“I don't need to eat any more,” said my dining companion after her second plate of food at King Buffet. “But I could hardly call it satisfying.”
My reaction to the all-you-can-eat Chinese-American restaurant, on Third Street in northeast Bend, was much the same. There's always a lot of food here, and it's easy to fill up at a low price — but the quality is very uneven. In general, it's mediocre; some dishes can be tasty, but others I will never try again.
The problem with buffet restaurants is the difficulty of keeping food fresh in the tray pans, which often sit atop a reservoir of simmering water. The food may be good when prepared, but the longer it sits on the buffet, the more it continues to cook.
The lesson here is to look for food that has been freshly delivered to the buffet from the kitchen.
A case in point at the King Buffet was a tray of steamed salmon presented in the dinner selection of more than 50 items. When I tried to cut a piece off with a serving fork, I wasn't even able to penetrate the fish. So I passed on it. But steamed sole offered at a subsequent lunch was pretty good.
Lunch and dinner
Dinners at King Buffet are priced at $11.99, with reduced rates for children. Lunches cost $7.99. Having recently dined once at each mealtime, I didn't notice a lot of difference between the two.
When I asked the hostess if she could tell me the difference, she indicated that the evening meal offered more seafood. But that wasn't evident. Even at midday, the buffet featured rubbery squid, mussels cloaked in heavy cheese, unexceptional clams and steamed baby octopi with their heads intact.
One item that should have been constant at both meals was rice — steamed white rice and seasoned fried rice. At dinner, however, the small grains were dry and overcooked. Both were better at my lunchtime visit.
A half-dozen young servers provide service at the alcohol-free restaurant, cheerfully offering hot tea and soft drinks, and quickly clearing used plates when diners rise for a second (or third) helping from the buffet.
The dining room is large, bright and lacking in any particular character. It seats nearly 100 people at booths and tables, with a large mirror along one wall making it look even bigger than it is.
Soup and salad
I knew I was in for a dining adventure when I surveyed the salad bar and discovered that a clump of packaged peas and carrots were still frozen together.
But that salad bar, with a centerpiece of crispy iceberg lettuce, was one of the better offerings at King Buffet. Many of the items were fresh and in no danger of overcooking.
Servings of coleslaw and artificial crab salad (with green peppers) were decent. I found the small, chilled peel-and-eat shrimp to be mushy, however, and a macaroni salad was too heavy with mayonnaise.
Hot-and-sour soup — with tofu, fungi, bean sprouts and carrots — was one of my favorite items. And the crab Rangoon puffs, filled with artificial crab and cream cheese, were only lightly fried and were very tasty.
But spring rolls (filled with cabbage) and pot stickers (with minced pork) both were very doughy and not items I'd recommend. And a small choice of dim sum was abominable, particularly “shu mai” pork dumplings, which clearly were not freshly made.
There were several hot dishes that I liked. Long green beans were perfectly seasoned and properly cooked at both of my meals. Fresh button mushrooms were served in a tangy sauce. Skewered peanut chicken was tender and good.
A chicken-and-shrimp stir-fry with mixed vegetables was excellent. A sign designated it as “spicy,” and there was truth in advertising.
Sliced pepper steak, with green peppers and onions, was fine. But a portion of barbecued pork with sweet-and-sour sauce was as chewy as jerky.
Sweet-and-sour chicken was decent, as the batter was not too heavy. But another chicken dish, a stir-fry with broccoli, was fatty and overcooked. And fried chicken wings, normally one of my guilty pleasures, were so badly overdone that I threw them aside after one attempted bite. They were better the second time around, at lunch, but only just barely.
A crab casserole contained large chunks of cheese that were almost indistinguishable from the seafood.
The buffet also carried a few items for the kids: decent pepperoni pizza, for instance, and a tray of frozen french fries.
Off to the side of the buffet were a Mongolian grill and a sushi bar. But on neither of my visits did I see anyone attending them, nor did I see anyone asking for service there.
I did try one bit of sushi, which I pulled out from under a sheet of plastic wrap. It was made with tuna salad rolled into dry rice and was nearly inedible.
A large dessert table offered eight kinds of fruit, some of it fresh, much of it (including sliced peaches and pears) from a can. The tapioca pudding was pretty good, especially with macaroons. Several cakes were also offered, as well as warm apple pie and hot malasadas, Portuguese pastries popular in Hawaii.
If you want to dine at King, I'd suggest having a late lunch, calling it dinner, and saving $4 per person. If you do visit during the dinner hour, try to make it an early dinner. After 8 p.m., the buffet trays are likely to be left without fresh replacements.
But keep in mind the parting words of my dining companion: “It feels like the most unhealthy meal I've had in ages,” she said. “And I've been to McDonald's.”
The Ale House by Brother Jon's is planning a January opening in downtown Bend. John Machell, co-owner of Brother Jon's Public House on Northwest Galveston Avenue, said the new restaurant will occupy the corner of Bond Street and Greenwood Avenue previously held by the Bond Street Grill and the Decoy Bar & Grill. He said it will offer live music and a different menu than the Galveston location, which opened in mid-2009. www.brotherjonspublichouse.com.