First things first: all-you-can-eat restaurants and all-you-can-eat buffets might sound like the same concepts, but they are separate beasts. We've all visited restaurants looking to ladle out whichever premade foods we want onto a plate for a fixed price at the buffet, but "all you can eat" implies a true challenge for a steal.
At the Chinese restaurant Hong Kong King Buffet, owner Zhixin Lu could see his business losing steam thanks to a handful of new sushi spots that opened up nearby. This past October, Lu shuttered then reopened the location as Kintaro (7325 North Cliff Ave., 216-459-8862, kintarooh.com), a full-service sushi and hot pot restaurant with an impressive interior remodel. Pairing down the selections to healthy and up-to-date options while still offering a boatload has helped the new concept thrive.
Paying attention to current trends in the food industry has played a big part in Kintaro's rejuvenation, as did a new sushi bar, party room and swanky modern interior that resists being categorized as "cheesy." The real allure here is that everything is made to order; nothing has been sitting in a steam table or under a heating lamp. Upon entering, guests choose between sushi and hot pot, though you can opt out of the all-you-can-eat deal to order menu items individually.
"The boss wanted the upgrade to include an all-you-can-eat-hot pot menu, uncommon in Cleveland," says Kintaro manager Jay Weng. "There are a lot of hot pot restaurants in big cities like New York, L.A., Chicago, Houston. It's very popular right now."
The interactive way in which the soup is prepared makes it especially enticing to groups and traditional to Chinese celebrations. "We pretty much have a large party every night, whoever calls first is who gets [the party room]," Weng adds.
For hot pot, a small simmering bowl of Chinese herb, chicken, spicy Szechuan, or shacha broth will be placed on a portable burner at the table. From there, you have two hours to cook as many types of meat in your hot pot as possible. Choices include typical offerings such as sliced pork, fatty beef, chicken, lunch meat and dumplings, but also a large array of adventurous items like beef tripe, pork stomach, quail egg and cuttlefish balls.
They also offer 28 vegetarian ingredients and a variety of shellfish with potato vermicelli, udon, instant ramen, or rice noodles for the base. The authentic menu provides photos of each raw ingredient before it's placed into the boiling pot to cook at the table. To top it off, guests take their finished bowl to the sauce bar where they flavor the broth with oyster sauce, sesame oil, hot chili sauce, cilantro, scallions and others.
The all-you-can-eat sushi menu, located on a large paper placemat, works a little differently, with those participating checking off what they'd like. Diners are given the option of appetizers like edamame, spring rolls and miso soup, along with nigiri, classic hand rolls, and specialty rolls. Two rolls and four pieces of nigiri can be ordered per round. As with the hot pot, participants get two hours to eat but are cautioned to not leave waste behind otherwise they'll be charged an additional fee.
Specialty rolls are charmingly named after cars like the "Toyota" (shrimp tempura and cucumber inside, topped with tuna and a spicy mayo sauce), "BMW" (spicy tuna, yellowtail, avocado, and jalapeno inside, salmon, mango, and crispy onion on top), or the "Mazda" (shrimp and crab, topped with avocado).
Unfortunately, there is no prize at the end of the journey besides dessert, and no winner other than your stomach.