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).
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 [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.