Cafe a la bland

    It is 11:50 a.m. and class starts at noon. In a slightly light-headed haze, with a belly aching from hunger, the Smith cafeteria appears: hamburgers, french fries, pizza, bagels and smoothies. So easy to grab and go, it is hard to ignore.

    But is it worth it? With all the choices Sodexho has dreamed up to satisfy our student cravings, there are just a few that consistently please.

    The most important thing to remember: choose something that is made to order or not kept warm in a steam table.

    Sushi is hugely popular, and rightly so. It is kept cold and doesn’t suffer too much from its stay in the cooler. The sushi chefs keep assembling fresh trays to maintain a bountiful look, so watch and grab what has just been made.

    At $4 and change, it’s also a good buy. With plenty of fresh raw vegetables and very little oil or fat, it is one of a few healthy choices you won’t regret later.

    Keep clear of the sunbathing rice bowls to the left of the sushi. Withering under heat lamps until an unsuspecting customer chooses one, the meat is either soggy and greasy after a dip in the deep fryer or sliced thin and parched. Paired with vegetable-studded rice, the flavors fuse together the longer they sit. Last year, these items were cooked frequently throughout the day in the woks, which now lie hidden under a stainless-steel cover, yielding a better texture and flavor.

    Another solid bet is a Noah’s sandwich put together according to your specifications. These mothers have huge portions of meat and, to a lesser degree, cheese. Nothing is gourmet here, but the quality sure beats the rubbery, vaguely artificial meats at Subway.

    Bubbling all around, steam tables keep a majority of the food here hot all day long. At one end, the new What’s Cookin’ resembles a cafeteria line, with Southern-style comfort foods and salads. Rotisserie chicken is the staple here, and might end up with a following if only it were seasoned with enough salt.

    Macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes with gravy and all the vegetables we tried suffered from the same malady. Were they seasoned properly before their long stay in the lunch percolator? All the flavors have a tendency to fall flat from their prolonged exposure to heat and the cooks need to be checking them periodically. Even so, they are good for what is essentially cafeteria food: sauces had creamy textures and ingredients were fresh and only minimally overcooked.

    The burger is made with Oregon country beef, and looked just as good as one from Burgerville: crisp romaine, thick slice of tomato and a bright sliver of red onion. Ringing in at $5.28, and taking a respectable seven minutes to cook to order, the only disappointing part was the flavor. The patty was incredibly bland, and was not enhanced by the “PSU sauce” on it, described as “kind of like thousand island” by the cashier. In a cafeteria, when spending more than $5, is it too much to expect crispy, fresh fries and a tasty beef patty?

    Eating for under $5 is not impossible, but will pose a problem for the truly starving. A daily special at What’s Cookin’ features a changing main dish: breaded fish, pork loin and Salisbury steak with two vegetables for $3.49. Don’t look for this on the menu – it is only listed as a combo, which includes corn bread or a biscuit and a fountain drink for $2 more, a huge rip-off.

    Resist the temptation for liquid nutrition. While the fruit smoothies have a good dose of vitamins, they also contain as much as 70 grams of sugar per 21 fluid ounces, almost three times the amount in a Snickers bar.

    Some of the details made just as much of an impression as the food. Clean kitchens fronted with new butcher-block tables look sharp and tidy. Not so in the dining area, where surfaces are rarely cleared and wiped clean before the next person sits down.

    Service varies widely, from boisterously friendly and outgoing to bare minimum, cold shoulder and no eye contact. But then it’s a cafeteria, right?