Where: J&D Steak Buffet, 5326 Ringgold Road.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.- 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Price range: Lunch, $2.99 (ages 3-5), $3.99 (ages 6-10), $6.99 (ages 10-up); dinner (includes drink), $3.99 (ages 3-5), $5.99 (ages 6-10), $10.99 (ages 10-up).
I've learned over the years that modern buffet restaurants bear a striking similarity to Russian roulette. In place of a revolver's spinning cylinder, think instead of the dozens of food options, any of which could be delicious, disgusting or something in between. It's just impossible to know which is which until you try each one.
"My stomach hurts," my companion announced as we stood up to leave from J&D Steak Buffet after dinner there last week.
It's not possible to know whether this pain arose from too many helpings, a mixture of incompatible food, too much ice water or ill-prepared cuisine. I myself felt fantastic after four plates of food, three glasses of water, two bowls of soup and one scoop of ice cream, all in the name of research.
One plate of food at such places may include offerings that could go for $20 a portion at a five-star restaurant, while other food may have sat out too long under the heat lamp. It's best to keep your wits about you to salvage the best possible buffet experience.
Thankfully, J&D Steak Buffet recognizes the shortfalls of other buffets and strives to overcome them. In many ways, it succeeds. In other instances, it has room to improve.
J&D is a steak buffet, so I enthusiastically sampled the three types of steak available at the trough. I concluded the cuts found here bear little similarity to their namesakes in the real world.
Ribeyes are supposed to be moist and juicy; this one had the consistency of sawdust. The New York strip was sliced into tiny strips of meat, with what I think was a teriyaki flavor. I'm not sure what to make of the French steak, though I would note it stretches the definition of steak beyond what most of us would tolerate if the matter was put to a vote.
Much of the other food, however, was topnotch. General Tso was in typical top form, delivering the tasty chicken we have all grown to expect from him. The egg drop soup was perfect in every way, and the miso soup was as delicious as I've ever tried. Try the bacon-wrapped crab for a delightful treat, but avoid any sushi that has been sitting out in the open air.
The egg rolls were unremarkable, but the fresh cantaloupe, honeydew and kiwi were magnificent. The frog legs, according to my Cajun dining companion, were forgettable, while the honey chicken was tender and well-seasoned.
There's plenty here for the kids, including pizza, chicken fingers and french fries, all of which is prepared adequately.
For no extra cost, the chef will cook your choice of fresh ingredients on the hibachi grill, and a little bell will ring when it's ready. Two rings means "hurry up."
Nothing makes me feel quite so welcome as when I'm asked to pay $10.99 before being admitted to a restaurant, then looking down at the receipt to see a section where I'm supposed to add a tip before being seated. Since this is neither a rock concert nor a gas station, I can only assume the restaurant added the prepay measure as a precaution against walkouts.
Things improve tremendously once guests are seated. Servers whisk away plates the moment they are no longer desired, noticing right away when they are pushed to the edge of the table for removal. Drinks, strangely, are taken out of sight to be refilled.
The cooks continually refill the buffet's numerous dishes with helping after helping of fresh food, and the hibachi chef is efficient and friendly.
I don't envy the task of any restaurateur who buys a defunct Ryan's restaurant and is faced with giving the space a distinct flavor. But though the owners of J&D succeeded in renewing the building, they appear to have some work left to do.
A strand of streamers lies on the ground outside next to a torn piece of a vinyl sign. Just inside the main entrance, a waterfall feature lies silent and dusty. The restaurant's interior is in much better shape, with tile backsplashes, new leather chairs and real wooden tables. The color palette is upscale and modern, reminiscent of a Panda Express.
The well-lighted restaurant allows patrons to actually see their food before they eat it, and the sounds of the hibachi grill make for a wonderful backdrop for diners. Plates and silverware are plentiful at every station, and children run to and fro through the restaurant's aisles.
It would take a dozen visits to sample all the varieties of international cuisine available here, and it appeared some of the patrons may very well be on track to accomplish that goal. But the aisles are wide and the tables large enough to accommodate any size family or body type.
It's not a matter of listing what's on the menu here. It would be easier to list what is not available here. Just about every food group under the sun can be found at J&D Steak Buffet, whether at the salad bar, hibachi or somewhere else -- all of which is included for the $10.99 price of entry.
Some of the food is delicious, some is ill-prepared and some is exactly as expected. As in a game of chance, it's not possible to know in advance which will be which until you try. Veteran guests will already know what they like and will certainly get their money's worth, especially with the seafood dishes.
Perhaps that's part of the fun when you go to a buffet, one of the unwritten rules of the game. Who can get the most bang for their buck? Who can find the hidden gem between the broccoli and the fried rice?
At the end of the day, I enjoyed myself. While I won't eat here often, I will certainly be back -- and with friends.
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6315.