People tell me I have a glamorous job. They tell me over and over...until I respond with "gotta go to Furr's; want to come along?"
As much as we dismiss pile-it-on buffets, however, we've all bellied along a serving line. Whether we regret it moments later or rationalize the experience as 'not too bad,' such places exist for many reasons: fixed budgets, dulled palates and those who really, truly miss the high school cafeteria experience...although, I have to say, a friend of mine insists Luby's is a perfect business lunch destination.
Then again, she's from Kentucky.
What makes buffet meals so suspect is the little matter of timing. Chance upon the fried okra when it has just been pulled from hot oil and you'll be happy. Make the same selection ten minutes later and one bite will set you to thinking about when, and with what force, your body will rebel against the vile intrusion.
For this week's toque to toque slugfest, I decided to visit the restaurants between 3:30 and 4:30 in the afternoon--during the post lunch let down and just before the crush of old folks arriving for dinner--in order to avoid giving an accidental timing advantage. And I picked as much fried food as possible, including the okra. If one or the other left crusted fish or vegetables out too long, they'd be hard pressed to win the battle.
Luby's has better quality control. Overall, their fried fish and meats sat in a crispier shell. And the fish, in particular, was more recognizable as a once-living creature--firm and surprisingly flakey, as well. At Furr's, either grease puddled between flesh and crust or they failed to cook filets completely, for a layer of soggy mush left an unpleasant impression, as did the mystery fish itself.
Fortunately, both places scooped a year's supply of tartar sauce onto my plate.
Neither restaurant presented worthwhile okra, although Luby's seasoned their version with more earnestness. They treated black-eyed peas differently--Luby's with a meaty bite, Furr's sweetening with green beans--so the comparison turned into a wash. The greens at Luby's were fresher, giving them a bonus point. On the other hand, Furr's serves slightly better coffee. But the grilled selections at Luby's look brighter. And their desserts (lots of Jello and whipped cream-style topping) had yet to sag as far as the one's at their rival buffet.
Still, as I said, one doesn't go to a buffet for standout cooking. So the draw must have something to do with atmosphere.
I got stuck in line at Luby's behind an old couple who insisted on chatting with all the lunch ladies. For one so bent and rickety, the guy had some sharp moves. Every time I tried to pass, they'd wrap up the conversation and start back down the line...for two steps, effectively blocking any attempts to pass and cleverly bunching up those dodging behind him. So for entertainment I was privvy to repeated "how are you today?" "Fine." "Sure is wet." "Yes."
These guys would probably ask an Olive Garden waitress to "please tell the chef everything was wonderful."
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No such excitement or pleasantries at Furr's. Though noticeably younger, the crowd moved and sat in silence--as if somehow ashamed. To make matters worse, management turned the music down low enough that any snippet of conversation would announce itself across the dining room.
Probably a good thing they did crank it down. I thought I heard "Delta Dawn" at one point.
But I do like Furr's all-you-can-eat checkout feature. No, wait--it's wrong to head back for more. Very wrong.
So how do they stack up? Well, head to head, it's a clear win for Luby's. Either way, however, the guest loses.