Monday, January 3, 2011

Hokkaido Seafood Buffet

Last night, we met SP's family for a birthday dinner celebration. S's birthday was in December, before the holidays, but we were just now getting around to his birthday dinner. He chose Hokkaido Seafood Buffet (HSB) on Browns Hill Road in Squirrel Hill.

I can't say I was terribly excited about this place. It had 3 strikes against it from the outset:

1. Asian. Not my favorite cuisine, and yes, I did live for 2 years in Japan, but except for a few dishes that I really enjoy, Japanese is not one of my favorite cuisines. Chinese, Thai - it all usually bothers my stomach.

2. Seafood. I don't really enjoy fish. Not cooked. Not raw. I will eat it, but never with much enthusiasm because I just don't like the taste nor the smell.

3. Buffet. I think buffets are cheap, disgusting bastions of lukewarm, mediocre quality food which people then sneeze and cough on -- turning them into quivering mounds of germs. They disgust me.

But it was S's birthday and his choice. So on a chilly Sunday evening, we gathered around 6 pm for birthday dinner. On Sunday, HSB is $16.99 per person all day.

Warning: this will not be a glowing review.

To start, I ordered an iced tea. OK, points for fresh brewed. Points for offering sweetened and unsweetened options. But those points are cancelled out and then some by the weak tea. Worst fresh brewed iced tea ever. A complete waste of $1.59. I should have just had water because water would have tasted better than the iced tea.

Let's move on to the food. SP took me for a walk past all the food stations and then, since it was crowded, he brought me plates of food so we wouldn't have to maneuver the wheelchair through the crowded lines. My first plate of food:

The mushrooms were pretty good. The noodles were OK. The white rice tasted like dry, overcooked Uncle Ben's instant rice. The fried rice also tasted like dry, overcooked Uncle Ben's instant rice with barely any flavoring so the only reason it was fried rice was the addition of peas. The broccoli was not very good. Too crunchy for my taste and the sauce was way too salty.

I decided to try the clam chowder soup. It was one of 5 or 6 soups at the soup station.I thought it was terrible. No flavor. Almost kind of rubbery, and I mean the liquid part, not the bits of clam. There's no way this was homemade -- it tasted like some low quality, generic canned soup or something mixed up from a packet. I didn't finish it. I wasn't going to finish something that tasted that gross.

Which brings me to this gem: The restaurant reserves the right to charge you an additional $8 if they feel you are wasting food (leaving too much on your plate). Huh? It's a buffet. A poorly marked buffet. Yes, there are signs like 'fried rice' and 'sushi' but not very descriptive signs. What if you just don't like something? Are you just supposed to eat it anyway? What if you take something and it turns out to have an ingredient you cannot eat? Are you not supposed to branch out and try something new? I guess you're supposed to stick with only taking what you know you'll like. I get that they don't want people wasting food, but this really rubs me the wrong way, especially considering the quality of the food.

Here's one of SP's dad's plates of food:He really enjoyed the sushi, sashimi, seaweed salad stuff. Meanwhile, SP brought me a pork bun, vegetable dumpling, and deviled crab:The pork bun was meh. It was one of the tastier items for me at HSB but it was far from a quality pork bun. The ones I've eaten in San Franciso's Chinatown are so much better. The deviled crab was OK. It had sausage in it, an unusual addition, and not something we encountered in the southern deviled crab we ate on our honeymoon. The dumpling just had a leaf or two of spinach in it and was not very good.

SP and I shared some snow crab legs, and they were OK. Not very flavorful and there were no small forks to pick out all the crab meat.

The breaded, fried shrimp was OK. The crab rangoon was OK. Actually it was a step above the crab rangoon at Pacific Ring (that crab rangoon is the worst I've ever had) but it was far from being even average.

The shrimp cocktail was disgusting. How can you mess that up? I thought the shrimp tasted funny. SP agreed. And Z said she tried it once and has never tried it again because it tastes funny.

The cinnamon roll I ate was like the deviled crab & pork bun - one of the better things to me, but far from being even an average quality cinnamon roll when compared to cinnamon rolls at King's or Eat'N Park let alone a bakery like Dozen or Bethel Bakery.

SP got me a plate of yakisoba prepared at the grill. He added shrimp and broccoli. He said the green pepper wound up in mine because it migrated over from someone else's grill order that was cooking at the same time as mine. He chose the regular seasoning for me instead of something spicy or garlicky. This was the worst yakisoba I've ever eaten. No flavor. Tough, unseasoned shrimp. Too crispy broccoli. Someone else's green pepper. Yakisoba is one of the Japanese dishes I do really enjoy, and this was a pale, pale version of the real thing.

Here's some food Googer ate:The kimchi is on the left and he really liked the kimchi although he said it was not very garlicky nor spicy. He ate a lot of the vegetable dishes and clams.

Here's a plate of SP's:Front left is a piece of breaded tilapia. Above that is a squid ring. More sushi and a deviled crab (which ended up being one of the few things I could eat). Later on SP had this plate of food:Fruit, more sashimi and sushi, a spoonful of rice pudding - with sprinkles?! - and a spoonful of tapioca pudding. There's a sliver of cheesecake, but since it was still frozen, he didn't eat it and we have confirmation that they don't make the cheesecake but buy it from a vendor.

I asked SP about his sushi. He said it was good, but because sushi is expensive and this is an all you can eat buffet, it's skimpy on the fish/filling/fish eggs and generous with the rice. So to me, this means it's 'fake' sushi. Sushi is supposed to be a careful balance of flavors, with just the right proportions of rice & vinegar & fish. This sushi is clearly not properly proportioned.

The website says you can stay for 2-2.5 hours. We were there 1.5 hours and starting to slow down when the servers started pushing us out the door. I realize there was a line of people waiting, but... and yes, most of our 7 people were finished, but... I still wanted a little bit of ice cream. (Sadly, the not homemade mint chocolate chip ice cream was the high-light of the meal for me. )

As we were all chipping in to pay the bill, servers were clearing our table and saying 'Thank You! Good bye!' Then as we were putting on our coats and gathering our purses and such, 2-3 servers swarmed upon our table like vultures and swiped up every last dish and glass. That *issed me off because, for as disgusting as that iced tea was, Asian food like this always makes me super thirsty and I wanted another sip of my drink after I got my coat on, but my glass was whisked away before I had even turned away from the table.

As if my experience last night didn't provide enough reasons for the negative review, the stomach cramping I started experiencing during the night and still am experiencing this morning makes it clear: this place is not a good place to eat. OK, my digestive system is very sensitive, but when I get gassy and bloated and experience pains in my upper stomach that not even Gas X or Mylanta can ease, it's not good. This has happened 4 times in the past year, and half of those times it's been from Chinese/Thai/Asian cuisine. It seems I just cannot eat it anymore, and honestly, with quality like this, why should I even bother?

I can recall 4 truly disappointing and disgusting meals in the past few years. HSB is one. Rockefeller's in Kennedy Township is another. Green Forest is another (totally over priced buffet/salad bar with less than mediocre quality -- it was $29 for the non meat/salad bar only option; $34 for the meat option, and I couldn't opt for the meat because of all the garlic). And PF Chang's, which gave me food poisoning because the pork dumplings were not thoroughly cooked.

I think I can state with utter certainty that I will not ever eat at HSB again. My $17 would have been better spent elsewhere. The quality would have been better and I likely would have come home with leftovers for a lunch or another dinner. And not gotten stomach cramps and gas distress.

Hokkaido Seafood Buffet on Urbanspoon


  1. Well, your hilarious recap of this restaurant makes me no longer wonder about it :)

    Sorry for the disappointment. The iced tea and soup/chowder description are hilarious, though!

  2. I'm not a fan of buffets either. When I visit my parents they think this is the greatest thing. I have to really look to find something I want to eat, and that's always weird to me. And I can't figure out how they can make dessert so unpalatable. How do you mess up sugar? So I'm right with you, sister!

  3. The tapioca pudding was a letdown, too. One of my favorite desserts, and it was an oversweetened vanilla pudding with maybe 2 little bits of tapioca in my serving -- not at all the nice thick chunky less-sweet ideal of a GOOD tapioca.

    I had more success in finding stuff I liked (the kimchi was decent) but I'm in no hurry to return either.

    One other thing I noticed at the grill -- a young girl took a plate, loaded a few skewers of raw shrimp on them, then went over to her mother (already in line at the grill waiting to get her food cooked). The girl transferred her shrimp to her mother's plate, then went running off to some other food station somewhere, still holding that plate that had contained raw shrimp. Ew. Yuck. I hope she doesn't get sick, and I hope the people after her at whatever station she went to don't get sick if she touched her plate with whatever she spooned on...

    THAT'S what grosses me out most about buffets -- when you eat out you're taking a chance on the kitchen staff, but at least they're (theoretically) trained in food handling. When you're at a buffet, you're dealing with any old random idiot at the station before you...

  4. Me and a few friends have a running fascination with Hokkaido, simply because a guy we used to work with used to go there occasionally and referred to it by deepening his voice to a samurai growl and yelling "HO-KY-DOH!"

    So yeah, that's pretty much the only reason we have any interest in the place. I do have a weird love of crappy buffets, but as I've gotten older, I've learned to funnel my money into decent, quality meals, not expensive overstuffed piles of frozen junk food delights. (I do recommend the buffet at the Rivers Casino, however. For the price, you get a nice variety of decent food and all you can drink Mimosas or Bloody Marys. Then you can gamble and hopefully win the price of your buffet back.)

    $8 as a wasting food charge? Ridiculous.