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I'm going to tell you what to expect at Royal Buffet, but I bet you already know.

The all-you-can-eat buffet ($6.99/lunch, $10.99/dinner) will likely treat you like most any Americanized Asian buffet has (though kudos here for being monosodium-glutamate-free).

There are the heat lamps and the fried chicken and even a sushi station — though the cold, mushy rice base and rubberized fish don't buttress the illusion of freshness.

There's the repurposed building, this time a Red Robin that left its guts behind, save for the bird costume and the bar, tastefully redone with Asian accents. The likely reason for its previous closure is obvious: The location's so bad — almost hidden just outside the Citadel mall's parking lot, invisible from the main roads — that I completely missed it during my first drive over, even though I knew exactly where it was.

Despite that, during both of our visits the dining room was reasonably full of military folks and families enjoying the restaurant's economical pricing, happy to ignore the fact that the General Tso's chicken and lemon chicken are basically the same wet lumps with a few flavor differences and an added shade of yellow. Same with the pepper chicken, or cashew chicken, or any of its cubed, grilled poultry dishes featuring obliterated vegetables and anonymous sauces.

Look, there's a certain understanding when eating on the cheap-and-easy, one that relieves any guilt about flavor, food-sourcing or nutritional value. We essentially wink at the person behind the counter, and they wink back. Royal Buffet just requires more of a grimace-squint. It's the kind of place that inspires child-like dares among diners, because against your senses' better judgment, you just have to know what that tastes like.

Turns out the corn on the cob drowning in a pan of yellowed water (oily skin floating on top) explodes like lip-burning mush. A marshmallow-and-fruit dessert also offers a little intrigue when we can't tell the ingredients apart. And all that's gourmet compared to the horror show of cheesy mussels.

But among the cold beef kabobs covered in a weird sweet sauce, and spongy ribs, and luscious-looking roast beef that somehow tasted like plastic, are a few decent bites to be found. The crispy chicken nuggets are really great, the wontons and the cabbage-only spring rolls come off fine (note the hot mustard near the salad bar), and the fried, butterflied shrimp aren't bad either. The crab legs are cold, but the meat's sweet once you rip open the exoskeleton, and the fried pepper frog legs taste something akin to un-sauced chicken wings. Go coconut macaroons, or ice cream, for dessert.

Ultimately, your best bet is really the fresh stir-fry. Mongolian grill-style, you grab some meats and some bean sprouts, bell peppers, onions and the like, and ask to have it all tossed up with your choice of sauce. An employee may not always be behind the counter, and you can fill a second plate and empty it before the food's done cooking, but it's one of the few things in the buffet that doesn't taste cold, old or worse.

bryce@csindy.com

  • Royal Buffet offers cheap and easy — at a culinary cost

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