A few weeks ago, I was having a delicious and sparklingly healthy dinner with a friend at the Green Elephant, when (of course) the subject of binge eating arose. It started simply enough with that conversation that people always have about whether they prefer salty to sweet, and what their greatest weakness foods are (cheez-its, hands down)… But quickly, it devolved into a pissing match of junk food one upsmanship. Somewhere in the fray (think orgy of Slim Jims and foot long Rice Krispies Treats), one of us dropped the magic word:
Now, Portland is constantly being named to all manner of “best of” lists in large part due to the saturation of totally amazing food. However, as my companion and I were discussing our most perverted food fantasies, what became clear is that for all the Micucci’s Sicilian Slabs and Caiola’s polenta fries there are in town, sometimes you just want to eat margarine soaked powdered mashed potatoes out of a steam tray. And so, a deal was struck. We would travel across Maine in search for the best buffets we could find.
Installment 1: Hometown Buffet– 517 Maine Mall, South Portland
Previously “Old Country Buffet” (onto which my brain has always slapped a “Ye”), Hometown Buffet bills itself as “The Best Buffet in America”. This is definitely not true. What Hometown does have going for it is that it is clean, well lit, and offers a large amount/variety of food for a mere $10.99 ($13.99 if you want a drink).
As we paid our entry fee, the checkout girl asked us if we had ever been there before. Before I could stop myself from being a giant bitch, I spat out a smug “NO” (with the clear implication of “OH GOD NO”). Hometown Buffet lady (if you’re out there), I’m so sorry!
The whole layout is weirdly divided into zones by the nationality/type of food in that area, making it look vaguely like Epcot Center with sneeze guards. However, there were a few kind of incredible features that I had never seen at another buffet:
1. Serve yourself silverware! Which means that at no point can the buffet waitress take your fork away when she thinks you’ve had too much.
2. Condiment island! A surprisingly large array of steak sauces, hot sauces, mustards, etc. were available to help dress up the fare. In hindsight, I should have visited this station.
3. Calorie labeling! Every single steam tray, vat, and station was labeled with serving size and caloric content, which I would blatantly ignore, but seemed like a progressive move for a mall buffet.
ROUND 1: The Orange Round
At one point, my companion looked down at his mountainous plate of breaded chicken blobs and assorted gravies and said “My food looks like John Boehner“. He even had an accompanying mango Icee from the beverage bar. I went for grape soda (because when is there ever grape soda at a soda at a normal restaurant?), and a weird array of nacho cheese, cole slaw, and something called “spinach marie”. These are the hazards of being a vegetarian at a buffet.
Other than the grape soda, the only thing on my round 1 plate that I really liked was the cole slaw (crunchy, not mushy, not too sweet, and the right dressing to cabbage ratio). Otherwise, it was all just a passable but salty mess. My friend spoke highly of the chicken blobs, but noted that the chicken dumplings and seafood patty tasted eerily identical. Impressively, he cleared off his plate and we headed out for round 2.
ROUND 2: The Pink & Brown Round
Well, as there still wasn’t much that I could eat, it was the orange round for me again with a mound of macaroni & cheese swimming in unearthly goo and some shiny dinner rolls. My friend, on the other hand, hit the carving station for assorted meats, topped with additional gravy and some sort of seafood medley. We both giggled as I kept asking him “So, what are the stand-outs?”. My broccoli was greyish, and his shrimp was a little bit mummified, but he cleaned his plate yet again, and I ate no fewer than 3 of those shiny (source of high gloss still undetermined) dinner rolls.
Mall buffets are exactly like bad movies that are so awful that they’re good (Killer Klowns from Outer Space comes to mind). The flaws are not just un-ignorable, they’re proudly displayed. But, there’s just something about that unselfconscious awfulness that is refreshing and fun, and sometimes you don’t always want to eat food that can be described as “artisan”. So yeah, Hometown Buffet has probably never heard the word “aioli”, but you also can’t get soft serve with Fruity Pebbles on it at Hugos.
ROUND 3: The Dessert Round
My companion had tapped out after his 2nd plate, but I had designs on the aforementioned soft serve and a vat of bread pudding that was smothering under a good inch of white cinnamon bun type icing. I also threw a couple pieces of fudge on there for good measure. When I arrived back at the table, he was gone.
I texted him: “Are you barfing?”
He responded: “Not yet.”
I’m not going to make any additional conjecture about what may or may not have happened on my friend’s trip to the Hometown Buffet restroom, but I will say that he did decide to hit the soft serve upon his return. By then, we were both completely shot. I laid my napkin over my remaining plate and informed the waitress that we had done enough damage.
We did a couple laps around the mall to try and walk off the itis, but a foolish turn down to the food court to settle an argument about whether or not Orange Julius is still there (it’s not) did more harm than good.
PRO TIP: If you’re about to eat 25 lbs. of greazy mall buffet food, I do not recommend a bumpy 20 minute bus ride back into town. The words “sphincter system, don’t fail me now” were definitely uttered by one of us. I won’t say which one.
I hugged the cool window and prayed for death the entire way home. At one point, I did have to pause and look up “too much macaroni sweats” on Urban Dictionary for my clueless friend. I think it’s pretty clear why.
Miraculously, we arrived at our respective homes without incident. And although we both learned a few things about the value of stretchy pants, and how the bus is an unpredictable mode of transportation for parties who tend toward car sickness and have a gullet full of danger, our post-mortem revealed no surprises. The Hometown Buffet is not the best buffet in America. Not even the best buffet in Maine. Not horrific by any means, but an average chain buffet unworthy of any special note.
Once the hours of searing stomach pain had waned, and we were able to consider the act of eating again, we decided that perhaps we would go a little bit more exotic for our next round- Indian food.
We’re almost ready to hit the road for the next installment of our buffet tour of Maine- can we get some recommendations?