WINEormous with Frank OrtizI’m using the words “gourmet” and “buffet” in the same sentence. That’s what I encountered on a recent visit to the newly remodeled Pechanga Buffet at Temecula’s Pechanga Resort & Casino. Brought in to run the popular buffet, chef Frank Ortiz has supervised the creation of new menu items with fresh local ingredients, expertly run food stations and innovative small tapas plates.

With more than 30 years of experience at renowned hotels around the world, Chef Ortiz has spent the last four years in the buffet capital of the world, Las Vegas. There he managed buffets at both the Wynn and Bellagio. He had never heard of Temecula before being referred for the job. Immediately he fell in love with the abundance of fresh food and local farmers in a growing wine region.

His philosophy was a perfect match for Pechanga. “Cooking is an art form,” he says.  He also likes to quote iconic chef, Alice Waters who says, “Simple is not easy.”

WINEormous at Pechanga BuffetOrtiz likes to cater to those who want quality and quantity.  As he interacts with a staff of 60, he encourages them to respect the food, repeating his mantra, “happy cooks make better food.”

Chef Ortiz has mixed things up with his Spanish heritage featuring small tapas plate specials, giving both more value and variety on weekends. He is dedicated to quality across the board.  Adding new things to the traditional fare, Ortiz can be found on the restaurant floor, visiting with diners, encouraging them to “try this.” he also asks guests what they like to eat, welcomes and implements many suggestions.

“If I can go out and make somebody’s day, it doesn’t cost a penny.” The overall great experience is the key.

The 60 cooks working out of 2 kitchens have noticed changes as well. There have been technical improvements and more making things from scratch. Cooks participate in tastings and have had a hand in creating new items. They are trained in the nuances of each food station where they frequently rotate.

WINEormous at Pechanga BuffetPechanga Buffet averages around 3,600 people in the course of a day for lunch and dinner service.  Weekend brunches and dinners attract even larger crowds. Now comes the time to eat our lunch.

When asked what favorites he would not touch, Ortiz quickly replied, fried chicken and waffles or macaroni and cheese. Walking up to the buffet line, I first noticed how clean and well-organized each section was. A positive bonus was clearly marked signs identifying items at each station.

Pizza/Flatbread/Garlic Bread – custom-made in a visible pizza oven with special combinations delivered piping hot to the front.

Pasta – standards plus Chef’s Choice made to order for each guest.

Fried Chicken/Waffles – delivered to the station in small batches insuring that nothing sits or cools down quickly.

Carving Station of Turkey, Beef and Sausage – select the portion size and accompaniments you like.

Asian/Dim Sum/Sushi – made fresh right in front of your eyes

With over 250 fresh made items the choices seem endless. Keep going to discover American, Mexican and both cold and hot seafood selections. Don’t forget a wide array of soups, salads and an impressive Dessert Bar.

As I waddled into the casino, I had difficulty imagining how they would top this experience with an exclusive Thanksgiving Buffet. Now I am salivating over classic Thanksgiving fare augmented by: Holiday style fish cakes, an even more elaborate array of shrimp, mussels, oysters and snow crab, deep-fried turkey, and smoked wild boar.

Oh my! A gourmet buffet indeed.

Pechanga Resort & Casino – 45000 Pechanga Parkway, Temecula, CA 92592