I was going to make enchiladas tonite. My wife wanted to go out to Polly's Pies, a very ordinary little cafe and pie shop in town. Every year, for a few weeks, they offer a fresh Olallieberry pie, that she likes a great deal. I suggested that she call ahead, to see if they had any of the pie left. She did and they did not. So Polly's was out. She then got out an ad for a new, all you can eat, Italian buffet with the amazing price point of $6.45, $5.45 with a senior discount. Filled with a sense of foreboding, I agreed to go along.
This place is on Brookhurst between Garfield and Talbert. For many years it was a successful nightclub and meat market run by former Righteous Brother Bill Medley. It was always very successful, but revenues probably slowed, once the demographic began to move towards the geriatric. For whatever reason, Bill shut it down and in recent years, it has been home to a series of ever more ill fated buffet restaurants, first pan Asian, then Indian, now Italian. The problem, is that to the South, a half a block, is every imaginable type of fast food outlet, H. Salt, four different burger franchises, a Wienerschnitzel, El Pollo Loco, Arby's, Del Taco and a pretty good, independent, Hawaiian barbecue. They are so close together that a family can spread out, gather an eclectic selection of greasy delicacies and meet back at a dining area or parking lot of their choice, to have a mix and match take out experience. A half a block to the North is an equally impressive array, of casual, sit down restaurants, Stonefire Grill, Mimi's, Appleby's, Islands, as well as a really good Japanese pub and a high volume, Chinese, steam table take out operation noted for the freshness and large portions of their moderately priced offerings. There is just too much competition for any operation that isn't a category leader.
The Tangy Tomato was busy, although not exceptionally so, for 6 PM on a Friday evening. It was staffed by members of an extended family whose members bore an uncanny familial resemblance and could have been Mayan, Coptic or Sinhalese but certainly not Italian. The men were thin. The women were thick through the middle. Both sexes sported earrings and wispy patches of facial hair, inadequate on the men and excessive on the women. They were friendly, courteous and clean. The decor was an eclectic mix of remnants from the previous Asian and Indian tenants, as well as the Southwestern motif of the nightclub. No Chianti bottles with candles stuck in the spouts graced the tables but several plaster busts of ancient Roman style, stare down from nooks, high on the walls . The tables and booths were in good shape, upholstery intact, surrounding the four large buffet islands.
The first thing noticeable about this restaurant was the clientele. It was a very diverse group, age wise, with a lot of large, multi-generational families. Usually, in beachy areas of SoCal, the inhabitants exude an aura of casual affluence. This crowd was working poor. They were not in their casual clothes, they were in their only clothes. Hairstyles tended to be aggressively roached, with a lot of white sidewall action. Almost everybody older than twelve, male and female, had the kind of tattooing that was associated, until recent times, with sailors, recidivist convicts and carnival roustabouts.
For an additional $1.75, I ordered a refillable fountain drink. I was the only one in the restaurant with the large glass. Everybody else had the small glass, for water. It is definitely a budget establishment. I felt like I was flaunting my wealth.
It's hard to describe the food. It is the kind of fare that might be served during a special holiday, at a State prison, one experiencing extreme overcrowding and budgetary constraints. They were doing the best they could, with what they had and were making a real effort to provide the patron with a memorable experience but the resources available are inadequate and the celebrants realize, that it's just another sad day in a short and brutally hard life.
The pizza is the best thing there. They are built on frozen crusts and I'm sure that the cheese iss non-dairy but they move fast and new ones keep coming, hot out of the oven. The meat toppings are of poor quality but luckily there wasn't much and the fresh peppers and onions were plentiful, there were also sprigs of cilantro, chopped olives and other savory bits to provide flavor accents. Avoid the garlic chicken and barbecue chicken pizzas. They both seem to have a mayonnaise base underneath the cheese and that's just scary.
There is a pasta bar. Pasta noodles with a scoop of the generic canned marinara is your best bet, plain and starchy but palatable. There was a manocotti with spicy tomato and ersatz Italian sausage bits which tasted somehow chemical and was too salty even for me and I salt bacon. Then there was a macaroni and cheese and an Alfredo that both tasted like they were dressed with bland flour gravy, one with a little food coloring added, the other with a few shakes of garlic powder.
Three soups were offered. One was tangy tomato, which seems to be the same canned marinara that's on the pizza and pasta but thinned out with milk. There was a chicken broth with shreds of meat and canned corn. It seemed like it might have been actually home made but very bland. The third soup was unlike anything I have ever had before. It was billed as clam chowder but was totally amorphous, with the consistency and appearance of very thin, watery, cream of wheat and a noticeably green cast. I had to try it. An amazing experience. It tasted nothing like clam chowder but not entirely unpleasant. I would bet it was based on frozen blocks of compressed mini-crustaceans. Cream of krill, if you will. If you ever go there, have this. It's a once in a lifetime experience.
The salad bar was disappointing. The greens were warm and wilted. The various garnish items were of poor quality and the receptacles needed refilling. The dressings were watered down and sour. At least there wasn't any of that food starch, used to keep the items artificially crisp. That stuff always makes me bilious.
Unless you are a hyperactive child or an elderly diabetic with a carbo jones, I recommend you skip the desserts entirely. What is offered is a selection of dessert pizzas, with various confectionery toppings. My wife had a slice of one . It proved to be pizza dough covered with chunky peanut butter and decorated with squiggles of chocolate sauce, fired up in the pizza oven.
If you're ever on the Fountain Valley/Huntington Beach border and want a five course Italian buffet meal and only want to spend $5.45, the Tangy Tomato is the place for you.