Tonnage for Your Dollar 

All-You-Can-Eat deals are not all created equal. Here’s a helpful guide for the gorging gourmand.

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Some dining experiences invite you to soak up atmosphere, or savor carefully-matched flavors in delicate portions. Others simply say, “Here’s a plate, fill it up, use another plate when you’re ready, and try not to inhale the entire tray of mashed potatoes.”

Welcome to the world of the buffet, where the capacity of your stomach is all that stands between the restaurateur and financial ruin. The all-you-can-eat notion suggests an incredible dining bargain, but there’s a fine balance to be achieved between how much you can eat, how much you’ll pay, and the choices you’re offered.

We explored several Salt Lake City dine-till-you-drop options—comparing dinner choices only for our purposes—and offer our helpful hints for where to go the next time you’ve fasted for an entire day in preparation for getting your money’s worth.

Family Style. In Utah, land of the kid-friendly concept, you’d expect to find cafeteria-style eateries like Hometown Buffet and Chuck-a-Rama thriving. They offer great prices for kids, and plenty of choices for those young picky eaters who’d prefer to make an entire meal out of french fries and Jell-O.

As a family bargain, Hometown Buffet nips Chuck-a-Rama by pennies at the wire. Hometown’s adult all-you-can-eat dinner will set you back $8.19 to Chuck-a-Rama’s $8.29. Children 2-12 cost 50 cents per year of age at Hometown, with children 4-12 costing 60 cents per year at Chuck-a-Rama (those with toddlers will make up a bit of change at Chuck-a-Rama).

At the buffet, however, Chuck-a-Rama takes the lead. Both restaurants offer fried chicken, roasted meats and a full salad bar, but at Chuck-a-Rama everything’s just a bit tastier all around. Points for the turkey dressing with chunks of turkey, and yummier desserts—pay the extra dollar for the family, and enjoy.

Feast of the East. We’ll make the lame joke for you—after eating at an all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant, are you hungry again two hours later?

Probably not, if you choose wisely. Shanghai Garden in Midvale offers a huge selection of traditional Chinese dishes for $7.99 per adult, 60 cents per year for children 2-10. Try the sesame green beans with your Shanghai roll (diced pork wrapped in chicken breast), or traditional dishes like kung pao chicken and fried rice. Throw in a great selection of tamer kid fare like chicken fingers and sweet potatoes, and you’ve got a great bargain.

Compare that with the $8.45 dinner buffet at China King (also 60 cents per year for children), which charges more for about half the selection and no items specifically for kids. China King’s spicier dishes may be a bit better than Shanghai Garden’s, but Shanghai’s the clear overall winner.

For a different option, Panda Restaurant’s Mongolian barbecue applies the salad bar concept to Chinese food, allowing you to build your own stir-fry dish from various meats and veggies. You can’t beat the ability to select exactly the meal you want, but the all-you-can-eat option is a relatively steep $8.99 ($4.29 for children under 10).

South American Way. Rodizio Grill in Trolley Square became a local sensation for its wandering minstrels and sizzling skewers of carnivore-pleasing meats. For $16.95 ($6.95 for kids 7-12, 6 and under free), you get a bottomless pit of various grilled meats from beef to buffalo brought directly to your table, plus an exotic salad & side dish bar including tropical fruits and marinated quail eggs.

It’s a delicious meal, but Made in Brazil offers the same concept with much less bite to the wallet (and, for those who value such things, friendlier service). Everything’s a bit less exotic—no rattlesnake sausage on the skewers—but what you do get comes at a bargain price of $12.99 per adult ($6.50 for kids 5-11, 5 and under free). Don’t pass on the bacon-wrapped sirloin and the grilled pineapple.

Greens Fees. Our vegetarian friends probably won’t be seeking out the Brazilian grills with their pounds of flesh, but there are all-you-can-eat salad bar options a-plenty.

Sweet Tomatoes may be the best known, offering acres of greens and toppings, fruit, soups, pasta, bread and deserts for $7.79 (kids range from free to $4.29). Sizzler’s well-known bottomless salad bowl—also including soup, chicken wings, tacos and pizza—rings in at $7.99, $3.49 if purchased with another meal ($3.99 for kids 3-10). Both offer plenty of variety, and something for carnivores and herbivores dining together. But the true meat-shunners might find more for their dollar at Shanghai Garden (with its non-meat entrees) for $7.99. It’s all a matter of what you have a taste for filling up with until you’re nearly ready to explode.

Just be sure to save room for the soft-serve sundae bar. No matter where you go, there’s always a soft-serve sundae bar.

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More by Scott Renshaw

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