VAN NUYS, CALIFORNIA
This afternoon I am less concerned with cooking dinner than I am with ensuring that my middle-school-age daughters, with their many and ever-changing activities, are not accidentally left by the side of the freeway. My car’s Costco merchandise-filled trunk is our pantry, and our dinners together these days are more likely than not to occur at four in the afternoon—or as I call it, the Hour of Divorced Parents.
As usual, I picked up the girls at three o’clock, and their dad will get off work at six, so he’ll be delighted that they’re delivered fed, at which point Mom will slink off for a vodka tonic and a marathon of old Breaking Bad episodes. Four o’clock is actually a good time for us to eat. While the hour of the wolf is generally thought to be four in the morning, I find my own inner wolf emerges at four in the afternoon, which I also call the Hour of the Precipitous Glucose Drop. Anyway, my 11-year-old and 13-year-old have been up since 6 a.m. and have long since traded their lunches for hideous “fun” foods like Takis (don’t ask). They are ravenous.
Where does one dine at four in the afternoon? At the Hometown Buffet family restaurant in Van Nuys, of course, or as we like to call it, the HoBu. “Let’s make it a HoBu night!” we exclaim with mock TV cheer, flipping our arms as though we’re actually throwing in the culinary towel.
In truth, the HoBu is a welcoming oasis. As in a Las Vegas casino, the friendly waitstaff make no reference to time of day. Gentle 1970s hits (Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills & Nash) soothe us as we join the wide cross-section of humanity that also enjoys dining when the sun is still high. This includes eccentric folk of all stripes who appear to have just left their living rooms, wandering through the HoBu in their bathrobes, slippers, and pajamas.
No matter. We’re all just really, really happy to be here. It’s not only the clown making balloon animals (oh, yes!) that lends a sense of congeniality. It’s the fact that for just $14 we get all the salt and fat we could possibly want. Over there is the taco bar and pasta bar, and here, under glowing heat lamps, is the island with popcorn shrimp and all of its naughty brethren, and next to that is what I’ve dubbed “comfort food row”—fried chicken, mashed potatoes, brown gravy, and mushy green beans, calling to mind the tasty TV dinners of my childhood. Beyond is the carvery, complete with the carver himself in crisp chef’s hat and apron (all for $14, people! Just $14!), plus a full sundae bar and slushy machines. On Thursdays there’s even a lady holding aloft pink and blue torches of fresh cotton candy.
The Hometown Buffet is a defiantly joyous bit of Americana, down to the Norman Rockwell prints in the bathroom. It’s like a county fair that never ends, right here in Los Angeles, the city of used car lots.
I dig in with the girls, savoring crispy fried chicken wings, gooey mac ‘n’ cheese, saucy lasagna. As my daughters sprinkle M&M’s and Oreos on their sundaes in these last few innocent years of slender teenhood, we are filled with HoBullience. It is late afternoon, a time between worlds, where we float along with the other gypsies, and we’ve made it ours.
7868 Van Nuys Boulevard
Van Nuys, CA
Sandra Tsing Loh is the author of_The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones (W.W. Norton, 2014)._
Named for the piece of table-like furniture that it was served on,_ the buffet as we know it was invented in France_ in the 17th century as a way for dinner guests to get an advance preview of the meal to come.