This week, we shared the news that Old Country Buffet is probably dead forever, and it’s been hard not to reminisce about buffets in general as their numbers dwindle nationwide. Oh, those glorious shrines of all-you-can-eat, serve-yourself food. It’s less about what you eat there, and more about the fact that you can’t eat like that at home. Who has the time to prepare 80 different dishes, anyway? Another important consideration is the atmosphere: there’s nothing like a restaurant buffet, and what you remember about them might not be the cuisine at all.
Years ago, I used to work in Waukegan, which is a far northern suburb of Chicago close to the Illinois-Wisconsin border. (My commute was absolutely awful; on one stormy night, it took me two and a half hours to get home.) Lunch pickings in the area were fairly slim, but we had some favorites like the legendary Hoagie Hut, a family-run Filipino turo-turo restaurant (the term turo-turo means “point-point,” since you point at which items you want to eat), and a great birria restaurant in a strip mall near the office. But then, of course, there was... the buffet.
It was called the New Economical Hibachi Grill and Asian Buffet, but we called it Economical Buffet for short. Please say those two words out loud and enjoy their combined magic. Economical Buffet. Now, this place was a massive point of contention with my coworkers. Some of us defended it with our lives (including me), and others went there once, never spoke of it again, and would never return.
I never really went for the food, which was fine, despite what a few of my coworkers thought. It was a Chinese-American buffet with your typical fried nuggets of chicken covered in various brown sauces, veggie dishes, sushi, a made-to-order noodle station, and random shit like pizza and chicken nuggets that were a spitting image of McNuggets (there was a McDonald’s next door, so I was always suspicious).
My coworker Mike swore by the surimi casserole, which was surimi (fish paste) mixed with an inconceivable amount of mayo, topped with cheese, and baked. The mayo was always broken, meaning it clotted up and the oil separated into a pool around the fake cheesed-up crab. I hated the way it looked, but I have to admit, it was good. Mike would later go on to become the culinary director of McDonald’s for a stretch (he caused the legendary Rick and Morty Szechuan Sauce fiasco). Oh, and another coworker, my dear friend Nick, would go on to become one of the food critics for The Chicago Tribune. For the record, Nick was not a fan of this particular lunch choice.
I loved the Economical Buffet, and not because of the food. It was because the Economical Buffet housed the most bizarre indoor fish pond I’ve ever seen. It housed large happy koi fish that wiggled through the water, oblivious to the fact that they lived in a buffet. The pond was located in the foyer, and sometimes, when I’m feeling blue, I’ll think about it, and not for its relaxing qualities.
Unsettlingly, the pond was situated directly on the tile floor of the restaurant. Please refer to the photo above. Then refer to this photo on Yelp, which shows the thing from a much better angle. Now, when I say “situated directly,” I mean, the floor of the pond was the floor of the foyer, with a shallow wall cordoning off the fish from certain air-related asphyxiation. Their floor was our floor. Running all across the surface of the water was also a disconcerting amount of tangled wiring for the filters, which seemed like a bad idea, and did I mention the pond was just the floor of the foyer with a border around it?
It was clear the pond had existed for at least a little while, as some algae growth had accumulated on the base of the large decorative tree set in the center of the pond. The water had a freshwater pond tint to it (an organic shade of yellowish green), which I suspected was partially due to the now-discolored tile on the floor.
I don’t know what else to say. Oh just kidding, yes I do: I need to tell you about the sign that accompanied the pond:
This sign was Scotch-taped to that tree jutting out of the water. It said, “WARNING: DON’T THROW ANY COINS INTO THIS POND! OUR FISH COULD BE KILLED.”
I am assuming this was a prior problem, because someone bothered to make a sign about it. That means people had been throwing coins into the pond. But the “could be killed” part means that so far, the fish had survived coin attacks... right? Though I never gazed into the eyes of those koi, I’m assuming some of those fish had seen some serious shit.
And remember, this was the Economical Buffet. If you’re being fiscally responsible by coming to the Economical Buffet, why on earth would you throw money into the water? If you’re going to toss it away, might as well use it to pay for my meal instead.
Oh, and did I mention the pond was just the floor of the foyer with a border around it?
Anyway, if you ever mention a buffet to me in passing, it’ll reset my brain, transporting me right back to the fish pond on the floor of the foyer at Economical Buffet, and it will live on in my head for weeks. I can’t tell if that’s a good thing. It just happens. I have accepted this fact. The Economical Buffet has, thank God, survived into 2021 (it’s now called “Asian Gourmet,” as far as I can tell), and it will always have a home deep inside my heart until the end of time. Take a trip there if you’re able.
Also, one last thing: Wednesday nights were advertised as “all-you-can-eat lobster night,” which I never experienced but was always curious about. What luxury! Maybe I should go back and visit my old friends at the buffet.