Steaming oolong tea came and we settled in to discuss strategy. We decided to try a little bit of everything, a goal we found we could not accomplish. But we tried.
First we walked around, lifting lids, sniffing soups, prodding the fish. Then we went into action. My friend began with buttered green beans, cheese-stuffed mushrooms, baked salmon, buttered shrimp and fried dumplings. She liked the stuffed mushrooms so much she got more on each of our three rounds. The green beans were surprisingly crisp and quite delicious. The salmon was dry, a disappointment. The fried dumpling was stuffed with pork and was "OK," she said. And the small buttered shrimp were "good."
I began with a plate of appetizers. The raw oysters looked very tempting on their bed of ice, but I skipped them. I chose, instead, a skinny spring roll, a coconut bun, sushi, a shrimp ball, a peach bun and glutinous rice. This last item was ugly, a wrap of dry gray leaves. But it was, in truth, the most interesting dish at this buffet. It contained a very sticky rice filled with bits of pork and mushrooms.
The coconut bun was sweet, sticky and delicious. The spring roll, always a favorite, was filled with cabbage and carrot. In contrast, the peach bun was pretty, a little steamed bun that had been colored a pale peach with green leaves applied. Inside was a red bean paste that was sweet to eat. Shrimp balls are always good.
At the sushi and barbecue stand, chefs cooked to order. This was fun to watch. My sushi - a splayed shrimp on a bed of rice served with intense green, wasabi horseradish and pale pink ginger strips - was made as I waited.
The first round just whetted our appetite. We returned to the buffet with a new plan of attack. I intended to choose seafood. My friend pretended she was a vegetarian.
When she came back to our booth, she declared, "No tofu. Well, that would be limiting for a vegetarian." What she found was more stuffed mushrooms, a cheesy baked potato, fun mei noodles and a sesame roll. She really liked the sesame roll, which was actually a ball. The noodles had a "nice flavor," the cheese potatoes were good and she loved the (second serving of) stuffed mushrooms.
I chose one clam in a shell, cooked shrimp, a crawfish, gray sole, a king crab leg and fried octopus. The octopus was exceptionally salty. The king crab leg was not worth the effort, having the taste of iodine when finally pried from the shell. The gray sole was tasty but cold. Crawfish reminds me of New Orleans. Shrimp is shrimp; I love it. The clam was good. "But look at this," I told my friend. "Spinach. Green. Good for vegetarians."
We set out with our third plate. She sampled the noodles and I looked to the chicken offerings. I ate chicken with broccoli, General Tso chicken, Korean chicken, Japanese chicken, honey chicken and teriyaki chicken. All decent but only warm, not hot. My friend got the stuffed mushrooms - still good, on the third serving - sesame rollups with red bean paste inside, noodles and more noodles.
We were full, but duty called and we examined the dessert offerings. A large replica of a boat held the desserts in its hull, and upon closer examination, sauces and salads were also there. Desserts were simple: canned fruits such as lychee and peaches; custard tart; sugared nuts; ice cream; and several cookies - coconut cookies, almond cookies, fortunes cookies and a sugary, buttery crumbly cookie shaped like a palm tree.
We watched children who were fascinated by the fountain with the water wheel. They threw pennies in and their parents wished for a safe journey. As we left, we saw a waitress entice a child with a small origami crane. The two laughed as they played.
Overall, the food was ample and the choice was wide. Service was swift, very swift. Though the waitresses did not speak fluent English, they were competent. No questions were fully answered, but the waitresses were unfailingly polite, helpful and smiling. Ambiance was nice, except for the cardboard on the floor.
"Safe journey!" we called to each other as we slid out to the parking lot.
Pacific Ocean Buffet
2 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Food: 2.5 stars
Service: 2.5 stars
Ambience: 2.5 stars
Value: 3 stars
Address: 908 Dual Highway, Hagerstown
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; from 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Style: Buffet featuring comfort food and Asian food.
Prices: Lunch buffet costs $6.45 per person; dinner buffet costs $9.99; weekend buffet costs $10.99.