Asian super buffets in Tampa Bay: There's an art to the meal

Two hundred items. That's two with two zeros. How many of those have to be great, or even edible, to make an Asian buffet a SUPER buffet? Teppanyaki Grill & Supreme Buffet opened in May in the former Social Security office in St. Petersburg: 18,000 square feet, 15 buffet lines, more than 200 items.

It's arms escalation. One buffet has 150 items, and the next one has 180. One buffet puts "Mega" in its name, and the next one is "Super Monster." To put it in perspective, the revamped $17 million buffet at Caesars Palace opened last year with 524 menu items. Let's say you chew and swallow a bite in 15 seconds. It would take over two hours to try all those, even with minions retrieving dishes and feeding you.

But that's Vegas. Everything is over the top there — it's not enough to have a topless vampire show, it has to be a topless vampire rock 'n' roll revue. Here in the Tampa Bay area, surely the super buffets are more demure?

A visit to the Teppanyaki Grill & Supreme Buffet (supreme? is that two levels above super or just one?) prompted more exploration. One in Carrollwood, another in South Tampa, one in Clearwater — things quickly became clear to me.

There's a formula for these buffets, certain dishes you'll see on an Asian super buffet that do not exist in nature. There is something called cheese mussel (yes, often no plural), baked mussels with a mantle of creamy cheese sauce, which most Asian food fans would find perplexing elsewhere. There are no knives at super buffets, and chopsticks are offered only by sushi displays. There are always crystal chandeliers and mayo-glooped seafood salad. Next to the sweet-and-sour chicken you will find sugar-dusted doughnuts, every time. And there is Jell-O. Oh, man, is there Jell-O.

I powered through Tampa Bay's Asian super buffets so you don't have to. Here's the good, the bad and, occasionally, the mystifying.

Teppanyaki Grill & Supreme Buffet

391 34th St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 327-8886

Lunch buffet $6.99, dinner buffet $9.49

11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Overall: It's new, but not gorgeous. The building exterior is pretty sketchy, and the vestibule with its fountain and ornate plantings is blemished by yellow "caution, wet floor" cones. Servers are pleasant enough, but not exactly vigilant about getting drinks refreshed in the 500-seat room.

Best dish: The frog legs rock. Of course, if you shudder at those words it will mean nothing that they are fried crisp, nicely salt-and-pepper seasoned, juicy inside. Also, the Szechwan green beans are good, the dry-frying making them tender, and with a big garlic wallop.

Weakest link: Canned peaches in syrup do not a restaurant dessert make. Just saying. This place has lots of puddings, ho-hum fresh and canned fruit, and amateurish non-Asian options (frozen pizza, huge kielbasa links).

Crazy Buffet

2702 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; (813) 998-9228

Lunch buffet $9.99, brunch $15.99, dinner $17.99

11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Overall: For food quality, this is the one to beat, not surprising given that it's the most expensive and it has been around for years. The interior is more intimate and well decorated than most, and while the offerings aren't as vast as some of the others, the quality is fairly high. Servers are good, but they will sometimes give you the stink-eye if they think you're leaving too much food on your plates.

Best dish: There's a guy whose job it is to pick over the carcasses of roasted ducks, neatly setting aside the meat, plush fat and burnished skin so you can then scoop it onto crepes or white buns with hoisin, scallion curls and a little mushu veggies if you're feeling saucy. Still, the salt crab on the weekends is worth the price of admission, an exuberantly messy dish that leaves you licking your fingers and vigilant for when the tray gets replenished.

Weakest link: There's a lot of sushi range here (the wasabi mound alone reminds me of a scene from Close Encounters), but too many rolls lean heavily on cream cheese. Teppanyaki setups (you choose your raw veggies and protein and they grill it on a flattop) are solid, but on my visit the teppanyaki guy commingled my stuff with another guest's — not good if you have dietary prohibitions.

Lin's Hibachi Buffet

13151 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; (813) 960-8668

Lunch buffet $7.99, dinner Monday to Thursday $12.99, Friday to Sunday $13.99, Sunday brunch $9.99

11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, 4 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, until 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Overall: It was like a sick experiment. How many times can you make people listen to a jazzy-sax version of Don't Cry for Me Argentina before they go mad? Lin's soundtrack consisted of five sax-jazzy songs in rotation. The dining room is no-frills (but yup, there's a big chandelier) with yellow ceilings and mango-colored walls. Buffet lines are replenished often (there seemed to be no takers for the six (!!) flavors of Jell-O on my visit), but of the 12 trays of sushi arrayed against one wall, seven remained empty or nearly empty for my whole meal.

Best dish: Lin's offers a number of dim-sum dumplings, unusual at these buffets. The siu mai and pork buns weren't going to win any awards, but it was nice to have the options. The teppanyaki veggies were very fresh (the accompanying raw chicken seemed pretty exposed to the elements to make me feel altogether comfortable), and on my visit it was heartening to see a bunch of cops eating big plates of teriyaki grilled veggies.

Weakest link: Egg rolls were hard and dry, fortune cookies softly pliable, and items like pigs-in-a-blanket and potato skins didn't bring much to the party.

Oriental Super Buffet

2456 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., Clearwater; (727) 725-2083

Weekday lunch buffet $7.99, weekends $8.99, weekday dinner buffet $11.99, weekends $12.99

11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Overall: This one is the sweet spot. The food quality is high enough and the prices are low enough that you feel, in the battle of you against the buffet, you can't help but come out on top. Oriental Supper Buffet, prepare to be owned. Again, not glamorous, but the people who run this place are fastidious. Watch for a bit and you'll see a guy swooping by to wipe up any goo from the counter; dishes get replenished frequently, and consequently things stay piping hot and crispy. There's a funny sign that warns of a "to-go charge" if you waste food. It seems purposefully vague. How much food? What's the charge? But it keeps you mindful about being a pig.

Best dish: I ate a bright pink, smoky barbecued pork skewer that I'd put up against any Chinese restaurant. Ditto for a tray of peanut-crusted chicken. Sushi here is also attractively presented, nicely rolled and not so rice-heavy that the fish looks like tiny colored dots in a snowstorm.

Weakest link: There was tempura but no tempura dipping sauce. In fact, at all the buffets, sauces can be tricky. If there is a sauce, you don't want to just pour it on your plate to saturate adjacent foods. A stack of little plastic ramekins is my prescription. And that means something now that I have my doctorate in Asian super buffets.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

Buffet strategies

EYES ON THE PRIZE: Only doofuses eat the bread. Even if you like bread, don't fill up on bread. Likewise, the white rice. If the buffet is $17.99, by God you're going to eat $17.99 worth of food. And that's not happening if you're dilly-dallying over the 10-cent rolls. Focus. The crab legs, the Peking duck, big fistfuls of peel-and-eat shrimp.

THE LAY OF THE LAND: Buffets are organized by group, meaning sesame chicken is probably going to be arrayed near the other breaded, fried and sauced classics like orange peel beef and sweet and sour pork. For this reason, walk the entire buffet to develop your plan of attack. It's demoralizing to kill your whole appetite on egg rolls and potstickers only to realize later there's a long row of salt crab, scallops and shrimp dishes you didn't see before.

LITMUS TESTING: Your first plate should test the waters. One bite of each — what does this place do well, and what are you best to avoid? Before you take a whole bowl of wonton soup, put a spoonful in a bowl. And come to think of it, I'd reconsider soup altogether. At a couple of super buffets I saw employees pouring new soup on top of old soup. Think about it: That goes on long enough and some of the soup lingering in there could be seriously geriatric.

STALKING PREY: Watch the employees. In the way you stalk a mall shopper back to his parking place so you can snatch it, follow the guys bringing in the full steam trays. They will remove a nearly empty one, then shovel the dregs of that back onto the top of a new tray, so fish a little deeper into the tray to scoop out the good stuff. You have to be flexible and fleet of foot with this strategy, but it nets you the food that's most freshly prepared.

COUNTING CALORIES: Trying to go to an Asian buffet and not blow your calorie count for the week? Use chopsticks even if you're hopeless with them — it takes longer to eat that way. Use the smaller-sized plates. This way, you are more judicious about what, and how much, you heap aboard. If it's crunchy, it's probably fried; you're better off with the stir-fried dishes or teppanyaki offerings. And sit far away from the buffet: A little bit of walking can give you time to experience satiety and reconsider going back for fifths.

SWEET ENDINGS: Look at the desserts. Really look at them. You see that sheet cake, those iced sugar cookies, cubes of Jell-O and vats of instant pudding? If you pile a plate with these you will go through the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Acceptance being: This is not very good sheet cake. Always opt for the soft-serve or gallons of self-scoopable green tea ice cream.

Buffet etiquette

MIND YOUR MANNERS: No cutting in line. No eating in line. No touching food with your hands or using a spoon from one dish to scoop another. Never take a dirty plate back up to the buffet to add more food (to indicate that you're finished with a plate and want your server to remove it, remove your fork and set it next to your napkin). And there is no taking food home, period.

GRATUITIES: Tipping is no less relevant than at a regular restaurant. Your server may not have to remember orders or explicate the specials, but they are often schlepping plates at a breakneck pace, keeping up with beverages and tidying your table. If they do a good job, they deserve the same 15 to 20 percent that an a la carte waiter might command.

Other buffets worth your

while

Asian super buffets don't have a lock on the choice-plus-gluttony-equals-bliss formula. Here are some of the Tampa Bay area's other buffets of note.

Fresh Harvest

Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, 5223 N Orient Road, Tampa; toll-free 1-866-502-7529

11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily; lunch $20, dinner $27, crab leg dinner Friday $40

If you're hungry, this buffet is the best deal at the Hard Rock. It's a tremendous selection of food, most of it attractively arranged and not tired in the way so many Vegas buffets are. Effort is clearly expended to keep displays replenished with freshly cooked dishes. A spinning Mongolian barbecue sizzles steaks quickly to order, a raw bar features oysters, clams and peel-and-eats, an Italian section offers respectable antipasti and classic pastas, and a rib-sticking American station turns out very nice smoky ribs, roasted pork loin and fried chicken.

Boizao Steakhouse

4606 W Boy Scout Blvd., Tampa; (813) 286-7100

5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; salad bar only at dinner is $25

Sure you can go for the parade of meats at this huge Brazilian churrascaria, but the salad bar is pretty spectacular. It's not just salads (mixed greens, a simple caprese, hearts of palm, roasted pepper salads, cold asparagus and green beans), with more than four dozen options from vegetarian-friendly entrees to loads of cheeses, olives and other tapas-like items.

Fred's Southern Kitchen

1401 W Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Plant City; (813) 752-7763

7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday; lunch buffet $9.59; dinner and Sunday lunch buffet $12.99

All the slow-cooked Southern veggies make me wistful for a grandmother I never had, one who dominates at state fair cookoffs. Jumbo lima beans, stewed tomatoes, collards without too much hammy flavor, coleslaw with lots of mayo, sweet corn casserole and squash casserole with their buttery bread crumbs. With the entrees, go fried: chicken parts, the full range, moist on the inside with crisp, not-too-thick batter, or cornmeal-battered catfish fillets, or country fried steak (Thursdays), or fried green tomatoes. On the other hand, there's slow-stewed chicken, just falling apart, simmering in thick white sauce, or pan-fried chicken breasts, sliced and ladled with the sauce, or chicken and dumplings (Tuesdays).

Shephard's Beach Resort

619 S Gulfview Blvd., Clearwater Beach; (727) 441-6875

Sundays 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; $23.95

During the summer, brunch gets an added boom-bada-boom from the adjacent Shephard's Backyard Tiki Bar and beach, with DJs whipping the bikini-clad revelers into a frenzy. The clear focus for many people is the monster pile of warm Alaskan snow crab legs, with nearby drawn butter and lemon wedges to complete the agenda (haphazard cracking and no crab tools can make excavation tough on occasion). But there's quite a bit of choice on the buffet: On the right is a long row of salads, sushi, peel-and-eat shrimp and oysters; on the left side is the hot stuff, from carved prime rib to biscuits and gravy and blintzes (with creepy squeeze bottle fruit topping).

buffet strategies

buffet etiquette

Asian super buffets in Tampa Bay: There's an art to the meal 06/19/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 18, 2013 6:52pm]

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