Location: 4536 Browns Hill Road, Squirrel Hill. 412-421-1422
Hours: Sun.-Thu. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Prices: Lunch: $9; dinner: $16; children half price
Fare: Chinese and Japanese buffet
Atmosphere: Noisy and bustling
No two words in the English language strike more dread in the heart of a foodie than "steam table." That, among other reasons, is why we have always tended to avoid those Chinese buffets that raise their red lanterns (or neon signs, as the case may be) over seemingly every well-traveled suburban artery. The only thing worse than indifferently prepared, MSG-laden, Americanized Chinese food is that same food kept over a steam table for hours on end. At least, that's how we see it.
But when we passed Hokkaido Seafood Buffet on Browns Hill Road, en route to the Homestead High Level Bridge, we made a mental note to check it out. The Japanese part of its name suggested a different twist on the same old stir-fries, while the word "seafood" seemed to promise a specialty, or at last something more special than warmed-over lo mein.
Not that lo mein isn't on offer. It is, along with an array of the standard Chinese-American dishes. The Chinese section is one among many -- soups, salads, dumplings, hibachi, carving station, sushi, desserts and more -- that line the buffet along the periphery of Hokkaido, whose large interior is closely packed with tables -- and diners.
With no carpet on the floor to absorb the noise, the restaurant rings with the din of tableware and conversation. People are constantly flowing to and from the buffet while an army of servers bustles after them, clearing plates as they are used, giving Hokkaido the perpetual-motion ambience of an airport. In a strange way, it could be the most intimate restaurant in Pittsburgh: You could romance your paramour or lay plans for a heist, and no one could possibly overhear.
From the bounty of Hokkaido's buffet, we sampled liberally. Our first happy surprise was that the three Chinese dishes we tried -- pepper beef, shredded pork and salty green beans -- were fresh-tasting and satisfactorily seasoned; they would have been above-average at a full-service Chinese restaurant. In addition, a roasted-pork bun was light, with a nice proportion of flavorful, tender meat. Crab Rangoon had that savory balance of crispy wrapper and creamy filling that kept Angelique going back for more.
Roast Peking duck, available with pancake, duck sauce and scallions, featured crisp skin and moist, rich flesh. Crab legs were succulent and sweet, but best unadorned by "Golden Sauce." Hokkaido's most novel item, frog legs, was also excellent. Yes, they tasted like chicken, but like moist and tender chicken, with just enough breading for texture. Jason also tried the Western-style roast pork loin and found it moist, meaty and crusty, but with too much salt in the luscious fat cap.
What about the Japanese food, you ask? Sushi was, if not exactly sushi-lover's sushi, competent. The tuna, despite its deep rosy coloring, betrayed a watery flavor from freezing, but the rice was surprisingly dense, soft and well seasoned for something not prepared to order. Some of the rolls, the crispy salmon skin in particular, could hold their own at a lunchtime sushi bar.
If hibachi-style Japanese fare is more your speed, fear not: Hokkaido spares none of the traditional showmanship. Once you load your plate with raw ingredients, you pass it to the chef, who chops, tosses, flambées and douses the two-foot fireball with a flourish, using a squeeze-bottle shaped like a little boy. The end result was more like a stir-fry than the steak-or-shrimp-with-grilled-veggies that typifies Japanese steakhouse fare. It was also, of course, the one spot in the place where we were guaranteed to get freshly cooked food.
As with every buffet, there were hits and misses, but we encountered only a couple of outright failures. Beautiful, thin asparagus were overcooked and under-seasoned, and the "baby lobster" -- actually, crawfish -- were practically devoid of flavor as well. But the successes far outnumbered the disappointments, and the great thing about a buffet is not being stuck with a bad order, but being able to glut oneself on one's favorite morsels.
Overall, we were pleased, even impressed, with Hokkaido. It should not be mistaken for a Japanese restaurant, but neither is it a run-of-the-mill Asian buffet. Hokkaido rises above the scourge of the steam table to offer some true gems among its panoply of East Asian offerings.