duck-shaped pain

 
 

26 September 2002
Chinese buffet reviews.

My town is rather odd in that we have a serious lack of typical Americanized Chinese restaurants. You know, the type with $4.95 lunch specials, featuring soup and a crunchy egg roll, the entrée of your choice and a neatly formed mound of rice on the side. Dinner is more of the same. These are the restaurants with red-bound menus (with gold tassels hanging from their spines), selections of appetizers, and "Family Dinners" that no one ever chooses, not even for the promise of paper-wrapped chicken, because the entrees available are always a bit off. Sweet and sour…beef. Curried…pork. Things that sound familiar, but are not quite what you want.

Here, we have two options in the Chinese restaurant field. [1] Buffets or the dollar-a-scoop place. The latter, of which we have only one, is the cheapest. You get a plentiful amount of your choice of menu items for a dollar per selection. No combination meals, no fortune cookie at the end, no hot tea. The setup is much like a high-school cafeteria would be, but my high-school cafeteria had no spicy tofu. The aesthetics are rather cafeteria-like, as well.

Until recently, the dollar-a-scoop place was a decent place to eat at. After all, all the mailmen ate there for lunch -- you figure that has to say something. I went there for better-than-average sesame chicken and their shrimp and rice-noodle rolls. The latter were sort of bland, but came with this amazing sauce whose ingredients I could never quite decipher. I think it was hoisin sauce mixed with hot chiles, garlic and an elusive Something Else -- the resulting sauce was sweet, tangy, and blistering hot all at once. However, the restaurant was recently sold to some new people, who changed the recipes used (not for the better) and discontinued both the rolls and their wonderful sauce.

Which leaves me with the other option: buffets.

The people in my town will eat anything that is presented in buffet form. There are some traditional-style buffets here, the ones where every member of the family can get something distantly resembling something they want to eat, whether it be tough steak, watery pasta, iceberg lettuce, or too-orange macaroni and cheese. These restaurants were very popular with my family when I was growing up, due to the inability of my extended bunch of relatives to agree on any particular type of food. I loved them because I could eat nothing but macaroni salad for dinner.

The rise of the Chinese buffet is interesting. I haven't been in any other place that had such a high per-capita incidence of Chinese buffets. Driving through Denver or Portland, I'd see the odd one tucked away in a strip mall in distant parts of town, but they were not a major Chinese-food option. It seemed like they began appearing once other Asian restaurants started opening: first the Japanese restaurant, then the Thai one, and (just recently) a Vietnamese place. [2] Since they no longer had a monopoly on Asian food, it was time to innovate.

I've been eating a lot of Chinese food lately, so I've been thinking about differences and similarities between the three buffets in town. I'm not sure why, exactly, but I've just had an intense craving for it, similar to the salmon cravings I get when I'm sick. Whether it means something deep and profound, or it's just a phase, remains to be seen.

Anyway, on with the Chinese buffet reviews:

Buffet #1: Shanghai Garden

The original Chinese buffet in town. Located out by the airport, in a depressing strip of Holiday Inns and fast-food restaurants. The building that it is in has been host to a series of bad nightclubs, all patronized at one time or another by B., this guy I went to high school with, who borrowed winter coats from his mom. "I don't want to spent my own money on a coat," he would say, and of course, his mom bought the lamest coats. But that has nothing to do with Chinese food and is the topic for a future story, maybe.

Pluses:

  • Most adventurous menu of the three. Serves a lot of unusual dishes in additional to the crowd favorites. I ate there this weekend, and had a really tasty helping of chicken and potatoes, coated in a black-pepper and garlic sauce.

  • Bordello-esque bathrooms with red, velvet-flocked wallpaper, gold-colored toilets and lots of mirrors everywhere. I keep expecting to see a fainting couch or round, revolving waterbed in there.

  • More than one type of hot tea. I'm not sure what the names of the selections are: my choices were, "Do you want the regular tea or the other tea?" I'm glad to report that the other tea was quite good.

  • German chocolate cake for dessert. All the buffets serve cake for dessert, for some reason, along with Jell-O and sesame banana balls. German chocolate is my favorite of the bunch.

Minuses:

  • Surly, surly waitstaff, who do not refill glasses or bring chopsticks when asked.

  • Single diners are shunted off into odd areas with tiny, wobbly tables.

  • Pinkest sweet-and-sour sauce I've ever witnessed.

  • Clientele is mainly crabby office workers and people who drive in all the way from Utah just to eat Chinese food (it’s right off the interstate).

  • Restaurant overlooks a golf course, which means the occasional ball smacks into the windows.

  • They advertise that they have sushi on their buffet. Said "sushi" is merely cucumber and corn rolls, made with overly sweet rice. Bleah.

Buffet #2: Szechuan Garden (all these names seem to have been picked off of some master list of Chinese restaurant names somewhere)

This one is right across from the college, so it is the one I patronize the most. Their lunch buffet is cheaper and better than most of the college-produced food. The only disadvantage is that you have to cross the busiest street in the city to get there, and this is a real hassle. The building that it is located in has been a Chinese restaurant of some sort for as long as I can remember.

Before the buffet moved in, it was a typical nondescript place run by a woman my mother and I called The Chinese Nacho Lady. Her restaurant served every customer a plate of fried won-ton skin strips, with mustard to dip them in. These were always described by the owner (there never seemed to be any other employees) as "Chinese nachos." This woman later opened up the aforementioned dollar-a-scoop restaurant, which she then sold to someone else.

Pluses:

  • Buffet has some surprisingly tasty items: good tofu with vegetables and hot-and-sour soup that lives up to both the "hot" and "sour" in its billing

  • The waitresses are all really nice. They get a lot of college students, and always mention that I'm free to sit at my table and study and eat as long as I'd like. Since all the other restaurants near the school specialize in getting people in and out as soon as possible, this is a nice touch

  • A big bottle of Sriracha sauce is available at every table, allowing one to make the food actually spicy (see minuses)

  • No qualms about letting solo diners sit in one of their big, plush booths

Minuses:

  • Nothing "Szechuan" about their food (except for the soup): no spice, no tang at all unless you doctor your food at the table

  • Odd apple cake with a brick-like appearance offered for dessert

  • Scary restrooms

Buffet #3: Grand China (the least descriptive restaurant name I can think of)

This is the newest of the three. It is unique in that they offer non-buffet food. Since they are close to my house, I have them deliver food here quite often. My conception of their buffet is based on the fact that their non-buffet food is much, much better than what is available on the buffet.

It is located in a building that once housed a very large Mexican restaurant, and still retains that feel. Pseudo-adobe exterior, fountains and red tile floors on the inside. This building is testament to the fact that guidebooks to Colorado rarely consider my town important: as of just a year or so ago, some guidebooks listed the crappy Mexican restaurant that was here (which closed down in the mid-1980s) as still extant.

Pluses:

  • They have mussels. I love mussels.

  • Bathrooms still say "Señors" and "Señoritas" on the doors.

  • Their fortune cookie fortunes have lucky numbers on them, on the completely unlikely chance that I would ever play the lottery.

  • Only place in town that offers General Tso's Chicken, except that on their menu and buffet, they refer to it as "General Chicken".

Minuses:

  • The aforementioned thing about their buffet food and their take-out food varying greatly in quality and tastiness.

  • While they do have mussels, their mussels are frightening, as they are kept submerged in a dank, lukewarm, watery broth.

  • Their fried wontons have no filling whatsoever, not even crappy cheap cream cheese.

  • The teriyaki glaze they use for their teriyaki chicken on skewers turns the entire piece of chicken, exterior and interior, bright pink: like tandoori chicken without all the flavor and the accompanying naan.

  • There is an enormous satellite dish strapped to the outside of the restaurant, for no apparent reason. There's no TVs inside. This may be left over from the building's brief tenure as a sports bar before it became a buffet, but in any case, it's really ugly.


[1] Actually, we have one old-style Chinese restaurant, with the oversized, gilded menus and the cocktails served out of a ceramic Buddha. But only old people eat there, for some reason. I was talking to a guy recently who was a waiter there, and he told me that 95 percent of the people he waits on order chicken fried steak.

[2] This has been the source of much rejoicing. Pho! Less than a mile and a half from my house! I've been telling everyone I know about it in the hopes that they will patronize it and it won't go away.

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