Price is right at Cactus Willies' buffet


Some people favor quantity over quality. Cactus Willies is the place for them - an all-you-can-eat buffet for only $7.49 a person.

That's $7.49 for all the steak you want, all the barbecued, baked or fried chicken, all the fried or broiled fish, vegetables, potatoes, stuffing, salads of every kind, breads and pies and . . . well, you get the idea.

On a hilltop above Cromwell Bridge Road, Cactus Willies is part of a chain of restaurants owned by managing partners Robert Katz and Brett Austin. The pair have other locations in Westminster and Hanover, Pa., and they plan to open restaurants in Eastpoint and Glen Burnie by the end of the year.

Their Towson restaurant is expansive and bright, dotted with desert gardens of plastic cacti. A staff of servers moves briskly throughout, bringing soda and coffee refills.

Don't expect haute cuisine. This is food for the masses, cafeteria food What you'll find here that you won't find in most cafeterias, though, is steak. Cooked on a grill right in front of us, the small sirloins were cut to a quarter-inch thickness. They were surprisingly good for being that thin - tender, flavorful and faintly smoky. Keep in mind that "cooked in front of you" and "cooked to order" are not necessarily the same thing. The steaks we tried were all done medium-well.

Our advice is to build your meal around the steak or chicken. We sampled both the baked chicken, which remained moist under its bronzed skin, and the fried, which was a little dry but admirably greaseless.

Skip the instant mashed potatoes, the sweet, mushy stuffing, the lumpy macaroni and cheese, the overcooked vegetable medleys. A baked potato or yam wrapped in foil is a safer choice. If you're lucky, there will be at least one vegetable that hasn't lost its bite. For us, it was the cabbage cooked with sliced carrots and butter.

No buffet would be complete without a salad bar, and Cactus Willies is no exception. The bins are filled with iceberg lettuce and standard toppers. All looked fresh and well-maintained. There also are prepared salads and two kinds of soup. We would have liked the Maryland crab soup more if it had been billed as tomato-vegetable.

There's hardly room to list everything that's on the buffet: the good (sliced ham, barbecued ribs, cole slaw); the bad (fried cod, sweet pizza, dried-out fettuccine); and the ugly (tacos and nachos that won't appeal to anyone over 15).

For dessert, there's soft-serve ice cream, sheet cakes cut into manageable squares, pies and, our favorite, moist bread pudding with rum sauce.

Yes, Cactus Willies is a glutton's paradise, where even a dozen trips to the buffet won't turn a single head.

Cactus Willies

1125 Cromwell Bridge Road, Towson


Hours: Open Monday through Friday for dinner, Saturday and Sunday for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Buffet $7.49 for adults; 45 cents times the age of the child for children ages 3-12; $6.99 for seniors over 60

Food: **

Service: **

Atmosphere: **

Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *

Pub Date: 6/04/98

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