The Good: Inexpensive, Food tastes good for what it is, Good memories, Decent service
The Bad: Not a consistent quality of food, Payment issue, Not overly nutritious
The Basics: A very mediocre dining experience nevertheless gets a recommendation from me as Ponderosa offers an affordable buffet experience that is all right.
My wife has brought many things into - or back into - my life. In addition to making my heart beat in my chest again, my wife has managed to get me into many restaurants I have not gone to in years and she has reintroduced me to my gluttonous love of the buffet. Objectively, buffet food is seldom as good as meals where food is prepared to order, but my wife and I have a regular place in our local Chinese buffet a few miles away in Oneida. Last week, we made a trip down our separate memory lanes with an outing to Ponderosa as part of my belated birthday celebration for her.
Prior to this outing, I had not been to Ponderosa in at least a decade, probably a decade and a half. I used to go to Ponderosas as a young child with my mother, when she would have me for an occasional weekend and could swing it. I loved Ponderosa as a child. The reason was simple: my mother had a simple rule - you can eat anything from the buffet as long as you eat what you take. That was probably where I first designed my warped version of a salad. My childhood Ponderosa salad was a leaf or three of lettuce covered in croutons, bacon bits, garbanzo beans, seeds, hard-boiled egg pieces, Chinese noodles and then drenched in nacho cheese. My mother went along with it because I would eat these mountains of toppings and then go back for more dinnerlike options.
At some point, I outgrew the weirdness factor of making my own creations and/or the chain shrunk and for the last few years, the only Ponderosa I knew about locally was one in New Hartford (about half an hour away) and when I finally got up the interest in going to that one, it was closed down by the health inspector. It never reopened. That freaked me out. But when my wife and I were out for Taco Bell on Mother's Day, we discovered a Ponderosa nearby and that was where we went for lunch last week.
The truth be told, I enjoyed my lunch - though I observed the weirdest phenomenon that I know I ought to explore elsewhere which involved married couples where the man brought a newspaper to lunch with him rather than actually talk with his wife across the table - and I made an experimental salad for sentimental reasons. My salad had a little more lettuce and blue cheese dressing as opposed to nacho cheese sauce, but I think the ten year-old in me was still generally pleased. And overall, the experience was fun and I enjoyed it, but I realized two things: 1. I enjoyed myself more for the company I was with and 2. My sense of nostalgia allowed me to overlook a great number of things. As a result, I've decided to be honest in my ultimate evaluation of Ponderosa: it is truly a below average restaurant, but I would recommend it to a friend for what it is.
Ponderosa is a national chain of buffets and steakhouses, though their numbers have seriously diminished on the East Coast of the U.S. The gimmick is an inexpensive dining experience - the lunch buffet was $6.99 for adults with the dinner buffet being only a few dollars more - with the option of slightly more fancy entrees. My wife and I looked over the menu of steaks and decided to go with just the buffet and a drink each.
Ponderosa is generally recognizable for its freestanding locations which tend to have a green and brown colorscheme to the outside. Inside there is Western artwork to promote the idea of the steakhouse feel the chain strives for. Ours was very modestly decorated. Seating is family restaurant-standard booths and tables.
Our local Ponderosa featured friendly middle-aged servers and a much younger cashier. The cashier acts as a hostess and greets customers, takes their order and consumers pay up front. This latter note left me a bit irked, as I was paying with my credit card and I tip based on the quality of the service. As a result, I had to return to the cashier after my meal, have them dig up my receipt and add to it in order to tip.
After seating ourselves, we were greeted by a very cheerful waitress who brought us our drink orders. This was a distinct change from Ponderosa as I remember it. Ponderosa was where I began mixing every flavor of soda when I had access to the soda machine, but such creative ventures are no longer allowed apparently. Our server was very friendly and during the height of the lunch rush, she continued to fill our drinks and bus away our used dishes. Ironically, though, when the rush ended, our server became quite a bit more lax on removing our used dishes and my wife and I sat with a small stack of plates for over five minutes when there were only five tables our server was responsible for. Generally, our server was energetic and attentive, though.
Cuisine is largely what defines a restaurant and here Ponderosa is a real tough call for me. Ponderosa is good for what it is: inexpensive buffet food. It is truly nothing more, nothing less and when one goes into it with that mindset, it is almost cruel to downrate it. And yet, in the pantheon of all food, this is decidedly below the curve. While the steaks might be another matter, the lunch buffet which defined my latest experience at Ponderosa was generally good-tasting, but comparatively un-nutritious and with some dishes that were actual disappointments.
I started my meal with a salad and the greens were fresh and crisp. Having recently had a bad salad experience at a restaurant, I was pleased by how clean, cool and dry the lettuce was. As well, Ponderosa deserves some serious credit for the quality of the blue cheese dressing they use. Unlike many chain restaurants, Ponderosa did not try to pass off a weak blue cheese dressing as the real thing. Their dressing had actual chunks of cheese in their creamy sauce and it tasted appropriately like blue cheese.
The buffet beyond the salad area was a hot buffet and it is my understanding that the theme for the day gets rotated. We went on a Southwestern day and the buffet included beans and bacon, all sorts of fried chicken options, meatloaf, and a make-your-own taco area. I filled my plate and honestly, the only three things I recall eating during my main course were the meatloaf, the beans and the taco. The meatloaf was one of the few disappointments I had at Ponderosa, mostly because I could recognize that it was cut with more breadcrumbs than meat. I make meatloafs and like many chefs who do, I cut the meatloaf with breadcrumbs to bulk it up. However, the Ponderosa meatloaf tasted less meaty and more like bread . . . when it wasn't drenched in its overly sweet barbecue sauce topping.
The bacon and beans was fair, though it contained undercooked onion bits, which is a pet peeve of mine.
The make-your-own taco bar, however, was delightful. Given a choice of soft tortilla shells or lamp-heated hard taco shells, the consumer gets to add their own ground beef, beans, lettuce, tomato, cheese and other toppings. This worked out perfectly as I was able to make a perfect taco. This would have failed were it not for quality ingredients and the meat was well-seasoned and delicious.
My wife wanted it noted that the breaded chicken she had was delicious, but the baked chicken that was not breaded was not cooked the entire way.
We both finished with a trip to the buffet's dessert bar and that was pleasant and nostalgic for both of us. We made sundaes and I added a brownie to mine. Ponderosa offers two soft-serve ice cream options and there was chocolate or butterscotch sauce available to top it with. As well, there were chocolate chips, M&M's, Oreo pieces and nuts available to put on the ice cream. There were also several baked goods - cakes, cookies and an apple bake - as well as more nutritious desserts like fruit and Jell-O. We both left feeling full and satisfied.
Ultimately, Ponderosa Steakhouse and Buffet is a place I am sure I will eat at again, but it will doubtless never be my first choice. The food is good, but not extraordinary and far more than a great culinary experience, Ponderosa offers my wife and I a nostalgic trip to have a better time together than either of us had when we were kids.
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© 2011, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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