Dining out: The Roof and Chuck-A-Rama

Published: Friday, June 17 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

A confession: though I've reviewed them a couple times in my tenure as restaurant critic for the Deseret Morning News, I don't care much for buffets.

In general I find them uninteresting, with predictable but bland food, not much ambience and an emphasis on quantity over quality. (Note to buffet lovers: Of course I don't mean YOUR favorite place.)

In fact, in recent weeks I have been bemoaning the capacity crowds filling the parking lot of a new chain buffet that just opened near my home, while locally owned places with distinctive food go begging for customers.

I also often rant (my husband's word) about Chinese buffets. I can't understand why a person wouldn't just order from a good neighborhood place, such as Holladay's Mountain City or downtown's David's Kitchen, rather than put up with soggy sweet-and-sour, crunchy fried rice and lo mein that has been heat-lamped to the consistency of porridge — regardless of the all-you-can-eat policy.

My husband says I shouldn't be surprised because, to many people, the very predictability and emphasis on volume that I dislike in buffets is a major attraction. "It's only weirdos like you who want an adventure every time you eat at a restaurant," he said. "The other 80 percent of the population find something they like and stick with it."

I still don't really get it. But I decided to visit some local places to try to find out what it is that I'm missing. And to ensure the most unbiased point of view possible, I took along my brother Zach, who was visiting from Sugar Land, Texas.

Zach's practically never seen a buffet he doesn't like. Chinese buffets, American buffets, buffets of indeterminate ethnicity — he loves 'em all. "(Buffets are) all-you-can-eat, and some of them are good prices," he said. "You get to pick different foods that they cook. I've tried lots of them, and I liked almost all of them."

But the one he loves most of all, declaring it the best buffet in the whole country, is Utah's own Chuck-A-Rama, so that's where we started my buffet quest on a recent Saturday evening.

CHUCK-A-RAMA: Boy, is this place crowded. Unbelievably crowded. My husband and I, along with our kids and Zach, came fairly late for dinner, at almost 8 p.m., but there was a line to the door. And when we left, an hour later, the line was still there. However, the staff moves people through the line and to a table with impressive efficiency. And then you're free to wander the serving area, loading up plate after plate with a huge variety of food.

I realized several good things about Chuck-A-Rama on that trip. First, the fact that it's so crowded ensures that the food turns over quickly and is usually appropriately hot (or cold) and fresh. Second, kids just love the place. Ours were beside themselves at being allowed to fill their plates with things like plain spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, several kinds of Jell-O and "grape-el-sauce," their own mixture of applesauce and grapes.

Also, I've got to hand it to Chuck-A-Rama for having such Utah favorites as frog-eye salad, pickled beets and apple beer on the buffet line.

But I also had my first epiphany about why buffets and I are not a "good fit:" Even if the food's decent, I never eat enough. I had a salad plate consisting of a small mound of greens with dressing, a dollop of frog-eye salad, a scoop of diced pickled beets and a few slices of marinated cucumbers, while Zach quickly heaped his plate with seafood salad, frog-eye, Jell-O and a variety of fruits and veggies.