My sister and I made our way 1/2 hour east of Oceanside, past Avocado stands (1#/$3!), Macadamia Nut trees, Pomegranates and Palm tree nurseries, to Fallbrook, the town my Father has lived for the last 20 years.
We had agreed to go to a post birthday lunch at Pala Casino, one of the multiple Indian casinos dotting the roads winding east toward the desert. Knowing it would be a buffet, I felt a mixture of dread and genuine curiosity as we snaked our way past more nurseries and a huge Bison ranch.
The casino culture is always one that has bored me. I found this out the hard way, on a "3" day weekend in Las Vegas in my early 20's. My parents had started going there every Christmas, making the 4 hour drive, gambling all night, trading off time in the hotel room, drinking incessant cups of coffee and counting cards at the blackjack tables. I think they felt guilty one year, me, the youngest, alone in Northern California, so they decided to invite me along. My stepmother, Ingeborg, had created a cute Christmas card with money taped all over it, $100 in total. I had already lived in Reno for a couple of years (don't ask), so I knew how to play the games and wasn't a total fish out of water in a casino. Nothing prepared me for their total immersion though, my Father playing poker in the players only rooms, my Stepmother in her own world playing 21. I opted for the Keno lounge and a few games of video poker. Within a few hours, I was bored stiff, not yet my fully adventurous self, and had blown through the $100 already. I only spent one night there, and talked them into changing my flight - this Vegas thing was boring the hell out of me and seriously cramping their style.
Flash forward to yesterday and entering the huge Pala Casino, packed with people, my Father expertly pushing past the people walking as if their eyes were closed. Moving in the casino makes moving in a restaurant seem like a sleepwalk. I felt a flashback coming on, especially since the cigarette smoke hung thickly in the air (Indian casinos are apparently exempt from California State Law). The buffet line was about 100 people long. That didn't include the hoards of people shoving past us in line, joining their friends and relatives who were holding places. We were starving, not having had breakfast in anticipation of the bounty of the buffet. The wait was 1 hour.
When we finally entered and were seated at our table, both Inge and Dad, without word or sitting down, headed over to the buffet area. The room was surprisingly well appointed, reminding me very much of the buffet in the bottom of my Tokyo hotel last year. The chairs and tables were very nice, and we had cloth napkins before us.
I got up and perused the options, as I had seen King Crab legs and oyster shells piled up on the empty tables in the dining room, like an abandoned feast in Roman times. A huge salad bar stood in the middle of the room, with a large array of about 15 sliced fruits colorfully displayed down one side. Its counterpart was a grill station, with piles of steaks, ready to be grilled to order. Around the perimeter stood a seafood station with the oysters and Crab and boiled shrimp. Next was the fried shrimp, clams strips, and calamari. Various sauces with drippy ladles waited for self service. A Chinese area held char sui (a favorite of mine), steamed shrimp dumplings, pot stickers, chow mein, kim chee, pickled ginger, and a few stir fries. A carving station had roast turkey, lamb, pork loin and pork spareribs. Next over were large swords speared with sausages (very Churascurria-esque) and a huge bone-in ham. A whole section was devoted to chicken: fried, roasted, nuggets, mashed potatoes, vegetables, gravies. There was still more: A pizza station with pastas and sauces, then a breakfast station with pancakes, eggs, bacon, french toast, blinzes, hash browns. Oh yeah, I can't forget the huge dessert station with sundaes, various cakes and pastries, and a bakery style cold case with artfully decorated bite sized desserts including cheesecake on a stick, creme brulees and even panna cotta.
I started with crab legs and a salad (as remember, this was "all you can eat!"). I followed suit with many of the "regulars" and had the crab legs heated up, which I fantasized involved plopping them on the grill, but instead were dunked briefly in not so boiling water. They turned out to be watery and still chilled - being most likely frozen before entering, especially when you take into account the throngs of people they were feeding that day. I was happy they were on a separate plate, because what resulted was a messy swamp, from which I attempted to fish out the few fried clams I had taken. Thankfully, the staff was ample and quickly whisked away any dirty plates left on the outer edge of the table.