urchin hand rolls.

Normally, there's enough grease in buffet fried foods to lubricate the entire field of the Indianapolis 500. Mr. Tokyo keeps the oil levels low, so the munchies stay crisp, not soggy. Battered veggies--calling them tempura might be a bit of a stretch--are a good option. Dip onion, zucchini, red pepper and sweet potato in soy sauce, and crunch away. Pan-fried gyoza, doughy meat dumplings, don't have the stale, sitting-under-the-tanning-lamp-forever taste that afflicts inferior models. And while the chicken nuggets and egg rolls had little going for them, the crab puffs tasted like they'd just jumped out of the fryer.

But crab puffs aren't the best way to get crab. Make your way over to the pile of steamed crab legs. I don't see how Mr. Tokyo makes money offering this, unless he hijacked a crab truck.

The main dishes aren't very creative, but the execution occasionally goes beyond the chafing-tray setting. That's the case with the sukiyaki, reasonably tender strips of beef tossed with napa cabbage in a mild sauce. If you like your chicken sweet, ladle out the teriyaki chicken. I preferred the garlic chicken, which had more flavor oomph than I expected. On the other hand, the so-called spicy chicken had no flavor whatsoever. And while the deep-fried, sweet-and-sour chicken definitely had a sweet-and-sour flavor, it's a flavor that most discerning palates will, after a couple of bites, opt to avoid.

If you're into healthy or vegetarian eating, Mr. Tokyo's has limited appeal. Sauteed green beans probably still pack a few residual nutrients. But otherwise, you'll need to bring your own multivitamins. I'm surprised there wasn't more in the way of veggies, particularly steamed veggies that you could toss over rice or noodles. They'd give customers one more reason to come here. (The small salad bar, with greenery, tomatoes and cheese, certainly isn't the solution.)

Two other quibbles: Where's the white rice? I didn't see anything except fried rice. And why not identify the dishes? It's a pain in the neck to point and ask the guy behind the counter "What's this?" a dozen times.

The dessert section lived down to my expectations. It was partially redeemed by some fresh fruit, but I couldn't get worked up over the Jell-O or nondescript cookies and cake.

What would Moulaye have said about Mr. Tokyo? I don't know. But I don't think it would have been "Sayonara."

Great Goody's Buffet, 2984 North Alma School, Chandler, 857-9300. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 4:30 to 8:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4:30 to 9:30 p.m.

What would Moulaye have said about Great Goody's Buffet? "Mangi dem" comes to mind. It's Wolof, his native tongue, for "I'm outta here." If you've ever wondered why all-you-can-eat places are held in such low culinary esteem, a visit here will make it painfully clear.

The bad vibes begin before you make the buffet table rounds. This place looks more like a warehouse than a restaurant, cavernous and forlorn. When it's almost empty, too, as it was during my dinner trip, it's depressing, as well. The loud radio, tuned to K-Lite, didn't improve my mood, either.

If price and quantity are what turn you on, you may have to be hosed down. Great Goody's is as well-stocked as any Las Vegas buffet, with rows and rows of Asian-themed fare heaped in chafing dishes. And the $8.65 dinner tag, which includes beverage, isn't that much more than you'd pay for a fast-food meal.

Too bad no one is paying any attention to quality. This is some of the most unappetizing stuff I've had to endure in quite some time--unappetizing looking, unappetizing tasting and unappetizing to contemplate, even in retrospect.

Take the sushi--please. Whether you're looking for variety or Japanese artistry, you've come to the wrong place. The kitchen sends out just two kinds, a California roll and molded rice topped with "krab." Both are hopeless.

The deep-fried section is equally unimpressive. Everything is battered, and abused. Greasy egg rolls, sitting-around-too-long "tempura" and scary pellets of deep-fried pork are not the stuff gastronomic dreams are made of.

There's nothing dreamy about the main dishes, either. The principal difference between the lemon chicken and orange chicken is color--the former is yellowish, while the latter sports an orange tinge. Certainly, if you closed your eyes, you couldn't taste the difference, or much of anything, for that matter.

That's also the case with the Mongolian beef and pepper steak, whose differences were way too subtle for me to detect. As for the beef itself, it was quite tender, and quite flavorless.

Kung pao chicken and almond chicken are thoroughly institutional, two dishes you'd walk right past if they showed up in your employee cafeteria. Curried chicken also had a major case of the blands. The only entree with any sort of character was ma po tofu, bean curd perked up with a spicy sauce.

Like Mr. Tokyo, Great Goody's also offers crab legs. But these limbs were so unappealingly strewn on the buffet counter that I wanted no part of them. And, after one bite, I wanted no part of the baked mussels, which seemed spoiled.

Although age is revered in Asian cultures, it has limited culinary application. Several dishes tasted as if they'd been prepared during the Ming dynasty. Leathery green beans in black bean sauce had no redeeming features. And the chow mein and Singapore noodles simply tasted old.

Sure, you can eat all you want at Great Goody's Buffet. I just wonder why anyone would want to.

Mr. Tokyo:
Dinner buffet

Great Goody's Buffet:
Dinner buffet



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