User's Guide

Nasty Late-Night Buffets, and the Beauty Hidden Within

Where not to start?Photo: Melissa Hom
We love deli buffets. The chance to cherry-pick a single chicken wing, a tablespoon of angel hair with pesto, three tater tots, and a cube of lime Jell-O always gives us a thrill. But it’s at night, in the buffet’s long limbo — after a good portion of the offerings have become inedible and before they can be thrown out — that you have to wonder: Is it really okay to eat that?

Some items, it turns out, age rather nicely.

• Most buffets feature some variation on Salisbury steak. Jump on this! The high temperature of the sauce not only retards bacterial growth but also slow-cooks the meat over the course of the day, resulting in a velvetlike texture and concentrated flavors.

• Unsauced meats tend to do very well in this Sahara-dry environment. You can find roast pork, chicken thighs, and even occasional cutlets whose rigid exterior masks a surprisingly lush and moist inside. This is especially true of fried chicken.

• Mashed potatoes in their original form tend to be vile, but the instant mix becomes denser as the day goes on and by nighttime can attain the consistency of a croquette. Don’t miss out.

• Some starchy foods, such as pasta and roasted potatoes, do well sitting against hot, dry metal. Often, these foods will appear wan and sad viewed from above, but their undersides will be gloriously, appetizingly browned. They are the buffet’s version of pot stickers.

Nasty Late-Night Buffets, and the Beauty Hidden Within