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Choices Aplenty 

You may be pleasantly surprised at the quality of the Desert Diamond buffet

Are you feeling lucky, punk? You've just blown your nest egg at the Desert Diamond slot machines, and your spouse is gunning for you, and rightly so.

But before you skip town, you need one last meal, one that won't suck too many of your few remaining dollars from your pocket. So you thread your way through the aisles of slots and past the blackjack tables, and head to the buffet, to take your chances at coming away with a winning meal.

OK, I know that a buffet is the antithesis of "winning meal" in most culinary circles: Leave the wrong kind of food in those trays too long, and it can turn dry or tough, and often, the dishes don't even start off well, because they're prepared to suit the blandest of tastes. But it is possible to get decent food at a buffet or cafeteria. Once, several years ago, I rashly wandered into a Luby's and, to my surprise, had a quite-satisfactory lunch. Once. Also, a buffet allows you close control over your portions, which is a fine thing for light eaters and the health-conscious, but a dangerous siren song for gluttons.

I visited the Desert Diamond Casino at 7350 S. Nogales Highway. It's the one with the swanky hotel attached. The buffet is not in the hotel, but in the casino, and it's easiest to find if you go through the main entrance, facing Los Reales Road, and head straight back to the wall with the built-in waterfalls and, yes, the "buffet" sign overhead. Join what was on my two visits a very short line; pay your $8.85 for lunch or $10.85 for dinner (standard drinks included; $14.95 for Sunday brunch, and $16.95 for a Monday "seafood extravaganza"); let the staffer lead you to your table; then survey the options at the buffet line. (At some point, a server will take your beverage order.) The atmosphere is not garish at all; the surroundings feature wood and stone, not neon and chrome; and an oldies station plays just loud enough to mask the casino sounds, but not loud enough to interfere with a quiet conversation.

The casino's Web site lists the buffet offerings day by day, but what was actually set out on my two visits did not adhere strictly to the posted menu. But, really, how many people are going to make a special trip out there because it's supposed to be Parmesan-Crusted Cod Day?

The salad bar has the usual ingredients, nothing more exotic than black olives and shredded carrots, but more than enough to assemble a decent salad. This is strongly advised, because there aren't many other veggie options. We bypassed the daily soup offering (minestrone one day, clam chowder another) and headed for the main fare.

There's a carving station that usually houses a big slab of roasted beef with rosemary jus available on the side. The jus is tasty, not as salty as it can be, but the beef itself is where your luck begins to come into play. It's slightly pink, but probably not pink enough for fanatics, and it can be somewhat tough, depending on which part of the roast is being carved.

Similarly, some but not all slices of the pork loin one night were a little dry and chewy, but this could be overcome with a generous slathering of the accompanying brown sauce. Another day, the sirloin with onions and mushrooms was very well-done and, again, dry, but at least it was lean.

The fowl and fish are a bit more reliable. True, the batter-fried fish tasted mainly like batter, and the accompanying french fries had little flavor, but you can do pretty well with the sauce-oriented fish preparations featuring salmon or tilapia. The baked chicken one night was skinless yet still moist; another time, the teriyaki chicken was a firm slice of breast, fine in itself, although the sauce had no distinguishing features.

The pasta tends to be so-so. One "chef choice" was big shells stuffed with ricotta and topped with tomato sauce, none of it very flavorful. The macaroni and cheese was generic and inoffensive; another "chef choice" was linguine in a gummy but tasty white sauce with chicken chunks.

The vegetable options, few as they are, tend to be pretty good. One night, the option was sautéed zucchini, yellow squash and red bell pepper, all still retaining a bit of crunch, mingled with Mexican white cheese. Another visit yielded the sort of pea-corn-carrot mélange you can find in the frozen-food case at your neighborhood market, but here, it was seasoned with something unusual--maybe thyme? Hard to tell, because it was also a bit too salty. Salt afflicted some of the other dishes, especially those involving rice; by the end of the meal, when I shoveled the last forkful of cilantro rice into my mouth, all I could taste was the salt.

One night, the lady in line ahead of me urged me to try the tamales, which she said were the best she'd ever had. The tamale emerged from its corn husk suspiciously clean; indeed, the husk wrapper was clearly applied after the fact, for the tamale's masa was surprisingly firm and smooth, as if it had been cooked separately in some mold or at least plastic wrap. It was pretty good, but, frankly, my grandmotherly Hispanic neighbor had brought over some much-better tamales a few nights before. There's no cooking like home cooking.

Take a chance on the desserts, but be ready for disappointment. The little cakes were dry, and the sugar-free pies had decent fruit fillings but brittle and flavorless crusts. The warm cobblers, on the other hand, were deliciously heavy on the brown sugar and very comforting.

Most of this food seems designed for typical casino players--smokers who wouldn't be able to appreciate subtle seasonings and need a big handful of salt for flavor to register. Yet nothing we tried was really bad (aside perhaps from the salad bar's raspberry vinaigrette), and a few things were fairly attractive. In terms of quantity, the buffet is a good value for hearty eaters, and in terms of taste and quality, you'll probably break even. Are you feeling lucky?

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