Thanks to my friend, Wendy, for venturing out to Tunica for a review!
Paula Deen's Buffet
13615 Old Highway 61 North
Tunica Resorts, MS 38664
The regular readership of this blog might be wondering why a review of a casino buffet from a Food Network celebrity is being included. Our family decided an invitation from an out-of-town guest to venture down to Tunica for lunch was too spectacular to pass up. So we packed up the group (2 friends from New Mexico who love Paula Deen, my mother, my sister, and my 3 monkeys ages 11, 9, and 1).
I must also preface this review with an explanation that my 2 older kids have a ongoing combination of repulsion and fascination with Paula Deen, one that I'm sure many Southerners could identify with. We were once in the same room with her for a cookbook signing. Running through a local bookstore to get a last-minute birthday gift, we were blocked by lines of mostly over-40 women waiting for her autograph. The boys were struck by the demographic grouped in such close physical proximity. They now like to mock her (“This can't have enough butter, y'all!”) and point out her face whenever we see her magazines or cookbooks. Of course I allow this silliness, just like I like to mimic smokers to underline how disgusting it is. If you haven't viewed Ms. Deen's segment where she builds a brunch burger with doughnuts instead of hamburger buns, go to YouTube ASAP. You will think it's fake (search for Paula Deen heart attack).
So when I broke the news to my 2 oldest monkeys that we were headed to Harrah's Casino, one asked if he could pack his own lunch. I told them we'd approach the whole project as restaurant reviewers. They were warmer then, but I could tell they were working out the hypocritical aspects of dining with guests who idolize Paula. I reminded them it's ok to say “It looks good, y'all!” but not to say “I'm gonna get fat eatin' off this buffet, y'all!” Then Stacey gave me permission to report our findings to DWM and the monkeys were really psyched.
Once we were finally at Harrah's, we had to pass briefly through the casino floor to get to the elevator that would take our stroller upstairs to the restaurant. “Kids, this is what a casino looks like. Note the glamour at 11:30 a.m.” Tweens love sarcasm. Once away from the the smoky, infinite sea of slot machines, we were outside what looked like Ms. Deen's front porch. And she was standing there to greet us. Oops, a double-take made us realize it was just a cardboard cut-out. The longest line we stood in during our excursion was to pay, which you do before entering. Weekday lunch prices are $12.99 for adults, $6.99 for ages 6-10. A family of 4 will drop close to $50 with tax and tip, but we had buy-one-get-one coupons from my mother's recent trip to see Wicked at the Orpheum. Be on the lookout for similar discounts. Once inside the Disney-esque restaurant styled after Paula's Savannah, GA home, there was no wait. It seats 560 people. Once seated (our dining area was the screened-in porch of Chez Deen, so we could see casino guests going to the bar down the hall), we were free to visit the multiple stations. I think there were 6.
Be warned when taking monkeys that the dessert buffet comes first and is in full view from the minute you're greeted to be led to your seats. Might as well let a persistent monkey have dessert first, but if you can persuade your child to eat something else, there is plenty to choose from. The last station is the salad bar, which includes raw veggies and fresh fruit. Not being completely familiar with Paula's signature dishes, I gathered by the labels and display that some items might be made following her special recipes. Still, the monkeys and I just chose what we liked and tried to balance our food groups, which is hard on a buffet this large even for an adult. I chose for our littlest monkey, who is always pleased when there is variety. (Someone has probably analyzed the psychology behind all-you-can-eat buffets—a symbol of the land of plenty, never go hungry again, diners have the choice, primitive humans never ate like this, etc.)
The big monkeys ate their required balanced meal, went back for a few more tastes, then asked, “Have we eaten enough healthy food yet?” Once I gave the nod they were off to the dessert station on their own. Both came back smiling, waffle cones filled with vanilla ice cream in hand. One monkey went back for a visually stunning cupcake, but he didn't finish it due to dryness. Both reported the ice cream melted too quickly but tasted fine. My strategy for sweets felt more like casino gambling. I tried a few small items, judging by sight what might be tasty, but the odds were against me. The mini pecan pie had almost no pecans. The cream puff was dry, it's pudding tasting of chemicals. The gooey butter bars were pretty good. They might have been made on-site. Paula claims them as one of her signature dishes, but my mom makes the same thing using a recipe from a country cousin from Tate County, MS. However, our buffet had an Elvis version, made with peanut butter and bananas, which I passed on.
The biggest pro of any buffet is the number of choices, which can also be its biggest con. We probably only sampled 20% of Deen food on our one visit, so I'll just give you our highlights. The bright spots: collard greens, cheese biscuits, grilled meats, fresh salad bar, gooey butter bars (there are multiple flavors). The low spots: most veggies were swimming in buttery oil, most desserts were less-than-fresh, and many choices were very salty, like the mashed potatoes, shrimp and grits, and fried catfish. If you venture down to Deenland on a different day, you might choose to dive into completely different dishes.
Before you leave you can buy food and gifts from the Paula Deen gift shop, through which you must travel going in and coming out of your dining experience. Luckily 2 male monkeys were only mildly interested in some kitchen gadgets and a shirt that said “Peace, Love, and Butter.” Exit quickly if you have monkeys that don't mix with breakables.
So I left feeling like we'd eaten fake food with a fake Paula Deen at her fake house. However, we kept a sense of humor, we all left full, and no one got an upset stomach later (always a buffet fear of mine). The kids got a view of how Southern food and culture can be fodder for capitalization, which I think they understood on some level. For balance, our next DWM adventure probably needs to be Melanie's Soul Food on Watkins.