Back at my table, I plunk down my plate and sink into the deeply cushioned, high-backed booth, a clubby steakhouse refinement in this family buffet setting. Among the bites I’ve assembled for my first round are a few cocktail shrimp; pieces of tuna, tako and salmon nigiri; fresh slices of tuna sashimi; a square of cold tofu; pickled daikon; tiny rounds from California, Philadelphia and salmon-skin rolls; and a handful of miniature crawfish curled up tight from their hot-water bath. In all, I have at least a dozen options on my plate.
The discouraging news is that I’ve barely scratched the surface of the offerings at Hokkaido. Located in a functional, cosmetically challenged strip center in Bailey’s Crossroads, Hokkaido is the Wal-Mart Superstore of buffets. The small chain says its Northern Virginia outlet employs 10 chefs who prepare more than 200 items daily for diners required to fork over a mere $17.99 each (a criminal $9.99 at lunch) to take this gastronomic tour through the cuisines of East and Southeast Asia (or, sometimes, the cuisine of Panda Express).
Few customers, I suspect, would wander into Hokkaido for, say, the sushi or dim sum alone. Its budget-grade fish (note to those already hitting the comment button: It’s not an official grade) and tight-fisted selection of dumplings and buns would not satisfy true enthusiasts. No, the appeal of Hokkaido is the sheer, stupefying, Epcot Center, more-is-more spread of morsels available at your fingers. I do not have nearly enough words in this column to begin to quantify the foods here, let alone provide any qualitative assessments.
But allow me to give you a taste: For less than $20, you are given unlimited access to about a half-dozen types of nigiri sushi, a small selection of sashimi, a few shellfish options, a whole mess of sushi rolls, a generous spread of Asian salads and condiments (from black fungus to kimchi), a hot bar swimming in soups (from clam chowder to, sadly, shark fin), a dim sum station, some Chinese-American plates, a few amusing/confusing stabs at American junk food (pizza, chicken wings), regional Chinese specialties and even a towering, multi-tiered chocolate fountain in which you can drown slices of banana or tiny semi-stale marshmallows on a stick. Did I mention the teppanyaki station where you can select your own ingredients and have a chef spatula them into a hot, tasty mess on a griddle?
Truth be told, there were times I wanted to run my cold, muddy crawfish under the chocolate fountain, just to conceal their pungent, fisherman’s-wharf-on-summer-day aroma. That first plate I assembled wasn’t promising. The tuna sashimi, frayed at the edges as if cut with a dull knife, tasted like soy-marinated skirt steak. The California roll was mushier than a love song from the flavor-of-the-month boy band. Only the peel-and-eat shrimp, designed to be eaten chilled, didn’t suffer from their extended stay on the buffet line.
But on my second trip to the trough, I eyeballed a chef offloading warm bay scallops in a black pepper sauce, which had no time to harden into little rubber bullets. I also fetched a fresh steam bun spiked with ginger, a soft and sweet and surprisingly salty bite that I gobbled down without hesitation. That’s when I realized the proper plan of attack when dining at Hokkaido: Visit on the busiest nights, when chefs are churning out fresh food faster than a pizzeria on Super Bowl Sunday.
On a recent Saturday night, I put this theory to the test, and in general, it held up to scrutiny, particularly with the sushi. This time, the oversized strap of tuna that smothered my oval of sushi rice was fresh and immediately identifiable as part of the tuna family (the rice remained dry and poorly seasoned). The salmon sashimi was probably the farmed variety, but oily and flavorful. Even the California roll, with its nugget of imitation crab meat, was an improvement. (Am I grading on a curve? Does slathering your fish with wasabi annoy a sushi chef?)
Beyond the seafood, I savored the thinly sliced beef tataki, electrified with a small swab of wasabi. The taro bun provided that soft, sweet bite of earth you’ve come to expect. Even the fried rice, with its light application of soy sauce and its nose-tickling onion fragrance, surpassed my expectations. The misfires on this Saturday? Too many to mention, starting with the shrunken wrapper barely clinging to the chewy shu mai and culminating with dry crumbly sesame seed cookies on the dessert bar.
Perhaps you’re wondering whether I ate that original oyster? Well, the bivalve made it all the way to my lips, which immediately sensed its semi-salty — and warm — liquor. I put the shellfish back down and never darkened the oyster station again.