Buffets, popular though they are, have problems. The hot items can overcook and dry out on the steam tables, and even the cold items lose quality as they sit.
But for price, variety and sheer quantity, buffets can't be beat, and California City Buffet is a heck of a bargain. Essentially it's a spacious cafeteria divided into many rooms, filled with flowered curtains and signs warning guests of the $20 fine for violating such buffet rules as not taking more food than necessary. (The cashier swears it has never been imposed.)
It's also the one place in the Valley outside a hotel that might match the legendary Vegas buffets. That's because it's international in scope, serving Chinese, Mexican, Italian and good old American food. And the cooking is reasonably good. Generally.
The Chinese dishes are best, and are also replenished more often than others. I could make a meal of the stir-fried green beans and the nearly perfect Yang Chow-style fried rice. There's also a nice dish of beef with big, lightly cooked spears of American broccoli, a good retro chicken chow mein and good lo mein noodles tossed with Chinese barbecued pork and chicken.
But I'd pass on the bland, starchy egg flower soup; the stingy, overly pungent hot and sour soup; and the stodgy aromatic chicken in its sticky red sauce. (This chicken is a prime example of what not to serve from a steam table.)
On the American side, there's the usual salad bar and several entrees. Decent-quality turkey and ham are sliced to order, and one day there were enormous barbecued beef ribs--one rib filled an entire plate. There were also fresh shrimp with spicy cocktail sauce and piquant baked mussels in a nice butter sauce.
There is also likely to be good grilled veal bratwurst, buried under an avalanche of nicely tart sauerkraut. A thoroughly American beef stew is called Chinese beef stew here and offered among the Chinese dishes. There are unremarkable but inoffensive enchiladas, quesadillas, taquitos and guacamole.
At dinner, when the buffet is $2.65 more than at lunch, there's a pasta bar where you might find lasagna, tiny Italian meatballs and rigatoni with tomato sauce. It's not bad, but if you like your pasta al dente, you'd better arrive at the same time the pasta does.
The desserts are forgettable. They include a cloying peach cobbler, a flaccid apple strudel and cream puffs that taste as if made with nondairy topping.
But hey, what did you expect at these prices--Vegas?
California City Buffet, 9224 Reseda Blvd., Northridge. Lunch Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; dinner Monday-Saturday, 4-9:30 p.m.; dinner Sunday, 4-9 p.m.; brunch Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Parking in lot. Beer and wine. MasterCard and Visa. Prices: Lunch $6.55; dinner $9.20; brunch $8.10. Call (818) 998-3688.