Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Oriental Buffet vs. Hibachi Grill

Sometimes comparisons are inevitable.
About a year ago, Hibachi Grill in Festus opened, a mere mile from the Oriental Buffet. We'd been going to the latter for several years, it was small, but they seemed to get the things we like best about right.
When the Hibachi Grill opened, I was worried for the smaller place.
The many Hibachi Grills around the region look the same, large and imposing, with similar interiors styles and offerings, but they are not a franchise outfit. It's more of a shared business model. Each one is independently owned and operated. If there is collusion between them, it apparently happens behind closed doors. All the four or five HG's I'v been to looked, tasted and seemed the same.
OB is, by all appearances also independently owned and operated. It is at the end of a modest strip mall. HG took over a failed Ryan's Steakhouse. A massive free standing building.
HG's have bigger, much bigger, buffet lines. They not only offer Americanized (breaded and fried) Chinese food, which is after all, what we want when we want Chinese, but it also serves a lot of American American things like pizza slices, macaroni, etc. Strip away the non-Chinese serving lines at HG and you'll discover they serve pretty much the same stuff as OB.
HG also caters to big crowds, OB is a bit more intimate, more sit down restaurant like.
So this three day weekend we decided to do a side by side comparison. Was OB holding up despite the Goliath on the nearby hill? Was Hibachi sacrificing quality for quantity?
Let's find out.

Oriental Buffet
774 Truman Blvd
Festus, Mo.


The Place:
At the end of a strip mall Just South of  Highway A. A few years old, but holding up well. The strip mall is anchored by an always busy Aldi's on one end, along with hair places, a big $1 store, the usual stuff.
I noticed walking in that it had not changed much in the year or so since my previous visit. Well lit, nicely decorated, clean and neat. There were the requisite gaudy red, gold and jade objects sitting around, not cluttered though. There were about a dozen tables occupied, maybe 1/3 capacity. This is pretty much the level of occupancy I recall from earlier visits.
We were greeted by a young lady who happily led us to a booth and took our drink orders while we were walking. This proved very efficient since by the time we got to the booth we didn't even bother to sit, we just dropped of our jackets and went straight to the line. I admired the table tops, a large piece of traditional art and calligraphy.
As before, there were a half dozen young people dressed in black pants and white shirts scurrying around the floor, bussing tables, reloading the serving line, refreshing drinks. To my ear they all treated English as very much a second language.
Overhead though, the music was different. It was very low volume, so I couldn't quite put my finger on it. It was definitely a western hemisphere key though. Not the exotic Asian key and instruments that I recalled from a previous visit.
The Food:
We pretty much always get the same things at Chinese buffets, to each of us, our own favorites. I spread it out, just a couple of nuggets each of General Tsao and other chickens, Black Pepper, Teriyaki, etc. Some Beef from the broccoli and beef, and some pepper steak, a few standard shrimp, then some noodles and fried rice, and finally a must-have, a Crab Rangoon.
Angel 's plate had some of those things, but also included an egg roll,
chicken on a stick and green beans.
I like those things too, but the egg roll and stick chicken, were, compared to the other things I had, quite large. Adam's plate looked paler. Broccoli, plain rice, and a Chinese doughnut along with his General Tsao's. Adam doesn't care for fried rice because of the little vegetable chunks they put in it.
There was nothing scary or new on my plate, like I said, we all get pretty much the same thing every time. This was going to be a test of quality, taste and freshness of things we knew well, not an experiment. We would very likely be getting very similar things at HG.
I picked an poked around my variety, tore open the rangoon and let the innards melt on my tongue. It was sweeter than at some places, but not bad, barely any crab taste  at all. The wrapper was crispy on the top and sides, but suffered a little under the liquid load on the bottom. The only place we've found that can prevent their bottoms from getting soggy, was at Lucky China in Arnold. Those at Lucky were the best tasting we'd ever had as well. But these were quite acceptable.
Angel immediately remarked on the freshness of the stick chicken. I asked her if it was dry, as they often tend to be and she said that it was actually moist. Then she pointed to the green beans and said they too were fresh and perfectly cooked. I began to notice the same thing. All the meats were tender and moist. None seemed overcooked or suffered from sitting too long in a steamer tray. That's a problem common in many buffets, food that is kept warm often tends to continue cooking and toughen or dry up. This did not seem like that at all. Even the beef strips fell apart with a gentle pull. The only disappointment for me, and it wasn't a big one, was that the noodles were a bit overcooked, but they were tasty. Nothing was too spicy, or too bland or too sweet, the recipes and preparation at OB was solid. For my second round, unlike what I used to do before my stomach shrank, which was to go back and get two or three of my favorite things, I went straight for the dessert round. The desserts I like at Chinese buffets are hardly traditional, I like the bananas in red sauce topped with banana pudding. I noticed they also had Fig Newtons, another thing I'm rather fond of, so I grabbed one of those as well. Angel grabbed a couple more chicken chunks and some more green beans, some shrimp and added a couple of the rangoons. "Rangoons are kind of like dessert." She said. I nodded, they were kind of sweet at OB.
Summary:
Overall we were quite pleased. A little surprised too, that the quality had not suffered since our last visit, and in fact seemed to be improving. The freshness was notable, but also indicative of a well run, successful restaurant, the dining area was very neat, meticulously cleaned and the staff was plentiful and on the job. Empty plates were taken away and tables were bussed, cleaned and prepped very quickly.
The place never really filled up, but those that were there seemed happy and content. The bill came to a modest and predictable thirty four dollars and change.
Not bad, not bad at all.

Hibachi Grill
331 North Creek Dr.
Festus, Mo.


The Place:
Hibachi Grill took over the former Ryan's Buffet about a year ago. It's big place, easily three times bigger than Oriental Buffet. Hibachi Grills are designed and operated to feed a lot of people. Saturday nights the place is usually packed. On those nights it seems almost industrial, like a busy cafeteria.
It too has the gold and red bric-a-brac on shelves. It also has large statues, reminiscent of the famed Terracotta Army. We were greeted by a young man lady who took us back to a booth/table. He too asked about drinks on the way. Once again we didn't even sit, we went straight to the lines. The decor is a bit loud and gaudy, only on a larger scale. The carpet was very dark, worn and industrial, it robbed from the ambiance, making it seem less polished and clean. The tables were not nearly as ornate, plain faux-marble laminate. The Music overhead was more talk than music. It was a radio station pushed by industrial speakers into an acoustically challenged space. Static, poorly equalized noise. The sound bounced around the high ceiling so much that I couldn't make out the actual words very often. Bad idea.
There were, as promised, more serving lines. Hibachi Grill has one thing that OB doesn't, a Mongolian Barbecue station. I've taken advantage of that before, picking my own combination of meats, veg, noodles and sauce. It's hard to go wrong when you pick your own ingredients. I skipped it this visit.
The Food:
Sure enough, even though there were a lot more buffet lines, all three of us picked out pretty much the same
things. I added a thing or two, like a stuffed crab and 'butter shrimp' just to try them, but other than that, some fried rice, noodles, a couple each of several beefs and chickens and a crab rangoon. The rangoons were noticeably smaller, more like won tons. That's not a bad thing, just a style thing. I like them both ways, the big fat ones can be kind of messy. The meats I got were very close to the same selections from OB. General Tsao, pepper, etc. Also the pepper steak and a slug of thin meat from the broccoli and beef.
Angel and Adam pretty much did the same, even though I had not prompted them to do so. Angel had the egg roll, the chicken on a stick, green beans. Along with that she added some cheesy crab dish and some stuffed mushrooms.
Adam had the chicken, the plain rice, the doughnut, and broccoli.
Selection was where the similarities ended.
My fried rice was, for lack of a better word, mushy. Too wet, it doughed up in my mouth. I can't really comment on the taste since the texture was too off-putting to notice. The noodles were better cooked than at OB but there wasn't any real flavor to them. The chickens, as I had feared, seemed tough and dry, the beef chewy. The rangoon wrapper was not crisp, but not soggy either, sort of stale, very much like chewing on a business card. Once again the texture was enough of a deficit that I can't really speak to the taste.
The extras, the stuffed crab was inedible. The taste was weird, I can't put my finger on it, but once again it was the texture that really killed it. It was gritty, like they sprinkled about a tablespoon of fine sand in with the stuffing. The butter shrimp was neither buttery or shrimp-y. It looked
like salad shrimp with a crust of some kind, but it came out more greasy breading than anything. The green peppers in the sauces all looked pale and seemed a bit tough. the General's chicken was the only thing, other than the real shrimp, that I finished on this plate.
Angel commented the the stick chicken was dry and tough. She admitted that things didn't seem as fresh. Adam shrugged his shoulders.
They were confused. They had eaten there just a week before, without me since I worked that weekend, and said that meal was just fine, much better than this. It wasn't just one or two things, she said.
I made a second run, mostly because I hadn't wanted to eat most of what was on my first plate. I saw some chicken I'd missed before, something called 'Hibachi Chicken' with a green pepper and sauce topping. I also grabbed anther Rangoon to see if the previous one had just been a dud. I hadn't asked Angel about the cheesy crab, so I got a little of that. Then I went ahead and stepped up to the dessert line and plopped down some bananas in . . . . wait a minute, is that sauce . . . orange? Oh well, I topped it with some banana pudding. Just like before.
Angel picked up a few things too, including a stuffed shrimp and some chocolate pudding.
The cheesy crab was awful. It tasted fishy, and not in that good way. The chicken was pretty good though, a little fresher and more tender than the others. Still, the peppers were pale and tough. Overall the best chicken offering that evening. The previous rangoon had not been a fluke, this one too was stale. The red/orange sauce was a little odd, but not terrible, the good news is that the banana pudding was very good, more like the old fashioned kind mom used to make before instant pudding was invented. More vanilla wafers, layered, as well. Angel commented that her pudding was better here as well.
Summary:
The bill came in at a slightly higher thirty nine dollars vs. thirty four, not really enough to squirm about. The service was at least as efficient, plates disappeared quickly. The tea was old, like OB's so no winner there. It should be pretty plain from this review, the whole ordeal was a bit disappointing.

Conclusion:
Well it probably seems clear at this point, and in fact it was unanimous consent, that Oriental Buffet was the winner of this round, by a large margin.
I said 'this round' though. Adam and Angel truly seemed baffled about the fact that they could not believe the difference between the two week-apart meals they'd had at Hibachi. Thinking about it, I had a hunch. We went to Oriental Buffet on a Saturday. Hibachi Grill on a Monday. As I mentioned earlier, on Saturday nights the place is usually packed. On this visit, there was no competition with crowds, a lot of empty tables between diners. HG's food was not being turned as quickly and was sitting much longer than on a Saturday. Hibachi has a lot more food offerings, though a great deal of it is American food, meat loaf, pizza, grilled steak, macaroni and cheese, etc. the kitchen has a lot more work to do to turn out that big variety. Whereas OB concentrates on a much smaller range of food and can tend to that and make more frequent and smaller batches.
So the moral of the story is that if you want to go to Hibachi Grill, go there when it is really busy. Oriental Buffet on the other hand is more consistent exactly because it serves fewer things to fewer people.

Epilouge:
After the meal on Saturday, we had to stop on the way home to give witness statements to the Festus Police and the Highway Patrol. We had stopped at an intersection yielding to oncoming traffic, unlike the guy in the Jeep in front of us. He got slammed by a big pickup going full on through his solid green light. The poor kid in the pickup told me after I called 911 and checked on the drivers, that this was his dad's truck as his own had been stolen earlier in the week. (sad) No one was injured, just two vehicles totaled and a mess of fluids, glass and plastic bits all over the roadway.
On Monday as we got to the Hibachi Grill, as I usually do, I stepped out of the car to take a photo of the signage. I took two as the first one was a bit distant. After we had our disappointing meal we stepped back out to the vast, but mostly empty parking lot to see that the SUV's passenger door, my door, was standing open. Yeah, I'd been so eager about the photo that I forgot to close the door. Nothing was stolen or damaged, just a little embarrassing. I only mention it at all because Angel said I had to mention it or she'd sue me or something. She mumbled something about all the previous times I'd pointed out silly and embarrassing things she's done, though  I don't recall ever doing that.



Oriental Buffet on Urbanspoon

Hibachi Buffet on Urbanspoon


























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