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Buffet your way through Las Vegas

Las Vegas is the buffet capital of the world. There are about 65 casino buffets in the Vegas area, ranging from cheap to chic. Many Utahns — even those who wouldn't dream of dropping a nickel in a slot machine — have bellied up to one of these food bars, so you know what I'm talking about.

Last week, I visited this glitz-and-gambling capital of the world as part of an upcoming Deseret News travel story and learned a few things about buffets. According to the Las Vegas News Bureau, they date back the early 1940s at the original El Rancho Vegas Hotel on the Strip. Owner Beldon Katleman dreamed up the Midnight Chuck Wagon Buffet — "all you can eat for a dollar" — as a way to keep customers gambling into the wee hours. The idea has grown to massive proportions — the Roundtable Buffet at Excalibur can seat about 1,500 people, and the Circus Circus buffet often herds 12,000 to 13,000 diners through its line daily.

"Vegas Vacation," the 1997 Chevy Chase movie, depicted the stereotypical chow line of weird casseroles and rubbery Jell-O. But even the cheap buffets have improved. Many restaurants stray from the cafeteria mentality by stationing the foods all around the room on separate "islands."

The Station hotel group started the trend of "action" buffets, where you choose ingredients for a dish such as an omelet or stir-fry, then watch as a chef cooks it. It's fun for small crowds but doesn't work as well with a few thousand people.

A few years ago, we dined at the Rio, which holds the "Best Buffet" title in the Las Vegas Review Journal's reader poll. We waited nearly an hour to get in, then jockeyed for spots in line at the different stations to create our own stir-fries and such. It seemed we were working too hard for our meal, and standing and watching food cook reminds me too much of what I do every day in my own kitchen.

This year, we tried the new Aladdin Hotel. It's relatively expensive — $18.99 for dinner (kids under 12 are half-price). But the Las Vegas Advisor lists it as one of the city's "Top Ten Values" because of the quality. It's definitely a "buff" buffet, with different stations themed to ethnic cuisines. The diverse offerings included baked salmon, crab legs, shrimp, real mashed potatoes with a few lumps to prove it, lobster bisque, pizza, pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, fried ravioli, fajitas, mussels, polenta, lamb skewers and tandoori chicken. There is definitely something to please everyone, and there's no way one person can sample everything.

Just about every buffet offers loads of meat and seafood. But the Aladdin also does a great job with vegetables, which all too often lose appeal after sitting in warming trays. Among the many choices are eggplant, tender asparagus spears, bright-green broccolini (a cross between asparagus and broccoli), fresh green beans (not the canned grayish stuff) tossed with walnuts and a mix of sauteed mushrooms.

If you'll be eating in Vegas soon, you can check the buffet reviews posted by diners on Charleston Communications's Web site: Another entertaining site is "The Utterly Obsessive, Quite Superfluous All-U-Can Eat Guide to Las Vegas Buffets," by Las Vegas resident Glenn Campbell:

He spent four years eating a buffet meal each day, hitting every buffet in town. He notes the Sands and Hacienda are permanently closed since the hotels were imploded, adding, "Both buffets deserved it."

Campbell also points out that "The average gambler loses about $580 on each visit to Las Vegas, which helps pay for these marvelous buffets."

Some of his tips:

Eat lunch instead of dinner. Prices are lower and lines are usually shorter, while the food is about the same.

Some buffets switch from breakfast to lunch at 11 a.m. without closing. Thus, if you arrive about 10:45 a.m., you can get in for the breakfast price (usually $1 to $2 less) but still have lunch.

Eat only one buffet a day. "If you attempt more than one, you will explode."

Never gamble. "Gambling defeats the principles of buffology, which is to get as much value for your money and beat the casinos at their own game. The only way you'll win at a casino is not to gamble."