I recently ate dinner at a Golden Corral buffet and grill restaurant on the outskirts of Phoenix. I had not eaten breakfast or lunch and was famished after a long day of journalizing. I considered heading about seventeen miles to the east to pop into a seafood place I had enjoyed on previous trips to the Valley of the Sun, but my stomach was growling and I saw the Golden Corral sign, which cast its appetizing glow on the parking lot as the high Arizona sky reddened at dusk.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I have dabbled in these smorgasbord-type places before. When I was in high school, my friends and I would frequent the nearby Ponderosa and lay waste to the Sunday breakfast spread. The feasting would devolve into timed gorging contests that might have been the early precursor to the competitive-eating competitions we now see celebrated as “sports” on ESPN. Being tall and lanky and born with the Carl Lewis of metabolisms, I was a gifted devourer. I was viewed as something of a prodigy.
So when that gilded neon met my wide eyes and I imagined the interior of the joint, where the cattle-carcass-loaded grill and au-jus-dripping carving station and tubs of canned vegetables and tureens of canned soup and glass-roofed salad and dessert bars and steel pails of liquid cheese and the glorious, happily overweight American families would envelop me, I can’t lie. I was thrilled.
My drink server/busboy, Sam, was an affable young Asian man with an incomplete command of English, but he sure tried hard. We’ll call him a “gamer.” He seemed a bit overzealous in the three or four seconds after I paid my $14.56 charge ($9.99 dinner, $2.19 soda, and tax), however. In an attempt to show immortal hospitality toward a hungry Golden Corral guest, he grabbed the slippery tray upon which that well-iced 16-ounce tumbler of Sprite balanced oh-so-feebly, almost sending the contents over and through the cylindrical, spaced metal bars serving as the initial feed-line counter.
I imagined that he was a student working nights and perhaps living in one of the many rundown apartment complexes that dot these wide and seemingly endless desert thoroughfares and are jammed between Circle K convenience stores and Superpumper gas stations. I had set up my laptop because my day’s work was still far from done, but I looked away from the monitor for a moment to satisfy my curiosity and spark up a discussion.
“Sam,” I said, and he smiled.
“Where are you from?”
“Oh, OK. Where?”
“[Unintelligible]. It’s an island [unintelligible].”
Sam stared at me, waiting for my next move. He winced slightly, and that’s when I noticed that he was balancing four or five dirty-plate-laden trays in one hand and wanting to get the fuck to the kitchen, pronto.
But, to his credit, the smile remained.
“So Sam, how do you like Phoenix?”
“Don’t like it, man. Too hot here.”
“I agree with that. Will you move back to China, then?”
“No, but I might move to another state. Too hot here.”
With that, my friendship with Sam had come to a close. Sure, we spoke again, but after that brief interaction, our only exchanges covered the ground of the two refills of Sprite I requested and the go-ahead nod I shot his way as he readied himself for a diligent removal of the four dishes of food whose contents I had disposed of in quick, violent bursts.
And about those contents: I felt it would be semi-responsible, from a nutritional standpoint, for me to start off with a soup and salad before digging into all the entrée options. The soups were in the corner next to the small pasta bar — the spaghetti intrigued me for a minute, orderly and steaming in a steel tray next to a ceramic bowl of piping marinara, and there might have been ravioli, or maybe it was tortellini, but it was forgotten as soon as I looked across the station and sized up the possibility that several breaded-and-fried protein options and I would have a date in about fifteen minutes: fried chicken (yes, eventually), fried pork loin (perhaps), fried shrimp (of course), fried clams (could be) and chicken fried steak (could very well be).
Ah yes, the soup. That’s why I was making that first salvo, after all, with a warm-from-the-dishwasher bowl in my hand. Two options on this night: New England clam chowder and a chicken gumbo that looked okra-heavy and chicken-light. I chose the chowder and skipped back over the tile floor, winding my way around a chorus of fat people. Everything was right in the world.
My recollection of the chowder is that it was very salty and a tad on the congealed, gelatinesque side, but the temperature was good and hot and I guzzled it down in about ten slurps. The salad bar was the closest foodstuffs destination to my seating station, so I hopped back up, passed a group of about fifteen people at a table with religious literature strewn about and an earnest-looking black guy holding court about some social event that was being planned at their church, and sidled up to the Romaine lettuce.
I dumped the roughage on my clean plate, piled it high with its immediate neighbors: mushrooms, green peppers, radishes, Italian dressing, bacon shavings and a few pieces of the fajita steak strips that sat limply in a plastic holster next to the grilled chicken for the Caesars.
I wondered: Could these fajita steak strips possibly be real and of high quality, and if so, would they take my original theory — that the food at Golden Corral restaurants was comparable to something you’d get in the dirty-floored cafeteria of a hospital that was about twenty-six years overdue for a remodel — and blow it up in my face right there next to the taco shells?
I couldn’t wait, so I bit into one, because you can do that at Golden Corral. You can put a fajita steak strip on your plate, eat it, take another one, eat that one, too, and then dump the whole lot of them on your plate and eat them like a feral boar right in front of the hundred or so other burly javelina-humans getting right behind you to wait for more. It’s fucking beautiful. And the fajita steak strip wasn’t half bad. Just a bit dry.
Now look at this: 1,081 words and I haven’t even gotten to the entrees. Take that, 90-year-old woman from North Dakota who wrote about the Olive Garden and the 58,467 asshole Twitter followers that you’d have if you knew what Twitter was.
Next up was the grill, where I saw a man tending to what looked like cuts of sirloin. I demanded one of the medium-rare ilk, and when he showed me that perfect center of reddish-pink, I nodded and shoved my tray toward him. He put it on the plate as if to say, “OK, we’re done now,” but guess what, dipshit? We’re not remotely close to being done here. It’s Golden Corral. I haven’t eaten all day, I can eat as much as I want to because I paid $14.56 for that right, and I want that other, slightly larger piece of steak that was right next to the first one. Yeah, that one. I want that, too. Now put it on my plate and like it, fucker.
I digress. The beef was decent; I already knew that this was not hospital food. It was super-hospital food, or maybe even on par with what Martha Stewart got at her Hamptons weekend prison. There was a real ribbon of fat attached to what I figured was top sirloin, and there was a seasoned salt grilled into it that gave it a steakhouse flavor. As I tore into it, along with the white steamed rice annexed from the nearby Asian section, canned green beans, canned sweet corn and weighty mashed potatoes, I thought for a minute that other joints in Phoenix were probably charging $30 for what I was eating. So what did I do? I went to get more.
Before I was through, I added a few barbecued ribs (surprisingly good, most definitely real pork), more fried shrimp (fried = good), barbecued chicken thighs (fine, except for the one that was grill-blackened on the bottom and I didn’t noticed until I bit into it), and ample sides such as canned rancher-style pinto beans, a middling mac and cheese, and a few fries that were too salty.
What time was it by then? Well, dessert time, of course, and as I walked over to the sweets bar and saw the wall of obesity before me, I felt like bowing. Because I’m a subscriber to the belief that if you decide to become a regular at a Golden Corral buffet and grill restaurant, you should be fat. Everything was right in the world again.
And it was all because of the Chocolate Wonderfall.
This automated, somewhat disturbing, Stanley Cup-shaped device sat vibrating in between the topping tray and a plate of cookies, and it was, as the French who habites in Phoenix might say, le piece de resistance de Corral D’Or. I could tell I was witnessing something special.
Oohs and aahs emanated from the aura of light being cast on the now-dirty floor. Families made pilgrimages, one by one, to this shimmering, flowing brown beacon. A girl who couldn’t have been more than 8 cut in front of me and joyously thrust a banana into the seemingly impenetrable electrically generated cascade of liquid delight. Her father was “so proud of her.” I moved on. I didn’t want to disturb the loving moment.
I made do with a bowl of blueberry pie (average) topped with vanilla ice cream (ice milk?), a mini-pumpkin pie with mini-whipped cream (the sweet yet hearty essence of Thanksgiving in mid-March) and a peanut butter cookie (standard).
I wasn’t ready for the Chocolate Wonderfall. I don’t know if I’ll ever be.
But I was ready for Golden Corral, the most exciting restaurant on earth.
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