Monday, November 27, 2006

Wok 'N' Roll

The day had just slipped into darkness as my husband, Dave, and I drove down the road to our next dining destination: Wok “N” Roll. Not just a buffet, mind you, but a buffet and grill.

We pulled into Hampton’s Todd Square Shopping Center, where the parking was ample and the lot brightly lit. The restaurant is located in the former Old Country Buffet building, and still had triangular “Grand Opening” flags fluttering at the front.

Pushing through the front doors, I noticed a small, kid-friendly, Asian-influenced waterfall spilling quietly. “Just two?” a voice asked, as the hostess rushed forward.

At my nod, she led us across the open, sparse dining area to a booth. Our waitress flanked her, asking what we would like to drink. We hadn’t been offered a menu, seen a signboard, or noticed any other information offered at the table, so I asked what they had. “Water, tea, Pepsi products,” she promptly replied. In that case, waters for both of us.

Dave and I headed up toward the quadrant of freestanding buffet tables, grabbed plates and cruised our options. Honestly, the view beyond the sneeze-guard wasn’t that promising, but I filled up my plate with a selection of nibbles.

There was a variety of seafood, and I found myself tasting a mussel in ginger-scallion sauce. The moment it touched my lips, something in the taste or texture seemed disconcertingly, noticeably off. Luckily, the waitress had deposited a goodly-sized wedge of napkins along with our waters. I discretely spit it out.

Vegetables came in the form of some rather tired looking salads, so I chose mine in the guise of green beans. Fairly al dente, there didn’t seem to be much flavor beyond the snappy green. I also tried a bite of the stir-fried spinach, which tasted much the way washed-up kelp appears: dry, with an after-taste of brine.

Lo mein was plain, Jane; the stuffed mushrooms were bland and pasty, while the egg roll was unacceptably dry. I moved onto sampling from Dave’s plate, a homage to all things crispy.

The fried chicken, tiny wings and drumsticks, were tasty in the way the freshly fried items can be, if salty. Sweet ’n’ sour chicken, General Tso’s chicken and kung pao chicken were all present, but remarkably similar in their over-salinated taste. The only notable difference was in color. There were also ribs — bland and dry — as well as spicy pork stir-fry, characterized yet again with an aggressively forward hit of salt.

I finished sucking down my glass of water, then headed up to the “Mongolian” grill. A small circular table held the raw ingredients for me to select, then hand over to the chef for cooking. The variety was fairly limited, and many of the meats appeared to have sat out a little to long. Nonetheless, I quickly assembled some veggies, noodles, a skewer of shrimp with peppers and a small piece of beef.

I passed this along to the chef, who asked what sauce I wanted. Again, there didn’t seem to be any signage or other indication of my choices, so I had to ask what was available. I chose “spicy” sauce, and had a steaming plate of hot, freshly cooked food in about five minutes.

In theory, this is a good thing, but the actual experience left much to be desired. Sure, it was warm. Sure, it was freshly cooked, but does this really matter when the raw ingredients looked like they’d missed their afternoon nap? The spicy sauce did nothing to add any flavor, or zing, to the dish. Warm bland food. At least it wasn’t salty.

Cruising the dessert table was a walk down memory lane. Jell-O, puddings, and tiny cubes of cake were available in a wide variety of colors. Luckily, some fresh fruit was also on the line. Eager to relieve the dryness on my tongue, I grabbed a couple of pieces of melon. The honeydew was sweet and delicate, but the cantaloupe held a very strange and off-putting sourness. I drained my second glass of water. We wasted no time in leaving.

This experience, to me, sums up everything that is bad about modern fast food. It’s cheap, it’s plentiful, and, when not bloatingly over-seasoned, it’s bland and tasteless. Even more to the point, there is no pride: it’s marketed to the masses, with an eye toward turning tables as quickly as possible.

Personally, I like to keep this adage in mind: unless you’re buying barbecue, it’s generally not a good idea to get your meals by the pound.

Wok ‘N’ Roll Buffet & Grill
2302 W. Mercury Blvd., Hampton
Phone: 838-6669 Fax: 838-6366
Specialties: Buffet
Price range: Lunch buffet: $5.95 (children 3-5 $2.95, children 6-10 $3.65); dinner buffet $8.95 (children 3-5 $3.50, children 6-10 $4.85); carry out buffet: lunch $3.25/pound; dinner $4.25/pound; seafood & sushi $5.25/pound
Hours: Sunday-Thursday: 11a.m.-11p.m; Friday & Saturday: 11a.m.-11p.m
Alcohol: No
Smoking: No
Vegetarian: Yes
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Payment: Cash, credit cards
Noise level: Conversational
Atmosphere: Buffet
Additional Information: Children under 3 eat free; 10 percent off for military and seniors 65 and older; take-out menu available.
Star rating: food 1, atmosphere 2, service 2 1/2
(out of five stars)

See more pictures from Wok'N'Roll here.


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