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Blast San Francisco Bureau

Not too long ago I allowed myself a trip to Vegas. I've been known to get a little crazy at the blackjack table, so I've learned to keep my distance. It's actually been a few years since I've been to sin city, and this is my first time back after turning legal. I've been to Vegas more than half a dozen times, primarily before the age of 11. My father is one of those stereotypical gambling-crazed Asians and, before he discovered the stock market, brought our family to vacation in Vegas as often as he could. I still remember the stale smell of the day care center at Circus Circus, where my parents deposited me and my sister when I was 8. As I grew older, around ten, my parents entrusted us to the confines of the hotel video game room, leaving us each a roll of quarters. They never lasted long.

But this time I was in Vegas on my own terms. Determined to have the complete experience, I booked a room at Bally's, in the heart of the strip. I was also eager to partake in a Vegas buffet. Going to a buffet was like a rite of passage for me. I'd always wanted to go as a kid, but my parents didn't like them. But they weren't here anymore. There's also something about paying my own way in and watching as dishes are presented to me for my approval or rejection that made me feel I had reached the pinnacle of adulthood. Weeks before the trip, I thoroughly researched Vegas buffets on the Net and the first night I consulted my list of top feasts. At that point I still had a pocketful of cash and was sure I'd win a bundle (a feeling I would lament later) and decided to go with 'class' and headed over to the buffet at The Mirage.

At 5 p.m. there was already about 40 people in front of me, primarily families with plenty of aunts, uncles, and kids. It's family folk like these that has made Vegas the new number one vacation destination in America, I thought. With some time to kill, I looked around the dining room. According to my list The Mirage was one of the nicer and pricier buffets in the area ($12.95). You can tell the money didn't go towards the decor, however, as I surveyed the tacky, tropical, floral motif. After about 20 minutes on line, and barely three feet of progress, there was finally a break in the clouds. Somewhere in the distance, I heard the hostess cry out, "Parties of one or two, any parties of one or two?!" I immediately yelled "Here! Here!" and grabbed my companion. I pushed and squirmed my way to the front of the line, stepping over junior, bumping into grandpa and squeezing by auntie from Jersey. "She must be hungry," I heard auntie whisper. Damn straight, I thought as I triumphantly made my way to the front of the line. As I followed the hostess I glimpsed back at the dismal faces behind me, burdened by their baggage, extended family, and children. I smiled at myself, reveling in the carefree blessings of youth with nothing but the feast of life ahead of me.

I was immediately overwhelmed by the choices. All-you-can- eat shrimp, a carving station with roast turkey and prime rib, fajita bar, and pasta bar. Navigating the buffet would take a bit of patience and skill. Would I be able to make it through all the buffet's choices before my stomach became full? I'd worked hard to get to this point and was ready for the task.

The salad bar tested me first. In front of me were my favorite salads, tuna and potato. Do I dare take up precious room on my plate with these old standbys? I couldn't resist and scooped a little tuna. I was rewarded for my control. Around the bend were herrings and cream, a favorite, something I rarely allow myself. And it got even better, Thai beef salad. Jackpot. It continued like this throughout the cold salads, everytime I thought I was giving up something good, something far better came along. Chinese chicken salad gave way to smoked fish. Three bean salad led to a Vietnamese vermicelli noodle mix. My cold plate full, I headed back to the table. My companion had not fared as well. She looked frantic, overwhelmed. Her eyes slightly bulged, and she was a little flushed. Her plate was a mess. The tacos sat next to a slice of pie. She explained that on her way to the pasta station she came across the taco bar and never made it any further. And then there was the dessert station. Could I believe there was so much food? "Yes," I said in a very calm voice, trying to comfort her.

Turned out the smoked fish wasn't as good as I thought so I left it on my plate. But the chopped chicken liver pate was amazing spread on fresh vegetables, and I ate it all. When I made my way back to the hot food, my companion was still working on her plate. "Done already?" she asked. "No, just beginning," I said and walked off. I was ready to start with the hot food and still had good stomach capacity. As I walked toward the various cooking stations, people with vacuous and frenzied looks in their eyes scurried by me.

Overflowing with confidence, I maneuvered deftly among the hot food. Yes, prime rib (a small cut), no to beef stroganoff, yes to some chicken fajita stir fry (only a few pieces), a drop of seafood newburg and a little barbeque beef riblet. The final challenge came at the wok station. See, my weakness is Chinese food. Clearly the pepper beef was subpar but to take a scoop or not? I swallowed hard and kept moving, sure I had made a mistake. But I was soon rewarded with baby bok choy in garlic sauce. I was on a roll.

I reveled in my victory over dessert. Before me were my favorite desserts -- cheesecake, rice pudding and bread pudding (a small piece of each). I was fuller than normal but not sickeningly so. I tried to explain to my companion that conquering the buffet was a lot like conquering life's mess of choices. She looked back with a blank stare, deep in a food coma, and nodded.

Walking out of the restaurant I noticed that someone had upchucked all over the floor. The pile of partially digested food was almost six inches high. As I stared at the discernible pieces of burger, fajitas, lasagna, and shrimp, I shook my head at the ardor of youth.