Cafe Reviews

Second Helpings

Buffeted: Why are budget-priced, all-you-can-eat buffets so popular? That's easy. Most folks think they can beat the house, eating more than the cost of the meal. You can recognize these customers right away: They're the ones balancing a mountain of shrimp on two plates as they waddle to their table.

A new buffet restaurant chain has made its way to the Valley. Empress Super Buffet & Bar, a Canadian operation with branches in Toronto and Montreal, recently opened just south of Christown Mall. It puts out Chinese food, more than 150 items, and it claims to be the biggest buffet spread in town.

I didn't count each item I saw here, but 150 seems about right. There's quite a variety of choices, that's for sure. I just wish that more than four or five of them were palatable.

What's here? There are four kinds of soup--hot and sour, chicken noodle, won ton and cabbage. None had the remotest distinction. A couple of them tasted "off."

There's a small salad bar, with the usual greenery suspects, that I skipped over. Instead, I wasted belly room on some dull cold shrimp. If you're looking for seafood, drop your line in the surprisingly tasty mussels instead.

Tough, meaty spareribs and oily, odd-tasting egg rolls won't enhance your appreciation of Chinese food. Skewered beef and dried-out pieces of bone-filled salmon also won't set any hearts racing. If you're going to do any pre-entree nibbling, fill up your plate with sushi veggie rolls. They're not in the class of anything you'd get at a Japanese restaurant--more like what you'd get at a Japanese fast-food outlet. But they are fresh.

The entrees are disappointing. How can so many chafing trays deliver so little? Soggy nuggets of deep-fried pork, chicken and beef tasted as if they'd been languishing under the heat lamps. I couldn't tell one from the others when I ate them. Puffy, batter-draped fish and krab held no interest. Monk's Delight, a vegetarian option, didn't taste right. The beef curry looked scary. The fried rice was strictly institutional.

Only the noodle dishes showed some spunk. Chow fun, thick rice noodles flecked with beef, actually had some Chinese flair. Mildly curried Singapore noodles and lo mein also went down easy.

Desserts? There's fresh fruit, some tired-looking pastries and ice cream.
Dinner runs $8.75, plus tax, and includes a nonalcoholic soft drink or hot beverage. Empress Super Buffet & Bar is at 5645 North 19th Avenue, and it's open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. Call 995-2223.

Restaurant News: Tim Peelen and Joe Johnston founded Coffee Plantation back in the late 1980s. It was the perfect moment. The enterprise flourished, and they sold it in 1993.

Now, the duo is back, but not in the coffee biz. This time, it's barbecue. And in Gilbert.

Joe's Real BBQ opened a few weeks ago. The partners promise pecan-wood-smoked ribs and high-quality, homemade side dishes. I'll be there soon. If you want to check it out before I do, it's at 301 North Gilbert Road. Call 503-3805.

--Howard Seftel

Suggestions? Write me at [email protected] or New Times, P.O. Box 2510, Phoenix,

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Howard Seftel