We Go to Old Country Buffet…Not Because It Is Easy….

…But because it is hahd*.

*JFK voice

Easily the least-anticipated of all the potential casual dining experiences (save for “getting hit by a car”), our excursion to OCB (ranked #26 on our list) was taken on with the grim determination that only middle-class hipsters can muster when faced with this vestige of suburbia.

A few years ago, OCB went through something of a rebranding process. They added some fancier dishes in hopes of capturing the public’s disdain for sh***y food. A few years after that, they’ve closed many of their locations. As it turns out, when you’re known for sh***y food, it doesn’t matter how many times you say “we’ve added non-sh***ty stuff to the lineup!” Every 22-year-old social media twerp will tell you, and they’re right: Branding is everything.

With only one OCB remaining in the Twin Cities metro, our choice of location was somewhat limited. This was our last shot before this casual dining experience is gone.

Our rankings:

Food: Overall, the food surpassed our expectations. Which is to say it was pretty bad, but not shockingly bad. Each of us found a couple of things that were downright edible. The orange chicken (aka chicken nuggets with sweet and sour sauce) was the clear winner.

20160515_12552220160515_125643

If brown or white foods are your thing, you’re in the right place. 

John says: My highlights were the orange chicken and the surprisingly good potato salad. My lowlight was a slice of roast beef so chewy they could have sold it as roast beef flavored gum and I wouldn’t have batted an eye.

Aaron says: A few standouts: baked ham (I managed to line up for the hand-carved ham right when they brought a fresh one out, so it was fresh and tasty), dinner rolls (buttery and fluffy!), chicken pot pie. A few poor choices: rib tips (I couldn’t discern if there was any meat on the bone, or if it was all just bone), the Montreal veggies (might have been good if they were fresh, but by the time I got them they were pretty soggy).

Jenna says: Standouts: fried chicken (better than KFC, on par with Hornbachers which I totally enjoy). Orange chicken was very good. However many items looked less appetizing than school cafeteria food, notably the refried beans (looked like they’d been sitting their for days. The same cheese sauce was used for the nachos and the macaroni and cheese, and I use the term cheese sauce loosely.

Sarah says: the fact that it was a buffet meant you could dig through all the crap to find the few things that were palatable. I am pretty sure the macaroni & cheese included cheese whiz as the #1 ingredient. The meatloaf was surprisingly delicious – it had just the right texture, and came with a yummy sauce. Sadly, I only had one piece before they switched that section of the buffet to some type of disgusting looking mystery meat. The dinner rolls tasted fresh out of the oven and were buttery and tasty. I liked the jello whip, but combining cool whip and cubes of jello in a bowl is not really a culinary accomplishment to brag about.

Rachel says: I skipped so many things based on looks alone, so I can’t say too much. You eat with your eyes first, and my eyes were all “blech.” That being said, the chicken-based things were all decent. The mini chicken pot pie was a standout and made me feel dainty (no easy feat).

Rating: cheesecakecheesecake

Ambience: OCB gives each of its buffet sections totes adorbs nicknames, like Maple Street Bakery and Fire Mountain Roasters Coffee. Other than that, it was a run-of-the-mill buffet setting with dusty pastel colors and fluorescent lighting.

Sarah says: I expected noise, long lines, rowdy kids, spontaneous “Make America Great Again” chants, etc. I was pleasantly surprised to encounter none of these. It was pretty quiet and orderly. But it was still an OCB.

Rating: cheesecakecheesecake

Casualosity: Casual, and how! Our group saw a wide range of Casualosity levels, from flip-flops and sweats to peoples’ Sunday church outfits. Everyone can feel comfortable here.

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OCB’s casualosity packs ’em in on a Sunday. 

John says: This is probably the most casual place to eat. No server bothering you. Eat as much as you want. They even had a mini arcade. It was kind of a lame arcade but noteworthy nonetheless.

Jenna says: Suppppppeeerrrr casual. So casual I was able to walk in without paying. Although let the record show I went back and after I realized you were supposed to do that first. (Editor’s note: This incident was hilarious, and Jenna is a more honest person than any of us by going back and paying. Frankly, with the way things are going for OCB, it felt more like a donation than payment.)

Sarah says:  It doesn’t get much more casual than this without being fast food.

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakecheesecake

Service: Not much to say initially, since it’s a buffet. But the staff we did interact with were friendly and efficient. Our dirty plates never sat on the table for more than a couple of minutes before being scooped up by someone. OCB could really do with stocking their bathrooms with free tampons. Just a suggestion.

Jenna says: They were speedy in collecting dirty plates, which I appreciated. Other than that we didn’t see a whole lot of people. However the woman in charge of filling the soda fountain of the future was constantly doing that.

Rachel says: The guy who carved the ham was so nice, I bet he would have hand-fed me if I’d asked. 

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

 

Cheesecake: The cheesecake, which came in both plain and strawberry-topped varieties, was clearly an industrial-scale version of that no-bake Jello cheesecake mix you made in your dorm room that one time. Better than the abomination at the Hard Rock Cafe, but still. Other desserts fared better, including a fairly decent single-serve peach cobbler. Not to mention la grande dame of buffet experiences, the make-your-own-sundae station.

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Peach cobbler, bread pudding, chocolate cake, cheesecake. Not pictured: A sundae that is 3:1 hot fudge to ice cream. 

Aaron says: Better than HRC, but that’s not saying much. Other desert options fared better, rice crispy bars were decent and whipped Jello was a flashback to childhood.

Jenna says: Better than Hard Rock, that’s for damn sure! Bonus for a decent ice cream bar.

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Beverages: Now, here is where OCB decided to throw off the mantel of mediocrity and really shine. If the OCB were the movie “Rudy,” the beverage selection would be that scene where they all lift Rudy on their shoulders in jubilation for kicking a goal or whatever. (Ed. note: The editor has never seen the movie “Rudy.”) Not only did OCB feature two Coca-Cola Freestyle machines, they also had Icee machines! Our crew took full advantage of the situation, mixing the blue flavor and the red flavor for maximum fun. However, points were docked for the lack of alcohol, because SOME people in the group can’t handle the realness of a depressing buffet in the suburbs without a drink. Go figure.

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Part red, part blue, all joy.

Aaron says: Icee machine! This made the trip for me. I mixed the red and blue flavors, but the coke flavor was out of order. At some point, someone had the idea to put coke in with the icee to make a flavor vaguely reminiscent of cherry coke.

Rachel says: Even though I only ever get regular-ass Diet Coke, I still love the potential represented by a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine. I like to be bathed in the glow of possibilities, right before I select the same thing I’d get anywhere else. 

John says: Icee machine. Chocolate Milk. No booze though.

Sarah says: Couldn’t have been better from the standpoint of a non drinker.

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecake

Return potential: No surprise here, no one in our group was the least bit enthusiastic about coming back.

Aaron says: It wasn’t an unpleasant experience, but it was 30 min away and I’m not huge on buffets. Now if there was still a OCB in Highland Park or Roseville (arguably one of the top few suburbs), I could see going back if I really HAD to.

Rating: cheesecake

The best part:

John says: Getting to eat as much as I want.

Aaron says: Icee!

Rachel says: Putting peas on my salad like I was 6 years old again. And that pot pie. And Jenna not realizing she had to pay in advance.

Sarah says: Halfway through the meal when Jenna asked how much the buffet cost, and we all realized she hadn’t paid.

Jenna says: Going to the Home Depot afterwards.

The worst part:

John says: Having to drive to Burnsville.

Aaron says: Having a stomachache all afternoon.

Jenna says: That “cheese” sauce.

Sarah says: The guilt I felt from only eating one bite of my
chicken breast. (At least, I think it was a chicken breast).

Our pro-tips for buffet success:

John says: Always eat salad second. Expand your stomach with some meat, potatoes, etc. first. Then dial it back down with salad. Then ramp back up with whatever you want.

Rachel says: To paraphrase Cher Horowitz, do a lap before you commit to a location. Always scope things out and have a strategy in mind before you start plating.

Jenna says: Skip the salad bar, it will never live up to the Fryn Pan.

Sarah says: OH from the man sitting behind me. “I have diabetes, so my doctor says I shouldn’t come to places like this. But I figure oh, what the hell. We all have to die from something.” OCB should use that for marketing purposes. “Old Country Buffet: Because we all have to die from something.”

Weird combos we saw on other peoples’ plates:

I saw a little girl with broccoli cheese soup and and a chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream on top.

A half a plate of raisins.

I saw a six year old with an entire plate heaping with the disgusting macaroni and “cheese.” Where are the parents? When I was little and wanted to fill my entire buffet plate with bacon, my Mom put the kibosh on that and limited me to a still-satisfying four pieces. Thank you, Mom.

Overall rating: 2.5

Next encounter: Outback Steakhouse!

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John’s digestif: A giant gumball. 

Yes We Houlihan’s, or: A Tale of Free Tampons

Our second Casual Encounter, at Hoolihan’s (#25 on our list) was leaps and bounds better than the HRC debacle. Sure, sometimes those bad experiences bring groups together, like in trench warfare or the ladies bathroom at da club, but sometimes you just need the restorative pleasure of a decent casual dining experience. Our rankings:

Food: Compared to HRC, this was the deluxe tasting menu at the French Laundry. Compared to other restaurants, it was actually pretty good.

John says: Surprisingly decent. I had the Cheesy Yum Yum Good Times Burger. It was to my liking (medium rare) and loaded with gooey cheese and a lettuce mix of some sort. I got a side of asparagus which was fine but got cold fast.

Andrea says: I thought the food was pretty good. I liked the fact that they asked how I wanted my burger cooked, although, I asked for medium and they brought it to me medium well. It was an ok burger, but nothing to rave about.

Jenna says: I took a chance and tried an dish from their “#inspiralized” menu and had a noodle-less butternut squash and sausage lasagna – and was super impressed! The portion size was perfect, and it felt fresh with the right ratio of cheese-to-greens-to-noodles. The side of zucchini “noodles” was underwhelming, but overall good! The desserts were excellent. Expectations exceeded, well done.

Rachel says: I was all set to get something else, and then panic-ordered a salad with bbq salmon on it. I don’t exactly regret my decision, but I wish I’d had the guts to try the #inspiralized menu like Jenna did. That salad was not me living my best life. But it was fine.

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Ambience: With so much room to spread out in the suburbs, we were surprised to find that Houlihan’s shares a building with an Allina clinic and a few other things. That auxilary-restaurant situation, coupled with the decor, had many in our group drawing apt comparisons to a hotel restaurant. Not bad, but zero charm. Not even fun crap on the walls like at a TGI Friday’s.

John says: Fairly sparse compared to the Hard Rock. Lots of TVs tuned into the Wild game. Around 7:30 the bar area became dude bro central. Lots of tats.

Andrea says: I really liked the ambiance. The colors were dark like a cozy library. The booths were nice and big so I didn’t have to touch my friends.

Jenna says: I didn’t love that the restaurant was inside an office building. The decor was not memorable, but the booths were comfortable and the bathrooms were clean. The bar had a nice relaxed vibe, but the main dining area felt like a standard hotel restaurant. I liked the young, suburban clientele that filled the bar to watch the Wild game.

*Editor’s note: 5 cheesecakes for Jenna’s fancy use of the word ‘clientele.’

Rachel says: I appreciated the faux-outdoor seating that was in the atrium of the building. I bet it would be a good place for al fresco dining during the winter, and to also people-watch the folks going to the clinic next door and guess what’s wrong with each of them. There was nothing special about the restaurant ambience itself.

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecake

Service: An average level of service was taken to a new level by the discovery of free tampons (Tampax, regular flow, cardboard applicator) in the ladies’ room. Not to mention Salon Selectives hairspray, which our group didn’t even know was still in production.

Andrea says: The host offered to seat me right away, even when I informed her that I was waiting for three friends. I chose to wait in the waiting area, and good thing I did, because she ended up showing Rachel and I the super secret stash of mints in the cupboard, and basically told us that if we wanted to take a handful, that she prefer we took them from there. The server was fine. Not very chipper, but that’s annoying anyway. Now the women’s bathroom is where this place really shines. FREE TAMPONS.  Also, Salon Selectives hair spray and some sort of vanilla scented body spray, I suppose in case you want to hook up with one of the bros watching hockey in the bar.

John says: Our server was actually good. Attentive and affable. Don’t remember his name though. From Andrea we learned that the women’s bathroom had free tampons and hair spray. So that’s baller I guess. The men’s room didn’t have any free s**t. Men are so oppressed.

Jenna says: Our server was not overly attentive, but he also wasn’t annoyingly chatty. Major bonus points for the FREE tampons, that’s an easy way to win me over, fo sho!

Rachel says: Our server went missing quite a few times, like when I was waiting on a refill of my iced tea, or when we wanted the check. But when he was physically at our table, he did a fine job. Andrea is right: If you want free mints, be sure to hit up the Richfield Houlihan’s. They’re pretty chill about you taking a handful. I’d like to point out that I was the first person to go to the restroom, so I was the bearer of the good news regarding the free tampons. So there.

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakecheesecake

Casualosity(tm): Spot on.

Jenna says: Super casual. Too casual for a first date or big celebration, but perfect for a Monday night with friends (BUT NOT AARON SMITH).

*(Ed. note: Aaron Smith was too cool to attend this encounter, despite previous verbal commitments to the contrary. You’re on notice, Aaron.)

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakecheesecake

Return potential: The consensus was that we would all go back if we were in the area, though that doesn’t seem likely. Unless any of us ladies suddenly get our period and are in the south metro. In that case, you know where to find us. 

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecake

Cheesecake: There wasn’t actually any cheesecake on the menu. We knew this would be a potential hazard during these adventures, so this rating will be on the desserts we did have, meaning a creme brulee and carrot-cake-in-a-jar, which is exactly what it sounds like. These desserts came second only to the free tampons in terms of level of excitement. Plus, men can enjoy these desserts as well.

Jenna says: Real real good. I normally don’t go for creme brule, but I thought there’s was pretty damn good. Perfect size – not too big, not too small.

John says: Creme brulee and carrot cake in a jar. YES, IN A JAR! They were both quite good.

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Beverages: Much was made of the fact that Mondays are “half priced bottle of wine night” at Houlihan’s. We took full advantage of it with a bottle of red and a bottle of white. They even brought out one of those holders to keep the white wine cold during our meal. Classy! But Pepsi products (as opposed to Coke) and a lame tap list kept it from being too high in our rankings.

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Best part:

John says: Getting to say Cheesy Yum Yum Good Times Burger while trying to keep a straight face.

Andrea says: Obvs the tampons

Rachel says: The sisterhood of elation upon the discovery of the free tampons. FREE TAMPONS FOR PRESIDENT.

Worst part:

The location. Sorry, Richfield. You’re no SLP or Roseville.

Overall cheesecake ranking:

cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Our next encounter: Old Country Buffet in Burnsville!