Repeatable: Yes Visits: 6+
Bluefin's banchan bar
All-you-can-eat buffets are definitely not for the faint of heart. And in the case of Northgate Mall’s Bluefin, definitely not for the uninitiated either.
To fully appreciate this Japanese-Chinese-Korean smorgasbord ($15.99-17.99 lunch; $25.99-27.99 dinner), one needs more than a passing familiarity with these cuisines—which may explain why Bluefin’s devoted clientele is mostly Asian. Depending on what kind of eater you are, Bluefin’s dizzying array of options will either provide a fascinating playground of colorful tastes to explore, or it will simply turn you off.
Fussy gourmets who cannot bear eating anything but the most pristine and impeccable of ingredients, cooked to order just for them, should stop reading now. This post is for the fearless culinary explorer–the ones who understand the romance of corn dogs at state fairs and fried dough from street stalls in faraway countries.
If you’re a true gourmand, the only problem you’ll encounter at Bluefin is deciding exactly where to start loading up your plate. Most people start at the colorful sushi bar, where the goods are attractively displayed on large platters set atop ice. All the usual suspects are here–California, shrimp, tuna, cucumber, tobiko, etc.–and often of a quality that surpasses what goes around most local sushi conveyor belts. Exercise restraint, because there is much, much more to discover.
As you journey counter-clockwise from the sushi, you’ll pass a display of seafood–steamed crab, lobster, chilled shrimp, oysters, and clams, along with various vegetable mixes, like seaweed salad, cucumber and crab, maybe even a Caesar platter. Ebi is always piled high in a bowl next to a heaping tray of soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles) and jap chae (Korean sweet potato “glass” noodles). Congee (rice porridge) is kept in a steaming bowl with a ladle. If you aren’t already pacing yourself, you’ll never make it to the end of the line.
Moving away from the large central buffet and towards the perimeter, you’ll find a lineup of tried-and-true Chinese classics: crab in black bean sauce, kung pao chicken, Mongolian beef, wok-fried noodles, fried rice, and more. Sometimes there’s duck or sizzling scallops. These dishes are often as good as or better than their counterparts in many local Chinese restaurants.
Then there are the Korean options. This is where Bluefin reveals the ace up its sleeve: A grill that constantly turns out freshly cooked strips of kalbi, teriyaki chicken, and salmon. Next to these wildly popular options are the very pleasant fried gyoza and addictive miniature bin dae duc pancakes—fat savory rounds of crunchy vegetables with little bits of meat, held together by a deliciously savory batter. There’s even a little banchan bar, with four different types of kimchee or pickled vegetable. Help yourself from the huge vat of steamed rice or ladle out a bowl of spicy Korean beef soup.
Unbelieveably, there’s more. But I’ll cut the food description short and get to the heart of the matter: How to get the best out of a buffet. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Go early, when the food is fresh. Buffet-diving is best done when the restaurant opens; you’ll often see lines outside Bluefin at 5pm.
Pay attention to what’s running out. Empty platters usually mean the dish is good. It also means that it will be replenished soon, so watch and wait for a fresh serving instead of taking the dregs.
Get a seat near the action. You won’t be able to notice when the grill tender is taking freshly cooked kalbi off the flames if you’re sitting in no-man’s land. The best seats go early.
Keep exploratory portions small. Don’t heap your plate with that mystery meat until you’ve tasted it first. Avoid waste.
Bring your children or grandchildren. All kids adore Bluefin. For parents, Bluefin is a godsend–instant gratification and something for everyone. Just be warned that there is a soft-serve ice cream machine and a very tempting dessert kiosk. You may have to bargain two bites of broccoli for a chocolate cream puff. Fortunately, the desserts are all cut into diminutive, nibble-friendly portions.
One last suggestion: Dig out your fat pants. You will definitely end up overindulging. (If you’ve heard horror stories about people getting sick after a buffet, overeating is most likely the cause. I’ve eaten at Bluefin–and for that matter, buffets on cruise ships and in Vegas–many, many times with my extremely delicate stomach and never had a problem. Just remember to exercise some self-control, and you’ll be fine.)