If you want to eat all you can at an all-you-can-eat in Orange County, there will be a lot of Indian, a lot of sushi, and a lot of Korean BBQs. This list has more than a few of each. But there are non-Indian, non-KBBQ, non-sushi options, too…just not that many.
Share your favorite spots for gluttony in the comment section. Excuse me while I get some more Alka Seltzer.
1. Agora Churrascaria
After you've had your fill of steakhouses and their boring slabs of meat, Agora will show you how steak should be done: impaled on metal swords, served by sash-wearing gauchos and offered as an all-you-can-eat. Except maybe the Argentineans, no one can match the Brazilians' love of beef. And in Orange County, no restaurant demonstrates the expression of that love better than Agora. This meat-a-palooza is a parade of protein only a brazen carnivore hopped up on cholesterol meds could embrace. It is a meat feast to end all meat feasts. On those sabers comes a never-ending steak procession, hunks of cow roasted over flames with nothing more than salt and respect. You'll call over the gaucho who carries the sanguine pleasures of rare sirloin more than once, asking him to carve off yet another slice. You'll pop those nuggets of filet mignon wrapped in bacon like popcorn. The restaurant also boasts an immaculate buffet line of sides. They do a mashed potato so smooth it could pass for crème fraîche. But who are you kidding? You're here for the meat, and you're going to have it, one bloody piece at a time.
2. All That Barbecue
It may charge just $20 like other new age KBBQ like Gen in Tustin but All That BBQ has a quirkiness all its own. It names its dishes with pun-filled phrases like “Don't Rib Me Off.” And it pre-cooks some of its proteins even before your tabletop grill has had a chance to reach searing temperature. The flap tail steak, for instance, is grilled to a rare center, then served in slices for you to finish cooking to your level of desired doneness. Also pre-cooked are the boneless beef ribs, the meat rolled up like a tube sock and served on a pie tin. You then unfurl it on the grill top, letting the heat penetratethe thick length of cattle and slowly roast it to brownness before you snip it to bite-sized pieces with shears. Yet another All That BBQ oddity: a ground beef patty with pieces of chewy rice cake embedded in it. The menu describes the dish as a “Rice Hot Dog”, but it's so obviously a burger you wish it came witha bun and a slice of cheese. But it's the classics you covet. There are those thin sheets of pork so well marinated and mired in gochujang it's simultaneously too sweet and too spicy to eat without rice. There are slabs of chicken thighs coated in the same sauce; a sesame and soy-perfumed bulgogi with onions; whole blocks of pork belly; and unshelled shrimp that you need to roast until their antennas char and their innards percolateinto a sort of sauce.
3. Gen Korean BBQ
You would have already waited two hours when your name is finally called. As you enter a room that glows as blue as if you were boarding the StarshipEnterprise,the intoxicating aroma of cooking meats hits you so thick you could draw it apart like a curtain. Airborne and mixing with the breathable air, the smell of atomized fat and protein invigorates; if you weren't so ravenously hungry, you could conceivably inhale deeply and be sated from the fumes. Six square saucers of panchan sit on your table. Among them is kimchi, a scoop of potato salad and marinated bean sprouts. All are gone in seconds. You ask for more so the proteins you're about to grill will have company. Surveying the single-sheet list of things to sizzle, you know now what you didn't a few minutes ago. Gen may be slightly more expensive than other Korean-barbecue AYCEs, but it offers cuts of Kobe (or at least something that's so well-marbled it passes as the costly breed). The prospect of bankrupting the restaurant with unending orders of the stuff makes your $20 and two-hour investment immediately pay off. The waitress, perhaps under the direction of management to keep the place in the black, suggests you start with the basics: a Black Angus top sirloin, the shaved-thin brisket and the short rib. You agree because–let's face it–you'll say yes to anything at this point.
4. Haveli Fine Indian Cuisine
Although they didn't invent the Indian buffet, this Tustin restaurant has been getting raves from just about every corner of the foodie universe — and for good reason. For a pittance ($7.95 for lunch or $11.99 for dinner) Indian food noobs can skip the menu roulette and do what must be done when you don't know what to order: Try everything. Spices dominate the food and pepper the crisp garlic naan. Fenugreek, cardamom, ginger, every flavor that makes Indian cuisine complex and craveable each sing its own notes, but together, in each dish, they harmonize. Potatoes are cooked with onions, dry-seasoned with curry, and blasted with whole spice pods. Eggplant is reduced to mush, as is the spinach, concentrating the flavors that will invade every sensor on the tongue, leaving none unstimulated. The pakoras–fried vegetable fritters covered in chickpea batter–are fresh and crisp. Once you finish gorging, there's the gulab jamun, fried dough balls steeped in syrup that eat like bite-sized bread pudding.
5. Makino Seafood Buffet
For far too long, at too many all-you-can-eats around these parts, what they put out on the sushi trays of most seafood buffets are largely to be avoided, even feared; but not at Makino. You want the sushi here. They have, for now, what can be considered to be the best and most immaculately curated sushi offering to be found in an Asian buffet. They employ three sushi craftsman, all of them busy forming little nori cones filled with freshly cut fish, sculpting cute nigiri cuffed in seaweed belts, and molding delicate rolls bejeweled with multi-colored fish eggs. They are the reason Makino can get away charging what is probably one of the more expensive entry fees in Irvine. The hot foods are what you expect, with varying levels of success depending on whether you just happen get the tail end of a serving tray or just when it came off the fryer or wok. They also have a noodle bar, where a dedicated attendant will pour you a fresh bowl of ramen topped with sliced roasted pork. But consider it filler. Consider everything you eat here filler. As with any buffet, focus in on the item that takes the most effort, the most expensive ingredients, which for Makino, seems to be the sushi.
6. Sake 2 Me Sushi
Sake 2 Me is currently one of the most popular and cost effective ways to eat sushi in Orange County. The lines and wait times on Friday and Saturday nights are long. Here's why: For the relatively reasonable entry fee of about $25, you can stuff yourselves full of raw fish and rolls like you've never done before…well, at least not since the last time you found a place like this. Sake 2 Me is not seafood buffet, however; it's an honest-to-goodness sushi bar. The nigiri is actually made-to-order. Everything you mark down on the sheet of order paper (which are organized in rounds), from your first piece to your fiftieth, will be cut, molded and then served like any sushi bar would…except you're not thinking about how much money you have left in your bank account, but rather how much room you have left in your stomach. The rolls are still gut fillers though, most often drowned in sauces sticky sweet, Sriracha-spicy, or mayo-rich. But most of their nigiri sushi are notably well done, with the fish sliced so thick you begin to wonder how they turn a profit.
7. Surah Korean BBQ
Pluck off the kalbi while the fat still ripples. Nibble on panchan in no less than a dozen varieties. There will be sardines and boiled daikon covered in an adobe-red chile paste, canary-yellow squares of chilled potato salad, and kimchi–lots of kimchi. Then scrape the squeaky meat off the tiny marinated clams and slurp some cooling cubes of gelatin marinated in soy sauce and scallions. By the time you start searing another piece of meat on your griddle–say, the saeng deung sim, prime tenderloin steak–you will have finished all your side dishes. But you'd be only two meats into a list of 11. Pace yourself. Take a deep breath. Unbuckle the belt. Skip the rice. Focus your effort and the rest of your shrinking stomach space on the yangyum galbi, flaps of beef short ribs your scissors-wielding waiter will snip to pieces from a bone as large as a shoehorn. You may have paid for the all-you-can-eat, but the dish is so coveted you're allowed only one serving per person, and you'd be damned if you're not going to consume every fatty, decadent bite to which you're entitled.
8. Tandoor Cuisine of India
Tandoor charges chump change for one of the most complete and well-prepared Indian lunch buffets in O.C. The restaurant is almost always packed, the busiest you'll see an Indian buffet gets during lunch midweek. All present were stuffing their faces with rice and curry, returning for seconds, thirds. Most gravitate towards the vat of the ever-popular chicken tikka masala and ladling its addictive silken orange gravy over rice until they drowned every grain. They sink teeth into the unearthly red tandoori chicken, picking it down to the bone. They shove forkful after forkful of saag into their gullet. They chomp on crisp pakoras and the fat, densely-packed samosas while the waiters fulfill a near pathological need to continually replenish their baskets of naan as they come out scorching hot and slicked with garlic butter
9. The Red Pot
You don't walk into The Red Pot, you wade in, like you're swimming through a sea of smells. If there were such a thing as smell-imaging, waving your arms would show the turbulence your presence has on the environment–a room filled with the thick, delicious odors produced by dozens of steaming, gurgling pots that might as well be cooking up potpourri. The air and those pots are ripe of curry, spices, dried fruit and herbs. The Red Pot is a Mongolian hot pot restaurant like the restaurant that preceded it, but with one change: it's now an all-you-can-eat. This frees the individual to try new things one might be hesitant to spend money on otherwise. AYCE here is a license to explore. And there's a lot for the itinerant explorer to discover beyond just chicken. There's pork blood cubes, tripe, intestines, even tendon, which cooks down to chewy Jell-O. You order the things you'll boil from a list of meats and veggies that has the check boxes in three columns for each “round”. You check off what you want and servers bring it out nicely presented, ready for boiling in a flavored broth of your choice. Key to the experience are these broths. Those who would pooh-pooh shabu shabu for plainness will be forced to reevaluate their positions here. The cooking liquid used here is often spicier than most ready-made soups, some with a red oil slick that finds and clings to meat like pieces of metal to a magnet. And then there's the sauce station, where a virtual painter's palette of chili paste, oil, and soy begs to be blended into unique dipping concoction–a buffet in and of itself.
10. Vishnu Restaurant
Come in the morning or late afternoon, and Vishnu looks like any of the other anonymous businesses in this monochromatic John Wayne-adjacent office park: unremarkable. But when the lunch hour strikes, it begins. First, you see a trickle of people, then, all of a sudden, a crowd as thick as what you'd find at a Mumbai train station at rush hour shows up. The space is probably not intended for this many people, but they swarm anyway for a lunch buffet that includes freshly made dosas, curries, two kinds of biryanis and vadas (fried morsels that crunch like falafel). Along with Harry's Deli down the road, Vishnu has secured its cult status without much advertising. Ask the people in line ahead of you, and they'll tell you they found out about the place the old-fashioned way, by word-of-mouth, through friends who took them here, saying “You need to come check out this Indian place with me.”