It’s 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon, yet the line for a table remains 20 souls deep.
Only months before, this space in Maple Grove was home to Old Country Buffet, a one-time lion of Trough-Style Dining in a Strip Mall Setting. It was a place where Viking war parties could feast on red meat and canned vegetables, then pillage nine Scottish monasteries before hunger lurked again.
But in 2012, the Eagan company moved to South Carolina, a state in collective possession of just four teeth. Old Country was forced to hire taste testers who could only gum their food. Tragedy ensued.
The chain tried to rebrand, redecorate, and remake its menu. But it did so with a slumlord’s flair, bringing subterranean skill to ingredients of a way lesser god.
Fish began to hold the texture of deep fried-asbestos. Contractors were soon stealing the mashed potatoes to use as mortar on North Loop condo projects. The company only bought beef from Republican cows, who purposely subsisted off boxed wine and finger sandwiches so their meat turned to blubber. Because they couldn’t stand other people having nice things.
In February, Old Country closed seven of its 10 Twin Cities restaurants. The bulk chow industry collapsed.
Decent people trembled. Yes, Old Country sucked. But it served as a beachhead against the Great Incursion of Mustache Farmers Selling Artisanal Bologna. Would we now be at the mercy of $19 small plates of rare acorns and moss?
Then a glimmering halo appeared in the skies over Maple Grove. A savior had arrived. Its name was Golden Corral.
On this fine afternoon, pilgrims crowd the cashier. They’re a fetching blend of salt and pepper, mostly middle-aged and elderly, the very people who made this country great before it had to be made great again. Some sport the holy ensemble of flannel and sweatpants. They look good. Very good.
Despite the throngs, chipper Corralians whisk patrons to tables with haste. It’s perhaps the greatest performance by a low-wage staff since the Invasion of Normandy. What awaits are steaming trays of glorious chow.
Let us begin with the nobility of the food chain: red meat. Yes, some studies indicate red meat may be bad for you. But as we’ve learned from the recent election, science is fake. If you just got out of prison, or have a two-week wait for your next Social Security check, this is the place to recharge your gullet.
There’s brisket, roast, sirloin, London broil, and Mongolian. We’re not talking standard buffet beef here, the kind that looks suspiciously like recycled gloves from the 1965 Houston Astros. This is tender, finely seasoned, cut in sizes manly enough to satiate a pack of marauding Buick salesmen.
There are so many varieties of chicken that this correspondent developed carpal tunnel trying to write them all down. (He is now in litigation with his employer.)
Yet the assembled firepower is merely the warmup act to the Corral’s crowning achievement: fried fish. It’s lightly breaded, with exquisite elevations of salt and grease. Without hyperbole, it can be said that this is the greatest fish ever sold. A reconnaissance mission by Red Lobster cooks ended after one bite, when they retreated to the parking lot to tremble in despair.
Alas, the Corral is not perfect. What’s missing is the seafood.
According to the Helsinki Accords of 1812, buffets are legally bound to offer at least some fake crab and the kind of pathetic shrimp not even its mother loves. After all, the buffet is the rare place where the general peasantry can afford to delight in treasures of the sea.
Yet Golden Corral comes up dramatically short, like your friend Robby who always kicks in a fiver on a $120 bar tab. Nobody likes Robby.
To compensate, it runs a solid game of side dishes. There’s something called “Awesome Pot Roast,” a meaty batch of beef, potatoes, and gravy, imposing enough to halt a riot by simply glaring from the other side of town. The spaghetti bake looks like it was cooked by a lady named Irene from your elementary school lunchroom, and it’s just as good.
There are also loads of salads — chicken, tuna, potato — discerningly sourced from the mayonnaise farms of Hibbing, accompanied by piles of fresh fruit.
Okay, so “fresh” might be overstating it. But it doesn’t taste as if it’s been sitting in a truck in Kansas since August. And if you’re the guy who goes to a Maple Grove strip mall expecting superior fruit, you’re also a gargoyle who expects to marry a Fleet Farm lingerie model.
You should hang out with Robby.
It’s this attention to detail — and going the extra mile — that places the Corral above all others. You can’t go to Spoon & Stable, order the $29 roasted monkfish, and have the waiter ask, “Would you like to wolf on our breakfast bar while you wait?”
No, you can’t. But the Corral throws one up for the hell of it, featuring eggs that might even be real, not pumped in from a tanker truck parked out back.
There’s also a surprisingly fine selection of pies and cakes. At Old Country, picking from the dessert bar was like grazing at a saw mill. Yet this stuff is the caliber of a mom-and-pop bakery. And it’s accompanied by a giant chocolate fountain vaguely shaped like the Stanley Cup. We’re not sure what the point is, especially with so much unclaimed meat lying around. But it makes for a handy playground for the kids.
Earlier this month, the Corral opened a second restaurant in Maplewood. It is also said to be planning joints in Coon Rapids and Burnsville.
The ultimate plan is to encircle the Twin Cities, forcing the Mustache Farmers to retreat to their walk-in closets filled with matching bicycling outfits.
Yes, the Forces of Decorative Food will fight back. They will unleash volleys of spelt flour capunti made from a crème fraiche. They will send forth legions of sommeliers who speak of wine as if it’s fermented from rubies and cocaine. But they will be mistaken for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Or guys selling lawn care services. The skirmish will be in vain.
America’s greatest restaurant is marching through the northern suburbs, flying the banners of virtue and inexpensive meat. It’s only a matter of time before they liberate these lands, returning us to the glory days of the Volume Chow Dining Experience.
Be still, sweet patriot. Freedom is near.
13603 Grove Dr., Maple Grove