This Title Will Not Make a Pun About the OK Corral

This is the second time we’ve danced this dance: Heading to a giant buffet that harbors no hope for excellence, and only a 50/50 shot at solid mediocrity. Perhaps the most lucid assessment of Golden Corral comes from Benji Madden (of Good Charlotte fame, aka Mr. Cameron Diaz), who worked at one back in the day and reportedly said that it was “literally a golden corral for fat people.” To take it in a different direction, the list that inspired this journey ranked Golden Corral at the very bottom of their list, below “getting hit by a car.” So there’s that.

Overall, the concept of Golden Corral is like that of any modern-day buffet chain in that there is the appearance of quality, but that’s about it. The presentation, variety, and layout of the restaurant and the food all promise an abundance of deliciousness and soul-warmth (a thing we just made up, but you get it). But, like Cher Horowitz once bravely opined, up close you just get a big ol’ mess.

Food:

Golden Corral relies on your memories of eating food at other restaurants to get you to eat its food. “Gee, as a general policy, I like prime rib/apple crisp/fried okra,” you think, so you pile on the prime rib/apple crisp/fried okra. Then that memory, the one that guided you towards the food in the first place, comes back to haunt you as you dig in. “Well, I guess I don’t like this prime rib/apple crisp/fried okra…” you say as you trail off and think of happier times.

Rachel says: I approached this with trepidation, because we’d all been burned at OCB, and because I was trying a diet thing with my husband where were avoiding meat and dairy. [Ed. note: *Rolls eyes*] That cuts down on a lot of choices at a place like this. I was able to pile my plate high with salad  and about a jamillion deviled eggs. John even heard me exclaim as I happened upon the deviled eggs, but only to myself, like a crazy person. I’m not proud, but I’m also not sorry. That was the highlight. The rest of the food, even the stuff that should have been hard to ruin (like sweet potato casserole) was lackluster.

Eat the rainbow.

John says: Ah, the lowest ranked restaurant on our list. We had to travel all the way to Maple Grove for this casual encounter. And that sucks. Fine, whatever. Food wasn’t shockingly bad, just mostly bad. There were a couple of highlights. The french fries were good as well as the sliced turkey. There were low lights as well. The salad bar was pretty weak and the hash brown casserole thing was pretty terrible.

[Ed. note: As an aside, John asked us to include this with his review:

Minnesota Maple cities, ranked:
1. Maplewood
2. Mapleton
3. Maple Lake
4. Maple Plain
5. Mapleview
6. Maple Grove ]
Aaron’s brisket review.

Jenna says: John and I were the first to arrive and we decided to have a fruit course to start our meal. John’s description of the pineapple was “it wasn’t the worst but it was pretty bad”. This basically sums up my experience getting hit by a car/eating at Golden Corral. I had little tastes of lots of things, and they ranged from truly terrible (hashbrowns, green bean casserole) to cold (bourbon street chicken) to dry and nearly inedible (brisket). The nachos were the best thing I ate – once you got over the electric orange color of the cheese, they were okay. But overall, nothing pleasantly surprised me.

Food rating: 

Beverages:

Like OCB, GC forces you to pay extra if you want a soft drink or coffee with your meal. No booze, much to Jenna’s chagrin.

Rachel says: I think it’s bogus that they charge extra for a soda. But I had the forethought to sign up for GC’s official mailing list, the incentive of which was a free soda with buffet purchase. It’s called beating them at their own game, kids. Anyway, I had a diet cola, I can’t even remember if it was Coke or Pepsi.

John says: Not as exciting as the options at Old Country Buffet [Ed. note: Hellooooo Icee machine!] but fine nonetheless. I had to pay extra to have a non-water drink. Meh. I had several glasses of chocolate milk and it was tasty!

Jenna says: There was no booze, so I didn’t drink anything, obviously.

Beverages rating:

Casualosity:

We saw someone pile their plate high with just slices of tomato.  Any place that allows for that much control over your plate is going to tip the scales in favor of casual.

Rachel says: Less casual than expected. Still very casual though! No one in sweatpants that I could see, although it’s possible I just missed it.

John says: This was all over the map. People were dressed up and in shorts. Jeez Louise. However, it doesn’t beat OCB in terms of absolute casualosity.

Jenna says: HIGH levels of casualosity. Could definitely get by with wearing PJs there. Although it still cost $14, which seems a bit high. You can totally get dinner + soup/salad bar at the Fryn’ Pan for $11. Just sayin’. 

Casualosity rating:

Ambience:

Rachel says: There were two notable things about the ambience. 1) The folksy names for the different food stations. The salad bar was called “The Greenhouse” and a random assortment of hot foods (tacos, pizza, bread rolls) was dubbed “The Sizzlin’ Skillet.” I seem to recall the exact same concept rolled out at OCB. Maybe there’s one buffet decoration consulting firm and they just show everyone the same PowerPoint. I dunno. 2) GC had recipes on the walls for food they were serving at the restaurant. It was as if they were daring you to make it better (which you probably could). I neither liked or disliked either of these things; they were just weird.

Not so much Flavortown as Flavor Cul-de-Sac.

John says: Fairly standard and boring. There was nothing that stood out. At least have some cool shit on the walls, GC.

Jenna says: If you really loved the Bourbon Street chicken (Aaron Smith), you are in luck! The recipe, along with a few other GC favorites, is used to decorate the walls! Also, the bathroom was in super rough shape.

Ambience rating:

Service:

Not much in the way of service here, being that it’s a buffet, duh.

Rachel says: The cashier at the front was efficient and polite but not friendly. The people coming around to clear plates did so with just the right frequency.

John says: The cashier looked like she would rather be in a prison in North Korea [Ed. note: Yeesh!] than working at Golden Corral. But our busboy who cleared our dishes was very nice.

Jenna says: Quick to clear plates, and they absolutely made sure you paid, unlike our buffet experience at OCB. There was NO way I was getting in without paying this time.

Service rating:

Dessert:

The crew had our pick of dessert options, most notably the Chocolate Wonderfall, a chocolate fountain where you and dozens of fellow diners are invited to drench different smaller sweet things in a cascade of chocolate-esque liquid. If it sounds like a public health nightmare, that’s because it is. But it’s a fountain!

Rachel says: I tried a few of the desserts. They were all portioned pretty small, which is both clever and fortunate because most of them weren’t worth it. I had a little brownie, a cinnamon roll (because why not) and some cake I think? I also did have several strawberries and Rice Krispie treats dipped in the chocolate fountain. I know what’s in that chocolate, and I know why it’s a health hazard, and I did it anyway. YOLO, right? [Ed. note: No one says that anymore, FYI.] They were good. And I didn’t get sick.

John says: GC actually kind of shines here. They have many different options for the discerning palate. Included is a chocolate fountain that you can dip fruit into. I didn’t do that. I am not getting sick just to satisfy our rabid readers. [Ed. note: Unlike Rachel. Gross.] I went ahead and had a piece of New York style cheesecake and a piece of angel food cake. The cheesecake was fine but nowhere near the standards of an OCB cheesecake.

Jenna says: The carrot cake was decent. I was super excited about the chocolate fountain situation, until my friends ruined it for me by calling it an e. coli fountain. THANKS FOR RUINING EVERY CHOCOLATE FOUNTAIN FOR ME. [Ed. note: Sorry not sorry.] I waited forever for a fresh piece of cheesecake, but it never happened.

Dessert rating: 

Favorite part:

John says: The chocolate milk, I guess?

Rachel says: John catching me getting excited about deviled eggs.

Jenna says: ??????

Least favorite part:

John says: Paying nearly $19 to eat there. That’s insane…

Rachel says: Driving almost 40 minutes each way for blah food.

Jenna says: The brisket, looked so good, but I nearly broke a tooth. 

Overall rating: 

CE at D&B’s

As we enter into the home stretch of this crazy project, we found ourselves picking up a restaurant from the middle of the list (#17 to be precise), Dave and Buster’s.

One thing you’ll notice as you make your way through a dining experience at Dave and Buster’s is that it’s essentially a theme restaurant, and the theme is “fun.” Their stock ticker is PLAY, for god’s sake! And it is fun, if this is the kind of thing you think is fun. (How’s that for logical reasoning?) Mssrs. Dave and Buster want you to forget your cares by coming up to the third level of Southdale Mall and entering into a perpetual twilight of blinking lights, finger food, and the chance of winning a fistful of (digital) tickets you can exchange for random crap you’ll give to your niece the next time you see her. It’s like a Chuck E. Cheese but for adults, and with slightly less chance of getting pink eye.

The adventure begins.
Regular fun is for losers. Epic fun is where its at.

Somewhat related note: Out of the four remaining Casual Encounters, three of them are located at Southdale, a location that has seen the rise (Cheesecake Factory) and fall (California Pizza Kitchen) of many a casual dining restaurant. It was also the first enclosed shopping mall in America. Don’t say we never taught you anything.

Food:

In keeping with D&B’s focus on indulgence and fun, the menu featured a wide variety of fried, cheesy, meaty, carby options. There’s a sandwich filled with short ribs and mac and cheese. There’s something called the Caveman Combo, which is ribs and cheeseburger sliders served in a bucket. Seriously, a lot of this food sounds like a dare.

Jenna says: A common theme that’s come up as we’ve made our way through Casual Encounters is a strange desire that I often have to order salmon. Strange because  fish doesn’t seem to be the bread and butter of these chain, casual dining establishments, except for Red Lobster, of course. It’s like I want to torture myself emotionally (which sounds like something I’d do, yes editor?). [Ed. note: Don’t bait us into commenting.] Will the salmon make me regret all my life choices?  [Ed. note: We don’t think the salmon was the only thing standing in the way of that…(See, we got this)] Fortunately, D&B’s salmon was very, very good. Had a nice char, well-season, buttery and fresh. The sautéed spinach was a bit oily and the rice was rice, but overall very good.

Jenna’s surprisingly tasty healthy entree

John says: Well, this was an adventure for me. My wife and I are doing the Whole30 diet. [Ed. Note: What a chump.] What does that entail? No grains, no gluten, no dairy, no booze, and no added sugars. So it’s difficult when ordering out. After a good amount of searching, I ended up getting a plain steak. It came with loaded potatoes which I had to substitute with the seasonal veggies. The potatoes still came out and I was tempted. But I asked for the veggies nonetheless. But the veggies ended up being 6 pieces of broccoli. Lame.

Rachel says: Valiantly trying to break my streak of panic-ordering every damn place we go, I had it narrowed down to two choices. I was trying to decide between the steak salad and something called the Bang Bang Chicken with Spicy Thai Peanut Noodles. I told our server about my conundrum and he enthusiastically recommended the chicken thing. Was it chicken nuggets on top of pasta? Yes. Delicious? Also yes.

Rachel’s unsurprisingly tasty unhealthy entree.

Food rating: 

Beverages:

We kept things really tame this time around. Aaron might have had a beer, but he didn’t submit his review, so that fact is lost to the sands of time.

John says: Again because of the diet, options were limited. I had water. It was cold.

Rachel says: I had water because they carry Pepsi. Boo.

Beverages rating: 

Service:

In keeping with the general trend of our encounters, we had great service. You’d expect any staff to be at least a bit cranky when their work environment is filled with neon and arcade sounds, not to mention suffering from the carpel tunnel that results from carrying buckets of appetizers around. But nope: it was fast, friendly service yet again. And plenty of it; We counted no fewer than three people behind the bar (on a random Wednesday), plus two people at the host stand, plus plenty of other servers. Impressive.

Jenna says: Kellis was fantastic. Good banter from the start. Made smart food recommendations (hello, salmon). Quite the salesman, too. He convinced Rachel and I to spend $10 extra on game cards, even though I knew full well that I’d spend not even half of it. Also encouraged my friends to order booze so I wouldn’t drink alone. [Ed. Note: Doing God’s, or maybe the Devil’s, work.]

John says: Our server was great overall. Only mixup was the veggie thing which wasn’t a big deal. He was attentive, friendly, and had suggestions about the games/food. He even shook all of our hands at the end. I’d say this was the second best server experience behind Earth at Rainforest Cafe.

Rachel says: Our server started out seeming kind of quiet and aloof. But after we got going on our orders, his personality blossomed and he was great. He helped me through my quasi-panic order, cracked some jokes, and was efficient in getting food and drink to us.

Service rating: 

Ambience:

The ambience at Dave & Buster’s has something for all five senses. And that something is “overload.” Thankfully, the eating area is separate from the gaming area, so you don’t have to worry about making yourself heard over the World’s Biggest Pac-Man game. There isn’t really crap on the walls, because there really isn’t any open wall space. Not that you’d notice.

Jenna says: It smelled like a dusty closet that was trying to be covered up with a vanilla air freshener. There were lights bright enough to need warnings for those with epilepsy. I’ve never been big on video games or arcades. Not my jam.

For it not being her jam, lots of jamming going on here.

John says: Lots of TVs playing tons of different sports. It had game 7 of the World Series, car racing, volleyball, basketball, college football, and Russian Roulette. One of those is fake. [Ed. note: Everyone knows that Russian Roulette is only on ESPN 8] The games were all over the map as well. There were skill games, racing games, shooting games, and so much more. I really enjoyed shooting hoops and skee-ball!

Rachel says: I love Skee-ball. I will throw down any place, any time. Based on that factor alone, this place is great. I will say that it was kind of loud and a bit too bright over by the dining area. Then, in the gaming area, the lights are turned down just low enough where it makes it hard for you to find your friends. All of that gives the place an overall feeling of disorientation. Maybe based on the same principles as casinos? No visible exit, no clocks, etc. But…skee-ball! And four-person air hockey was really fun.

Ambience rating: 

Casualosity:

It’s a restaurant inside an arcade. You’d think it would be simple to gauge its casualosity level, but our team had some issues in that respect.

Jenna says: Very casual. I was honestly expecting it to be a little classier. I had no basis for that expectation, but still.

John says: I’d say that of all the places we’ve been this is the most difficult one to judge. All the games make it seem casual but it’s also incredibly distracting and hard to hear. But it seemed pretty laid back overall which I liked.

Rachel says: It’s an arcade, in a mall, and they have more than one menu item served in a bucket. The presence of cloth napkins brings it down a tad, but not much.

Casualosity rating: 

Dessert:

Jenna says: No cheesecake, which I found surprising considering they had a bananas foster on the menu. Chocolate cake was good in the moment, but in retrospect I’m second guessing it.

John says: I couldn’t have dessert because of the diet. So N/A.

Putting a brave face on a bummer of a situation.

Rachel says: For some reason, the crew put the onus of ordering dessert (whether to order, what to order) on me. [Ed. note: You rose to the challenge of ordering dessert? What a surprise…] Even though there was no cheesecake available, I took one for the team and bought the table a piece of chocolate layer cake. It was pretty good, as chocolate layer cakes tend to be, but nothing special. I kind of wanted to order their brookie (that is, brownie+cookie) sundae tower, but that would have somehow been trying too hard and not trying hard enough.

Dessert rating:

Favorite part:

Jenna says: One casual encounter closer to Cheesecake Factory.

John says: Playing four way air hockey. It had three discs! It was really hard. I was the first to go out.

Rachel says: The games! Air hockey was super fun, and I didn’t go out first! Also, skee-ball. I’ll play skee-ball until my wrist falls off.

Four-person air hockey ftw

Least favorite part:

Jenna says: One casual encounter closer to being hit by a car.

John says: Not being able to order what I wanted. But that’s more my problem, I guess. [Ed. Note: Yeah, don’t drag D&B’s into this.]

Rachel says: Getting conned into buying the Eat and Play combo, which gave me more game credits than I ever could have used in the time I had. Maybe I’ll come back and use the rest up while we’re waiting for a table at Cheesecake Factory.

 

Overall rating: