My guest wanted burger, fries, meat, and pies. So after driving around and not being able to pin down anything specific, we found ourselves in the most generic of places with the biggest of appetites. Though ironically, even though “Uncle Willy’s” is classified as American cuisine, it is owned and operated by a Chinese family; and their offering includes familiar Chinese dishes like spring rolls, sweet and sour pork, and fried rice. Though truthfully it is done in the heavily westernized food court versions.
Ask anyone and the response seems to be, “it’s been about 10 years since I have been here”. There doesn’t seem to be a large all you can eat scene in Vancouver so the Uncle seems to be your only choice. The challenge here was to eat all you could. Dinner over lunch offered a wider selection with an accompanying steeper price. At $13 per person I still viewed this cost with substantial savings over any entree at any popular casual chain.
You are greeted at the hostess booth where the expectation is to pay first. A wise process seeing as parties move about regularly and cheque skipping would be easy enough with the lack of interaction needed between staff and patrons. Though the one way in and one way out path set up by a walled partition does help in regulating things. A tip jar sat sadly empty by the register. Considering we were the last party in and the dinner rush had come and gone this was a sad showing.
We were handed a proof of purchase in the form of a receipt and green slip. On it was a series of rules and regulations, as well as standards kept. Clean plates and utensils used at each round. Managers have the ability to restrict service of certain items or unusually large sized portions. The necessity of supervising your own children. And maximum occupation of table is at 1 1/2 hours. We chose our table out of the many free and used our slip to claim its seats. Placed face up means your dinner is on going and faced down declares your completion of it.
The room was all pretty functional. No art, no distraction. Neatly arranged tables that faced the buffet line. The buffet began with tools needed. Grab a tray, equip yourself with utensils and napkins and walk down the line. Soups, salads, hot appetizers, stews, meats, and sides. No real flow or rhythm. The end is flanked by a station for meat cut off the slab. Here a staff member hovers, ready so should you want a carving. A secondary buffet table sits kitty corner. On it Chinese sides and American classics co mingle. Nothing really different from the main line. The restaurant is shaped like a “L”, comprised of two rooms. Two rooms meant maximum seating, one only in use during peak hours. The other space kept dark and empty when seating in the main dining room is sufficient. It is here that desserts are kept. Sweet squares and chilled slices come from closed off and cooled down showcases. You lift lids and open latches to pull out your desired treat. A portion already precut and redivided into smaller bowls. Soft serve ice cream and warm desserts were to its side. Spiced apples and tapioca pudding today, both left to burn and harden, unattended in the far corner. The soft serve ice cream is everyone’s favourite, from a machine you use yourself. You pull down the handle and gather as much of the cream you like. Pumps of chocolate and caramel are available for add ons. Or you can make any of the brownies, pies, or jello a la mode.
We grabbed our own set of cutlery and dish wear and heading down the line, savoury first. We were iffy about the cleaned plates and bowls still beading with water and streaked with condensation from steam. They were stacked high and placed face down on the spring loaded platform. Clearly a time reducing action, though one with the potential to do harm. Harm in the form of cultivating mold cultures, from the combination of moisture and humidity. This became more evident when the unidentified manager declared, “no pictures of the food miss”. I took his blanket statement to only refer to the buffet line. This stern declaration came from a man in sweatpants and a sweater. He wore no identification and made no mention of who he was. Though every now and then he would get up from his plate and his table, stop eating, and take a once over look at the hot table. He patrolled the trays and mixed the mounds as he felt needed it. The movement did help to remove any signs of congealed solids or tacky liquids.
The disabling of photography had me thinking. What were they hiding? In a day and age where social media is so prevalent. Each picture has the potential to translate into free advertisement, and spring board a business in a matter of seconds. Nothing spreads like word of month so hindering it, could only mean there was something they didn’t want seen. Maybe it was meant to hide their corner cutting practices and subpar food handling policies? Actions that they preferred to continue go unnoticed. I understand that certain processes need to be shortened in order to keep prices low, but at what cost? I have seen other buffets go the same way. It only takes one food poisoning incident and one claim of indigestion to shut a place down. It’s been a while since I have completed my food safe training, but I do recall some practices that were missed here. Dishes, bowls, spoons, and forks cleaned and left to air dry in tight stacks and covered bundles. Staff tending to the trays of food without hair nets. And slicing meat without gloves, only after bussing tables minutes before. I bore no witness to proper hand washing techniques. More trays than the radiating warmth of heat lamps could cover. Food left out in the open, uncovered and without a sneeze guards. Though those with said guards had them barely protecting the dishes below. Most unappealing was the wilted salad fixings sitting in half melted ice chips and pools of stagnant water, and worse still were the large servings of oxidized fruit sliced, next to it. Though I guess no one cares about salad or fruit when you can have fried chicken and ice cream.
The great thing about dining at all you can eat places is that your expectations are so low that when something is actually alright you think its pretty good; you get excited, and you get seconds. The following review will be a quick blurb on pros and cons. There is too much to cover and truthfully the quality of food does not deserve more time.
My strategy for getting the most out of a buffet is to go with what you like and don’t waste room on any fillers. Stay away from bread, rice, or pasta. Focus on that which would normally cost you more else where. And when reaching your peak, dip into lighter foods like corn or jello to rejuvenate your palette and help catch a second wind. More of appetite to eat more. Every buffet plate you scoop needs such a pallet refresher.
I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of the food, but I got away with taking ones of my piled high plates.
Vegetable beef soup with frozen vegetables and pasta shells.
Perogies, cabbage roll, sliced sausage, French fries, spring rolls, salmon, and meat balls.
Cold macaroni salad in tomato shells, corn kernels, spaghetti and meat balls in marinara sauce, beef stew, vegetable curry over white rice, and perogies.
Green beans and mushroom, chicken thigh, fried chicken drum, fried rice, cheese gratin, cold orzo salad, and mashed potatoes with gravy.
Coleslaw, chilli, corn bread, fried chicken, salmon, and roasted potato.
Fried vegetable noodles, corn kernels, slices of beef, and a slice of ham.
Green jello laced with cabbage, apple pie self made a la mode, diabetic friendly vanilla pudding, spiced apple cobbler, cream puff, and chocolate and caramel topped soft serve ice cream.
Pros: Salmon surprisingly good, well seasoned and easily flaked. The spiced chicken was moist, and skin flavourful despite its burnt look. The fried chicken was tender, like the colonel done gone fried it himself. Flavourful spaghetti sauce and firm meat balls. Soft serve ice cream the best I have ever had. Desserts divided in pieces small enough to allow for multiple samples. Though as soon as we started to feel bad for being so surprised, we found enough cons to bring us back to reality.
The Cons: The sausages were the cheap processed kind sliced diagonally; it tasted like it. Soggy cabbage rolls with wilted wrappings. Spring rolls that you could only taste the grease they had been sitting in. The beef vegetable soup reminded me of servings from my primary school thanksgiving assemblies. Salad greens wilted in bowl and apples oxidized in heaps. Coleslaw drenched in mayonnaise. Corn kernels tasted like the can they came in. And carrot blocks left hard and uncooked, tasting of age and refrigeration. The fries had been left out and old, if it was McDonalds we would have waited for a fresh batch. The cuts of meat that were sliced upon request, were as dry as they looked. They sat as a stump on their individually stained cutting board. A heat lamp on each, only a couple of inches away. Majority of desserts were cold and tasteless. Those kept warm were overcooked and tasted burnt from their trays. There used to be sprinkles offered at the make your own sundae bar.
Yes I understand we came in later, expecting full dinner service an hour before they called “last call” on the buffet. Though had they given us such a warning on closing time when we entered, if hours of operations was posted on the door, and if someone came by so we could ask; maybe I wouldn’t be so harsh. But as a guest I feel that since I am paying the same fee at 8pm as the person dining at 6pm, should I not get the same quality of food regardless of time?
The staff are alert enough to notice your approach. They get in to positions speedily, and disperse when not needed. A server to claim your payment, others to man the buffet line, and more still to clean tables and cut meat. Though when needed none were found. No one was around to ask any questions, no one came to bus our table, and no one came to check in on how we were. Heck the staff that did pass by couldn’t even muster eye contact. Extroverted youths who were here for a paycheque. Seeing others leave and hearing last call on the buffet line we wanted to ask when they would be closing. I even contemplated dialing them from my seat to ask. Luckily the dessert bar was still available and I was content with just that. When we got up to go no one said a word. We were clearly the last ones still here, with our table the only one without its chairs upside down on it. Yet despite catching faces no one bothered to look up to say good bye or thank you. A cold and silent exit for us. Just as well, I decided not to tip on the service I did not receive nor on the welcome I did not feel. As I briefly mentioned earlier, if they were upset with us leaving later why not say something? Tell us when we came in that last call would be in an hour, 9pm on a Thursday. Have it posted by the entrance. Have staff bus our table and gently mention it in passing. If no effort was made and we did not know, how can they be mad at us for out staying our welcome? I guess as long as they had our money they were happy.
As a side note, not that I think this would be a vegetarian’s first choice, be warned nothing in trays are labeled with names, descriptions, or ingredients. Only mention is a showcase of diabetic desserts, warned only for those with the need. So those with allergies and dietary restrictions need stay away.
Would I come back? – No.
Would I line up for it? – No.
Would I recommend it? – No.
Would I suggest this for someone visiting from out of town? – No.
I am good on “Uncle Willy’s” for a long time to come. It’s like cheap Chinese takeout , you get that craving once a season and after a few mouthfuls remember why you don’t eat it more often. When it comes to consuming anything, my body is pretty tolerant, it handles weird combinations and cuisine that would leave others in an upset position. Though I think it is here that I need drawn the line. This muddled mix isn’t meant to be eaten on a regular bases, and the food offers not much in terms of nutritional value. It’s most popular clients are seniors looking for additional deals, teenagers on dates, and young families looking for a quick and easy dinner solution. It’s cheap and plentiful, satisfying all those who are famished on a budget. Coming in looking for more would leave you very disappointed. Set your standards very low to be pleasantly surprised. Don’t deny your cravings.