In Excess | Restaurant Reviews | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

In Excess 

Experiencing a new sensation and confronting existential dread at Chuck-A-Rama.

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click to enlarge ENRIQUE LIMÓN
  • Enrique Limón

Nostalgia can be a bitch sometimes. How many magical memories of childhood movies, TV and food have been wrecked by the passage into adulthood? Too many—that's how many. Chuck-A-Rama (multiple locations) is my most recent addition to the mass grave of childhood sentimentality that contains Kool-Aid, Fruit Gushers and The Last Starfighter.

While the buffet is a decent spread for the price ($10.99-$11.99 for lunch; $13.99-$14.99 for dinner), time and age turned my last visit into a showdown with a rogue's gallery of Utah's most notorious food criminals, and I'm not sure I emerged victorious.

Conceptually, Chuck-A-Rama's heart has always been in the right place. It started as an homage to the chuck wagon meals that kept cattle drivers of the Old West fed while herding them dogies. The "A-Rama" portion of the name was born when original owners, Don Moss and Wayne Chamberlain, attended a Scout-O-Rama to show their support of the Boy Scouts of America. A bountiful, stick-to-your-bones buffet inspired by the majesty of our state's cowboy heritage and Boy Scouts is practically Utah in a box, and Chuck-A-Rama will always be worth visiting for its role as a repository for dishes and techniques that have come to define the state's cuisine.

click to enlarge ENRIQUE LIMÓN
  • Enrique Limón

The problem with its current menu is that the canned soup and Jell-O recipes of traditional Utah fare haven't aged particularly well. I'm not long into my visit before I see the menagerie of antiquated side dishes that think they can hang at the salad station despite their mini-marshmallow and Cool Whip flair. All the major players are there—broccoli salad with dried cranberries, washed-out shreds of carrot salad and thick heaps of mayo-drenched potato salad are just a few faces in the lineup. My efforts to rate the best entry in this category proved to be difficult since they all started to taste the same after a while. That's not to say that the flavors were bad, but things get a little one-note when eating salads that consist of fruit and veggies slathered in sugary goop.

Depending on the day, the 'Rama has a full table dedicated to Americanized versions of Mexican, Italian and Chinese food. I happened to go on Mexican night, where the best bet would have to be the taco bar. Using some innovative engineering techniques and plain bad judgment, I managed to build a few epic tacos by mixing their staple fillings of ground beef, shredded cheddar cheese, pico de gallo, guac and sour cream with stuff from other tables—kettle roasted turkey with mac and cheese for the win, y'all. The pork burritos and chicken enchiladas were fine in a culturally appropriated sort of way, but the overall effect didn't quite nail the cheap Mexican food vibe I was hoping for.

Highlights of the daily hot food bar are the aforementioned roast turkey, along with the carving table where diners can also get sliced turkey, ham and roast beef. These are Chuck-A-Rama's foundational items, and they pair nicely with any other side. Perhaps the most dishonorable felon in the vicinity is the flimsy cheese bread they're trying to pass off as pizza. Even when pizza is bad it's supposed to be good, but this flaccid pie was a true abomination.

I had been managing my appetite pretty well until it came time to attack the dessert bar. It comprises two tables full of Technicolor cakes, bread pudding, sticky buns, brownies and cookies, all of which can and should be enhanced by dual soft-serve machines. Where the bulk of Chuck-A-Rama's savory food unapologetically mines the sodium-heavy end of the flavor spectrum, the dessert bar launches you into a saccharine orgy so fast that whiplash ensues. There's no sense in criticizing such a debauched pantheon of dessert offerings, but take my advice and tread lightly—just because there's so much to choose from doesn't mean you should try all of it at once, Augustus.

In the end, I suppose that's the lesson those of us whose metabolism has decreased considerably with age can learn from visiting a place like this. Buffet-style eating is a young person's game, and I'm sure the Chuck will represent a point of nostalgia and a foodie rite of passage for Utahns in perpetuity. As for me, I'll be over here playing "Taps" on an imaginary trumpet as I lay one more fond childhood memory to rest.

Open: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.;
Sunday 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Can’t miss: Kettle-roasted turkey
Best bet: Wear stretchy-waisted pants

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