Oaklawn's new buffet craps out.


This reviewer doesn't tend to be the bloodthirsty sort of dining reviewer celebrated in film, the kind who relishes hurling harpoons at every dining establishment in town, but you do have to play it as it lays. I've written some nuke-em-from-orbit reviews over the years.

The funny thing is: after you've reviewed a couple dozen restaurants, only the truly crummy and the truly great stand out.

On the crummy side of my memory, there was my first review, of the tough-as-nails grub at a chain rib joint. Then, a few years back, there was a certain floating restaurant on the North Little Rock waterfront, whose food was actually improved when the place sank and sat in the mud at the bottom of the river for awhile.

Then there is the new Lagniappe Buffet, inside Oaklawn's newly-expanded racino complex. It's memorable, sure, but not in a good way.

While this reviewer has never been to Vegas, I've heard about casino buffets. A friend of mine who went to college in Sin City said that a poor undergrad could eat like a king on the cheap, thanks to the fact that casinos often use buffets as a loss leader, knowing that people who come in to eat will often stop to lose Junior's college fund on their way out. I was hoping for something similar with the Lagniappe Buffet. The pictures on the Internet looked fairly appetizing, and they've got a chocolate fountain — a Willy Wonka-esque column of choco-love, surrounded by yummy fruits to dip in cocoa ambrosia. As often happens with food advertising porn, however, the truth is a lot different from the reality.

For one thing, while I was possibly expecting something like an upscale Ryan's buffet, the Lagniappe Buffet is very small – maybe 30 items, the whole shebang pushed into one little room just off the casino floor (a fact that's kinda odd, given that they've got an airplane hanger of a dining room, which would have been perfect for a long, well-stocked buffet). For another, it's expensive: $12.50 at dinner if you sign up for a free “Player's Circle” card (which allows you to ring up comp points depending on how much you gamble); $15.50 if you don't. Once you start getting into stuff like their Friday night surf/turf special — $18.50 with card, $21.50 without — you really start racking up the dough. For another, because you can smoke in the casino, and because the buffet is placed right off the casino floor (albeit with a small non-smoking zone around the entrance), the place where the food is dished up is constantly awash in cigarette smoke. Nothing is more appetizing than standing there, trying to decide between chicken and fish, while 25 feet away a little old lady at a lock-n-roll machine is chain-smoking, puffing up a cloud so thick it looks like you're peering at her through frosted glass.

Still, given that our rich Uncle Times was paying the tab, we went with it.

To say the choices were underwhelming is an understatement. Yeah, they have uniformed servers, and standard stuff like carved prime rib which was fairly appetizing, but the rest was strictly Luby's Cafeteria-grade or below: dry mashed potatoes, soggy Salisbury steak, stuffed chicken breasts that obviously started the day in a plastic bag inside a freezer, some fairly decent baked fish and not a whole lot else. On the salad bar, the lettuce was strictly iceberg, with not a shred of Romaine to be found, and there was no cheese to put on it. I just paid well above the average hourly wage in Arkansas for this, folks. Could you send a lackey down to Kroger to buy some freakin' Romaine and shredded cheese?

Just to see what would happen, I decided to try a return trip to the buffet for another plate. I walked up to the sneeze guard and stood there. And stood there. And stood there. The servers busied themselves elsewhere, looking everywhere but where I was. Finally, a new diner walked up behind me with a fresh plate, and the server finally had to come over and deal with me. The message was clear: One plate to a customer, pal.

Finally, we come to dessert, and that chocolate fountain. To be fair, Lagniappe Buffet does have a good selection of pie and cake offerings. But it's clearly the towering chocolate geyser that's supposed to be the “wow” factor. The problem is: they've placed it and its attending bowls of cut fruit directly on the edge of the casino floor, where, around the clock, the accumulated horde smokes, coughs, scratches, sneezes, sheds and probably farts like a boatload of immigrants at Ellis Island, yearning to breathe free and poke their paycheck into a video poker machine. Standing there, looking at the choco-fountain running in all its sticky glory, all I could think about was what I once heard about the astronomical number of skin cells humans flake off every hour. Yummy.

In short: If I'd had to pay for a meal at Lagniappe I would have been peeved. If you must eat while at the casino, do yourself a favor and go to one of the grub stands on the racetrack side. Better, get out in the sunshine, and head to Rod's Pizza Cellar for a pie. You can thank me later.

The Lagniappe Buffet
Oaklawn Park
2705 Central Ave.
Hot Springs

Quick bite
They serve a breakfast buffet from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. for night owls. We didn't try it, but we note that it's fairly affordable at $4.99 per person with a Player's Circle card, and it's hard to fathom how you might be able to screw up bacon and eggs. There's also a champagne brunch on Sundays.

Lunch 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; dinner: 3:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.; breakfast: 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. daily.

Other info
All CC accepted; sign up for free Player's Circle card for a discount.



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