The buffet was invented 2,000 years ago by an enterprising cook named Jesus H. Christ, who took a few loaves and fishes and turned them into a delightful brunch for 5,000. Jerusalem Monthly called it a "tour de force in the exciting new field of volume chow."
Christ soon announced plans for a chain of restaurants. But this was prior to the invention of the cash register. Investors balked, suspicious of his revenue projections.
Dejected, Christ entered the family business and became a professional deity. His teachings would later be used to bag on gay guys and Planned Parenthood.
The buffet concept would stagger on, largely in the form of canned vegetables and roast beef baked under heat lamps to the tenderness of automotive parts.
Many years would pass until a breakthrough shone from the cradle of American cuisine, Orange City, Iowa. It would be known as Pizza Ranch. According to its website, its calling would harken back to the origins of the buffet: "To glorify God by positively impacting the world."
Today, Pizza Ranch is a 180-joint chain, with nine in the Twin Cities. The eatery thoughtfully discards such pointless ambitions as presentation and quality. Girth is the coin of the realm, with carbohydrates and fried stuff piled high and manly.
But does it meet the exacting standards of Jesus? We went undercover at the Maplewood location to find out.
The Price: Within the ballpark of Jesus-like. $10.69 for lunch, $12.99 for supper. Of special note: Pop's included, unlike those usurious bastards (Old Country Buffet) who charge extra.
The Ambiance: Not very Jesus-like. The soundtrack is Christian rock and country, sung with such anguished devotion that you suspect a gopher might be chewing on their throat. The walls are loaded with simulated cowboy artifacts like horseshoes, wagon wheels, and signs that say stuff like, "When you count your blessings, count your horse twice."
It's as if Pizza Ranch contracted interior decorating to the wife of a soybean farmer named JoAnn. She promised to curate the joint just like they do on American Pickers, then spent most of her budget on cat figurines. So she compensated by scoring a volume discount from Ira's Prefab Western Antiquities in Secaucus, New Jersey.
The problem: Cowboys remind Jesus of Texas, where they're devotees of Mean Jesus, who makes Real Jesus look like an asshole.
The Clientele: Jesus beholds the splendor of America. There are kids in Twins jerseys, lovers cuddling in booths, old-timers contentedly rubbing prodigious bellies, ladies with butts the size of rural high schools.
Beauty has a name. It's called Pizza Ranch at 4:30 p.m. on a Sunday.
The Pizza: Spectacularly mediocre, in keeping with the august tradition of buffet pizza.
Jesus is disappointed. He is muttering expletives.
The Bacon Cheeseburger and Chicken Bacon Ranch orbit near respectability. The Macaroni & Cheese is but a few steps short of fabulous.
The rest feels like you're eating a packing crate lightly sprinkled with yellow stuff and microscopic substances presumed to be meat.
Blame it on Chad. Every chain buffet has a chief financial officer named Chad whose wife left him for that cute guy at Mr. Car Wash, hurling him under a pall of bitterness and reprisal.
So he seeks revenge by relentlessly coming up with money-saving ideas, hoping they'll spur an invite to join the executive foursome for the Fight Lactose Intolerance Charity Golf Tournament, the height of the Orange City social season.
The Mr. Car Wash guy will be parking cars there. Chad will fling him his keys. "Don't scratch the Impala," he will say with the nonchalant preeminence of Impala owners everywhere. It's called winning.
His latest idea is to ration the meat and cheese like a wicked stepmother does her porridge, thus saving Pizza Ranch 7.2 cents a pie. The end result is pizzas that look like a vacant Kansas field with some tomato sauce splashed about. Or those yuppie pies they sell in the North Loop.
The Chicken: Jesus is stuffing leftovers in his socks as we speak.
It doesn't reach the pinnacle of fried fowl — that would be KFC, an unattainable benchmark in culinary supremacy. But think of it as an amiable second cousin who drunkenly dances the Macarena with grandma at weddings. Everyone likes that guy.
It's crunchy, bronzed, as enchanting as a truckload of hijacked cigarettes. One of the great treasures of the world — a heaping batch of meat — has been placed before you. Genuflect and speak your undying gratitude.
The Potatoes: "Meh," says Jesus. The assortment is impressive: mashed, wedges, chips. But they're bland, shorn of any zest or distinction, the Ryan Seacrest of food.
Worse, Seacrest cannot be drowned. The brown gravy appears recycled from uneaten TV dinners manufactured in 1973. The white gravy is a staple of Southern cuisine, which will make you have a NASCAR-themed wedding when you marry your aunt.
Do not eat the white gravy if you hope to pass your GED.
The Salad Bar: Jesus is looking for extra room in his socks. This is American bird food at its finest: peas, onions, black olives, chopped ham and eggs, cottage cheese, and bacon bits, ready for slathering with a heavy cover of mayonnaise-based dressings so you won't freeze your ass this winter, like skinny people do.
Thankfully, Chad lives in Iowa. He's never heard of hyper-on-trend darlings like frisee, quinoa, kimchee, and pico de gallo, which have come to ruin the salad bar as we know it. He thinks they're soccer teams in the Philippines.
The Pop: Jesus is enraptured. The Diet Coke seethes with luxurious notes of hickory, oak, and particle board, delivered fresh each morning from artisanal lumber yards in Little Canada.
The Dessert: You wanna talk about this when there's fried meat sitting around? Jesus beseeches you to take a searching moral inventory of your priorities.
Other stuff: There is a fried, tubular item of unknown origin. It might be cheese. It might be chicken. Either way, it's sturdy enough to double as a baseball bat if you're content to be a singles hitter.
Jesus understands that not everyone can blast upper-deck shots. Besides, he needs guys on base. Jesus likes his RBIs.
1845 E. County Road D, Maplewood, with eight other locations around the Twin Cities
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