About 20 years ago, full-service ethnic grocery stores with in-house salad bars began springing up throughout the city. Owned by Korean Americans and Chinese Americans, they introduced lunch and dinner priced by the pound from hot and cold salad bars.
Several years later, this concept morphed into the buffet restaurant, featuring countless items from appetizers to desserts. These buffets are family-type spots, which is good since there are so few inexpensive places to dine out.
The newest addition to this fare is Ruby Buffet on Columbus Boulevard. It's only been open for a few weeks, but the owners have the operation down pat.
Ruby Buffet is a large, open space with booths and tables. A smiling hostess showed us to a roomy table. She brought chopsticks for me and Edward and silverware for Mom.
When dining at a buffet, it's best to sample a few dishes at a time and then return for a clean plate. I never used to like these types of places because I had a tendency to pile up the food, but Edward relieved me of this habit.
At $11.99 per adult, the buffet is a bargain, and everyone was piling the plates high. A party of young men were having a grand time, speaking perfect Mandarin Chinese, sipping tea and downing platter after platter of snow crab legs. I watched another man the size of a linebacker return to the buffet at least a half a dozen times.
Several servers offered us complimentary soda, but we opted for good old Schuylkill punch.
We began the sampling with several soups. Mom liked the fish chowder, although it reminded me of Campbell's. The hot and sour soup was delicious - not too spicy. Wonton and egg drop soups were also on order.
We made appetizer plates of grease-free spring rolls; thinly wrapped pork shu mei; and peel-your-own shrimp, which were a little small, but cooked just right. Edward feels crab legs are too much effort for too little reward, but I had to try them because of their popularity. The meat was sweet and perfectly cooked, though some legs were more substantial than others. I liked the clarified butter for dipping.
Salads on offer included Caesar, cold noodles and mozzarella with sliced tomatoes. Raw oysters and clams on ice were also available. Asian, American and Italian dishes shared the table, such as spare ribs, which were juicy and meaty, and succulent, crispy duck cut into bite-size pieces. Mom enjoyed the salmon and stuffed flounder, while I tried the beer-battered fried shrimp. String beans with garlic sauce were among the vegetable choices, as well as Asian broccoli and a sauté of mixed Chinese veggies.
The pepper steak was tasty and tender and there was a rib roast that could be carved to order. A small selection of sushi, including California and vegetable rolls, was also on the spread.
Boneless chicken breast is always used by Asian chefs. It is thinly sliced and then tossed in a wok with various ingredients. Ruby Buffet, which changes its menu weekly, presented chicken with vegetables in a light garlic sauce, which Mom and I enjoyed. Steamed white rice and fried rice were also on the hot buffet.
Dessert included platters of ripe fresh fruit - watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew and juicy red strawberries - and make-your-own sundaes with chocolate and vanilla soft serve ice cream and cones for the kids. Small squares of chocolate and hazelnut cakes (probably from one of the Hong Kong-style bakeries in Chinatown) made for a sweet ending.
Service was excellent with staff on hand to remove used plates as soon as you return to the buffet.
The only negative was the small, flimsy paper napkins. A linen or high-quality paper napkin would be better, since a number of the dishes are finger foods and messy.
It is getting hard to find good family restaurants. As an alternative to fast food, places like Ruby Buffet offer tastier and healthier options.
Two-and-a-half tips of the toque to Ruby Buffet.