Berks County Eats crosses the county line to bring you some of the best dining both near and far. This edition takes us 23 miles southwest of Reading to East Earl, PA.
I think everyone has a birthday tradition.
For myself, and many people who live within driving distance of Lancaster County, that tradition includes a birthday feast at one of the best buffets in the entire country.
Every year on May 30, my wife and I make the short drive south to East Earl to join the throngs of thousands that pour into Shady Maple Smorgasbord daily.
East Earl, a community of just over 1,000 people, doubles in size during the evening dinner rush. That’s the way it has been since Shady Maple expanded its smorgasbord more than a decade ago to create the glorious food paradise it is today.
The only exceptions are on holidays and every Sunday when the restaurant is closed, perhaps so we can all atone for committing the deadly sin of gluttony during our visit.
It’s easy to get lost among the food, which is why signs point the way to both the east and west buffet. Combined, there are 10 islands, four carving stations and three drink stations. A pair of dessert stands bookend the room. Walking from one end to the other is nearly impossible as you bob and weave your way around a hundred other people, all seemingly waiting in line for the same thing you are.
But with limited stomach to work with, scoping out the entire buffet is a must. Otherwise you may miss the carved-to-order prime rib or the ICEE machine.
As much as I appreciate a good salad, the two stations full of greens are off-limits during my visits. I can get a free salad with a meal anywhere.
Instead, my first plate included a cup of tomato basil soup, broccoli, a pierogi and a sweet and sour meatball. The soup was a beautiful shade of light orange, a result of the added cream that gave it its rich flavor. A heaping helping of peppers and onions came along with the pierogi, but it could easily stand on its own. And the meatball was more like a miniature meatloaf, packed with spices in a ketchup-based barbecue sauce. I also added on an onion biscuit, just for good measure.
Plate number two was all about the meat as I took a slab of beef brisket and a heaping helping of roast beef. A fistful of carrots and a drop of bread filling helped balance out the plate. The brisket was a featured meat at one of the carving stations. Unfortunately the heat lamps at carving stations rarely keep meats hot, and this was no exception. It was lukewarm, and the fact that it was oven-roasted made it taste more like an ordinary slice of beef. The actual roast beef, however, was amazing. It was tender and moist, everything the brisket was not.
My third plate was my “healthy” vegetable plate. It featured baked lima beans, which were done in a very nice, thick barbecue sauce (I wish I that for the brisket); mashed potatoes; mashed sweet potatoes, which were topped with raisins and nuts; and some of the best (and wettest) dried corn I have ever tried. All the juice you see on the plate was from the dried corn, and it was excellent.
Dessert was a (small) slice of shoofly pie and a dish of raspberry and vanilla soft serve. The wet-bottom pie was alright, but it had obviously been chilled which hurt the filling a little bit.
After dinner, Shady Maple encourages their guests to work off their dinners and shop off some dollars in the expansive gift shop, located beneath the smorgasbord. The store is as large as the buffet, filled to the brim with everything from wind chimes and bird houses to Elvis collectibles and Pennsylvania Dutch cookbooks.
If you’re looking for a little taste of Shady Maple to take home, the farmer’s market offers a large selection of fresh produce and many of the smorgasbord’s famous desserts.
Even if you don’t have a birthday coming up, Shady Maple is worth the price of admission. Dinner buffets vary depending on the featured entrees, but average around $20.00 per person. If you do happen to be celebrating, all you need is your ID and a paying guest and you’ve got your very own birthday feast on the house.