One of the best values for Sunday brunch, especially for families, is found at Hodel’s Country Dining. Not only are the parents priced at $12.50 a person, but children pay $6.50 or $7.50 (depending on age) for a feast that will keep those tykes full all day.

I’ve long been a fan of Hodel’s even though I’m not generally a fan of buffets because too many put out soulless food that frequently gets warmed over and looks tired by the time it’s placed on your plate. None of that applies at Hodel’s, where the food is frequently kitchen-fresh and based on family recipes from Lydia Hodel. According to the restaurant website, Lydia was cafeteria manager at Rio Bravo-Greeley School back in the 1940s and parents complained that their children were saying the school food was better than they were getting at home. That was probably negatively impacting graduation rates: “Mom, I can’t do my homework because then I’d graduate and have to survive on your food.”

Sunday brunch is the best place to come if you’re unfamiliar with Hodel’s and want a good sampling of the restaurant’s strengths all in one sitting. (They are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day).

Let’s start with the egg and omelet bar, where I always go first. Sure, there are scrambled eggs on the steam table, but if you want those fresh-made or eggs over easy, a scramble or an omelet made to order to order they’ll make them for you on the spot. There are 12 different ingredients to customize your creation, including three meats, vegetables including spinach and broccoli as well as minced garlic. Order it, move to the left and wait in line. It’s done before you know it.

My other favorite is the pecan rolls, which are amazing and rich with nuts on the top. Others rave about the fresh cinnamon rolls, but the pecan variety won me over long ago with the marvelous caramel sauce. Also worth recommending are these tiny cream cheese pastries, some with lemon or blueberry. There are plenty of cupcakes available at the station at the other end of the room, though little placards labeling them would be helpful. I grabbed what was a carrot cake and thought it was a chocolate cupcake. The staff uses a code of colored frosting crisscrossing the muffins that I’m sure the regulars remember, but a bit of information would help the newcomers. (On a second visit, I noticed that the flavors are written with a white marker on the Plexiglas screen above the food.)

Freshness is the real reason to recommend the place and that’s achieved in part by the crowds. It’s a popular place so people make their way through various pans, which are quickly replaced by the staff. The carving station featured ham and beef. Almost every fruit you could imagine was available though a lot of them are canned (fresh pineapple was an exception). The bacon was interesting as rather than standard strips uniformly sliced it appeared there were pieces of various thicknesses in the bin, like they either cut it on premises or used end pieces. In any case, it’s a must sample if you love bacon. Along with favorites, there are some unusual choices, such as blueberry bread pudding. And my companion said the salad bar was the best she’d run across in months, both for variety and freshness of the vegetables.

The fresh Belgian waffles are shaped like a heart and topping choices include everything from chocolate chips and strawberries in a thick, sugary syrup to fresh blueberries, nuts and melted butter. There is a chocolate fountain — after Golden Corral it’s almost required — with apple slices, marshmallows and strawberries. My companion chose that and the chocolate hardened on her plate on the berries. Very temperature-sensitive and not as waxy-tasting as I feared.

You can’t talk about Hodel’s without raving about the staff, which has all the energy and hospitality of the workers at In-N-Out and constantly seem to work so efficiently without a speck of stress visible. When we arrived for Sunday brunch, the lobby was full, but we were seated within five minutes. The waiter was checking on his customers, clearing tables and brought the check but added “no rush,” which we appreciated had we been in a mood to linger. Though they don’t really seem to need our business, they do leave you with the impression that you’re valued, which is nice.

The family-owned place was the dream of Bob Hodel, whose first restaurant was the Foster’s Freeze on Stockdale Highway, before he bought The Cookery Coffee Shop on Knudsen Drive back in 1967. The place has gone through seven remodels, adding banquet rooms and a gift shop but never closing in the process. The food coming out of the kitchen goes through similar tweaks, but many of the standbys (biscuits and gravy, for example) thankfully don’t change. And way back in the ‘80s the family had a buffet at the Valley Plaza, though only old-timers would remember that.

We went back for dinner mostly to enjoy the fried chicken and mashed potatoes that we’ve loved in the past. The prices are just as low: $11.95, $8.50 if you only want soup (they offer three) and salad, $8.25 for salad only, $6.75 for soup only, and children 3-6 are $5.85 and 7-10 $6.95.

My companion, not usually a buffet person, was so enthusiastic she was won over. She was particularly impressed by the chicken pot pie, with big pieces of white meat and carrot in it. That night was Chinese food night down at the omelet station, there was also pit-style beef, baked and fried chicken and pork roast with a jalapeno-apricot sauce.

The soups were stars: French onion, tomato and lentil, which was made particularly alluring with ham and tomato chunks. The mashed potatoes here are particularly light, and there were two varieties, one that appeared to be flavored with sour cream and chives. Most of the food was as fresh as it was at breakfast. My lone complaint was the peanut butter cookie, which, like the cupcakes, was on the dry side. Probably healthier than what I usually eat.

Hodel’s Country Dining can be recommended for a fine dining experience. Even if buffets aren’t your usual choice, you will be won over. 

Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears here on Sundays. Email him at pftittl@yahoo.com.

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