RIO GRANDE - At times, it seems that the most important part of going to an all-you-can-eat buffet is the fine art of pacing yourself. The job of a reviewer is to sample a good cross section of what is available at any given time. It's hard work, but someone has to do it.
The brickwork on the outside of the Joy Buffet in Rio Grande renders it virtually indistinct from the Sleepy's next door. The decor inside the large room hardly yells authentic. Orange pleather booths and green chairs around light wood tabletops are functional, if not pretty. A few fan shaped items hang on the butter colored walls, some origami shapes hang from the ceiling, and the private dining rooms have that dark wood outline with a slight Asian architecture.
Food stations are off in one section of the room with only some semblance of connectedness to each other. But each dish was marked on the glass sneeze guard above it, so customers could make an informed decision.
We began with some very good seafood tarts. Cocktail shrimp and cocktail sauce were cooked well and chilled. But we decided not to eat the clams on the half shell from the raw bar after we heard a woman behind us describe them as "clammy but good."
The salad bar had assorted lettuces and garnishes. The pot stickers and soy dipping sauce were crisp but good.
Chicken is king at the Joy Buffet, offered in many forms from General Tso's, to pepper or honey, along with chicken skewers and a dish with broccoli. Shrimp appears frequently, as coconut shrimp - breaded and deep fried - or the main ingredient in a stir-fry. Pork appeared in fried rice and as BBQ ribs and boneless glazed ribs.
Fresh fruits ranged from pale, late-season watermelon chunks, to perfectly ripe pineapple, to slightly hard melon. Pudding never looks attractive poured into a stainless steel half-pan, but there was plenty of it. A kind of cookie station along the back wall had plenty of choices, including puff pastry pig ears.
The sushi station was stocked with the lowest common denominator, wrapped in saran, ungarnished and unattractive. The young man making the sushi looked as if he would rather be anywhere else in the world. The hibachi grill area had that picked over look, with the saran wrap torn into, rather than removed.
An American section included baked salmon, very crisp chicken wings, and meatloaf with brown gravy.
The Chinese-American theme continued in the music selection, with plenty of American cover tunes and some Asian language rock and roll.
We watched two teen boys who knew how to take advantage of a buffet stacking slices of pizza three high, then piling on more food from around the kiosk.
We didn't believe for one minute that we'd been magically transported to an adventure in some exotic place as our young waitress stood in the corner texting on the worldwide web. But our used plates disappeared quickly from our table each time we went up for a new helping of food.
The set up at Joy Buffet is the same found at most buffets, with foods arranged with volume in mind rather than much thought to presentation. The hot food could have been hotter.
No one would confuse this with a gourmet meal. But what Joy Buffet does provide is a friendly staff, clean surroundings, and a large selection of good, basic food at a bargain price. Who could ask for anything more?
The management has placed signs everywhere admonishing customers to follow the house rules, some helpful, some of a more sinister sounding nature. A warning about the dangers of eating raw or undercooked seafood is balanced by another sign warning the price of admission does not include packing food into your bag for take home.
Some actually make you think, like the one about Joy Buffet being all-you-can-eat but not all-you-can waste. Point well taken.
Pictures on Facebook show just how widespread the popularity of Joy Buffet has become. Singles, couples, and families with small children appear in photos celebrating birthdays and other occasions at a place that caters to a wide variety of tastes. More photos of happy families line the wall when you enter the foyer up front by the counter, highlighting the fact that the Joy Buffet has something for everyone.
3174 Route 9 South, Rio Grande
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Liquor license: BYO
Credit cards: most major
Disabled access: yes
Price range: $11.99 Mondays to Fridays; $12.99 Saturdays and Sundays. Drinks $1.59.
Our bill for two: $29 plus tip