How to survive a buffet. Remember the six primary rules of buffet dining. 5/19/99. The * marks changes since that date.
(1) Timing - Try to eat during peak dining hours or for brunch or lunch just after they open, that's when the food is the freshest. No buffet can deliver proper food if it sat too long on the buffet.
(2) Inspect - When you arrive, ask to check out the buffet before you're seated. Try to check for freshness, aroma, color, texture, temperature, etc, and move the food with the utensils, if necessary, to get a better look and feel. Also, check out the customers; more customers could indicate better food. At an ethnic buffet, look for about half or more of the customers to be from that ethnic group. Even ask other customers what they think of the food, as they leave or, if your brave, as they eat. Try to sit where you can see fresh items go from the kitchen to the buffet. Or, try to ask the bus people which fresh items may be forthcoming. If you're not sure what the dished are or how they taste, ask the staff of a tour. For a good tour, you might want to go during off-peak hours.
*Do this before you order. As I recently learned at Dickey's Barbecue Pit, you also have to ask what is or isn't included and what are the options. I misses stuff and options cause I didn't ask. Also, for to-go, ask to see the container, ask how much you get, and who fills it -- if applicable. I got a really small to-go order cause I didn't ask and didn't check the order before I left.*
(3) Selection - While you're checking out the quality of the items on the buffet, try to verify that you would like to try at least 85% of the items on the buffet. The fun of a buffet is trying multiple items. If you only see a few items you might like to try, you might rather go to a place that does those items very well.
(4) Samples - I only did this once. I was recommended to a buffet that did a cuisine I'd had before (I lived there) and didn't like. I walked in, explained the situation, and asked for microscopic samples of a few sauces, no meat or vegetables. In fact, I still didn't care for the taste, and asked to leave a 1$ or $2 for their trouble, but was told it wasn't necessary. Anyone who shops at a good deli knows you'll be offered and accept samples to entice you to buy. If you're nervous about a buffet, try asking the manager for samples, and go from there.
(5) The Plan - You found a buffet you want to try, so what's the best plan? Take microscopic samples of everything, which may require several trips. Often large items are placed on a buffet; look for a broken or flawed item and take a sample from that. Once you know what you like, you can return to the buffet and load up. Besides, it's wasteful to take large portions of items you may not enjoy. And, if you really didn't care for the first plate, that's a good time to show them how little you took and asked to be excused.
(6) The secret to a good buffet - No hot food was meant to sit for hours on a buffet, but some do better than others. Soups can reduce and get overly thick and salty. Dry items can dry out or get soggy. For example, I've bitten into steamed rice that had dried out to the original uncooked state. On an Italian buffet the pasta dries out and the pizza gets soggy; go figure. Moist items like fish fillets or steaks will lose moisture quickly and dry out and get overcooked. The crisp items will find moisture and get soggy. And that's only texture. Everything loses taste, aroma, and color as it sits. The trick is to find a place where supply just meets demand; where customers don't have to wait for food, nor do they have to eat food which has sat too long. Also, the restaurant has to be willing to replace food which is past its time. Some buffet places to try include Alpine Village, Charlie Brown's+, El Torito Grill+, most Indian and Mexican, some Chinese, and others. But, watch out: the By Brazil in Torrance a year or more ago had some of the worst food I've ever tasted. However, it was partly my fault, I didn't follow my own rules, and I didn't check them out at all; not that it would have found all the problems. The + had early-bird discounts.
More as time allows.