February 19, 2003

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Dine
Warrin' buffets

By Paul Reidinger

'BUFFET" ; is a word that sets off alarm bells in the skull of the serious food person, who immediately pictures a ghoulish succession of stainless-steel warming trays filled with tepid mush, or salmonella. Buffets are for business meetings at hotels or wedding receptions in stuffy church basements; they best suit Las Vegas slot-machine junkies who could not find their way out of those labyrinthine hotel/casino warrens even if they wanted to.

And yet, and yet ... I've eaten some decent food at those Vegas (and Reno) places over the years. I've liked the buffets, in fact, better than the cloned Coyote Cafes and other fancy-pants restaurants with imported brand names; the buffets are more honest, less pretentious, and far less expensive. And no one cares, or charges you, if you go back for more.

But the buffet is harder to square with city slicker-dom. Many of us ended up in this city after fleeing the high school cafeteria and all it stood for. So there is emotional resistance to plastic trays, stacks of warmed plates, and salad bar-style sneeze shields. We do not wish to be reminded of such things. And we need our little touches of elegance to reassure us that we have in fact grown up: we crave the attractively appointed room, the tablecloth, the water glasses discreetly replenished, even if we have laded our own plates and are carrying them, with the help of plastic trays, toward the weighing station where, like 18-wheelers, we will pay a crude tariff based on poundage.

Actually, paying by weight is something of a wrinkle in buffetland – the usual rule is all-you-can-eat – and Julie's Kitchen is the only place I've come across it. And your water glasses are not automatically refilled there; you have to perform that task yourself by traipsing back to the weigh station, where rests the fluted plastic pitcher with its slice of refreshing lemon. Otherwise, the place is a veritable cornucopia of good food, from roast turkey with gravy (you slice what you want right from the nicely moist bird) to do-it-yourself Caesar salad to gumbo (with big chunks of okra) to sushi. Whatever you choose, it will run you $3 for a half-pound, $5.99 (a volume discount of 1) for a full pound. That's less food than you might think, since the plate gets weighed too. But less isn't necessarily bad.

Although the business-lunch crowd tends to be in a bit of a rush at – or through – Julie's Kitchen, the space does have a certain airline-first-class-lounge handsomeness. If there were no chow line, the place could easily be a north Italian or American restaurant with full table service. Or perhaps even Indian, but now we are shifting our attention a few blocks north, to a location that some years ago housed a restaurant called Appam and is now known as India Garden.

India Garden has at least one leg up on Appam: its name makes explicit reference to the appealing patio behind the dining room. Otherwise, things don't seem much different. The tables are crisply clothed, and the air is redolent of curry – a not subtle hint about the food.

The food is about as good as buffet food can be, though variety seekers would probably be happier with Julie's around-the-world-in-20-steam-trays scope. In every other respect India Garden holds its own. You can eat all you want (for $7.95 at lunch), staff circulate through the dining room to bring complimentary naan (indispensable for mopping up spicy sauces), refill water glasses, and handle payment, and there is outdoor seating for sunseekers.

If India Garden's buffet food seems a bit fresher, a bit livelier than what one might expect from long experience with Indian lunchtime setups, it's probably because there are somewhat fewer dishes on offer. That means they turn over more quickly than would be the case at a more ambitious buffet – and, as with produce, turnover directly correlates with freshness.

Of course there is tandoori chicken (bright pink outside, juicy inside: very much up to snuff), spinach with cheese chunks, spicy garbanzo beans (noticeably sweetened by chunks of tomato), cauliflower with potato, chicken tikka masala (chunks of boneless meat in a sauce like spiced velvet), lamb vindaloo, basmati rice flecked with carrots and peas, crisp pakoras in strange asteroid shapes. As is always the case at Indian restaurants, the food is unself-consciously vegetarian-friendly; the majority of the dishes don't include animal flesh, and even those that do seem to be at least as much about sauce as about meat.

Is that fact alone enough to draw people to a buffet? I doubt it, though it can't hurt. Bigger draws are convenience, speed, cost, and plenty. For people in search of a good deal at lunch, either Julie's Kitchen or India Garden is a vastly preferable alternative to fast food-chain palaces, with their plastic seats, limited choices, and overall fattiness. In that sense, at least, there can never truly be strife among buffets.

Julie's Kitchen. 680 Eighth St. (at Townsend), S.F. (415) 431-1255. Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. No alcohol. Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa. Moderately noisy. Wheelchair access difficult.

India Garden. 1261 Folsom (at Ninth St.), S.F. (415) 626-2798. Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: nightly, 5-10:30 p.m. Beer and wine. American Express, Diners Club, Discover, MasterCard, Visa. Not noisy. Wheelchair access difficult.