Munch goes to Hokkaido

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Munch, your Easygoing Epicure, loves the three-day weekend as much as the next person, but darned if the extended break doesn't wreak all sorts of havoc with Munch's internal calendar. Case in point: Munch strolled into work on Monday without a care in the world, booted up the old computer, grabbed a cup of coffee, perused the sports section, grabbed another cup of coffee, carefully reviewed the funny pages, and WHAT, IT'S TUESDAY NOT MONDAY AND THE COLUMN IS DUE TODAY.

In a flash of panic, Munch bolted (to such degree that "Munch" and "bolt" go together in the same sentence) for the newsroom and recruited Groupie of Munch (GOM) for a quick lunchtime trip to Hokkaido Seafood Buffet, a new restaurant on the Pittsburgh side of the Homestead Grays Bridge. Munch's legions of tipsters have been suggesting a trip to Hokkaido since August, and as you know, Munch is a people-pleaser. Your wish is my command.

Hokkaido is an island in Japan that is apparently known for its ridiculous decorating schema. Munch can't figure out what kind of look Hokkaido Seafood Buffet was shooting for, but whatever it was, they ended up with Piano Bar IKEA Piccadilly Circus Pokemon Coca-Cola. There's neon signage above the various buffets, they have some of those colorful IKEA-style lamps hanging from the ceiling, and on the foyer wall, for some reason, there's a faux set of 88s.

But never judge a book by its cover, right? Many are the dives, diners and roadside pit stops visited by Munch that looked wretched upon first inspection, but turned out to have redeeming culinary qualities. Perhaps Hokkaido, despite the first impression it gives you, would present some redeeming rations of its own.

Buffets naturally are difficult to review dish-by-dish, especially when you try about 50 of 'em, so the best Munch can do is tell you that the restrooms are clean and that there are several items Munch would recommend to friends (and a few that I would recommend to my enemies, but that's what you get at a buffet, I guess). Munch loved the fried pork bun; thought the mussels were plump and tasty; ate about 10 tuna sashimi; thought the shrimp tempura was just OK; enjoyed the tapioca pudding and other desserts (no crab legs -- that's a dinner-only offering). Staffing was plentiful and attentive, at least at lunchtime, refilling Munch's drink and clearing our empty plates every five minutes or so.

Hokkaido also has a Mongolian barbecue station, which are few and far between in Pittsburgh. Mongolian BBQ is sort of like choose-your-own-adventure chow mein: You pile raw ingredients (onions, peppers, meat) on top of noodles on a plate, and then give it to the Grill Sensei, who throws everything on the grill. Expect sizzles, chopping, and sometimes -- just for fun -- fireballs, not unlike the flames and spatula acrobatics you'd get from those hibachi maestros at Nakama. The resulting dish was salty and garlicky, balanced by GOM's selection of pineapple chunks.

Hokkaido might not be easy on the eyes, but it's easy on the wallet. The lunch buffet is under $10. No wonder every time Munch drives past this 7,000-square-foot warehouse of a restaurant (which has several locations in California), the parking lot is full. Pittsburgh and cheap buffets go together like Jeff Reed and silly haircuts.

Oh, and another note -- in America, where they add new rules for pregnant women every year ("Whaddaya mean no soft cheeses?"), eating sushi is a no-no because of mercury levels in fish, and because raw fish in general can be a food poisoning risk if it's been left out too long. But Munch spotted a young Asian woman, clearly pregnant, snarfing down the sushi without a second's hesitation. Not saying she's right, not saying she isn't, but considering the infant mortality rate in Japan is half what it is in the U.S., maybe they know something we don't.


Hokkaido Seafood Buffet, 4612 Browns Hill Road, Squirrel Hill, 15217. Call (412) 421-1422. Want to be an FOM (Friend of Munch)? Send tips to munch@post-gazette.com or look for me on Facebook.


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