Hitchhiker’s Guide to Chinese Restaurants #3: A screed against buffets

by Mr. Nobel

Chances are you have, at one point or another, stumbled upon a Chinese or otherwise Asian (yes, they really are that interchangeable) buffet. There’s also a good chance you might’ve even sat down and eaten at said establishment. How much you enjoyed this style of food joint relies on how much the thought of shiny, greasy, soggy, cold, greasy, overly sweet, really god damned greasy, dead faux-Asian food turns you on. And also your weight. Don’t forget cholesterol. And your blood pressure.

What I’m trying to get at here, as offensively as possible, is that Chinese buffets tend to be marketed at the lowest possible common denominator. Check any notions of class and civility at the door and line up for your bib and Pepsi refills.

There are a few kinds of patrons you’d find at an Asian buffet. You’ve got your target demographic – folks not too familiar to authentic Chinese cuisine but who do love those tasty orange chicken nibblets. These folks are the ones that Asian buffet operators prey upon. They’ll position the shiniest, most crudely, animalistically tasty-looking food near the front, and load these guys up with soda. Few of these folks can last substantially past a few plates of the overly greasy, lukewarm at best treats, and they’ll probably leave a tip out of decency.

Then, there are you marathon eaters. The folks who’ve pulled an Epic Meal Time and starved themselves for a bit in order to maximize return on their investment. All you can eat generally does mean all you can eat (god help you, though, if you try to stay past lunch/dinner transitions), so these gentlemen and ladies are free to fill up on whatever the hell looks good, with only (possibly) an occasional glare from a waitress or a thinly veiled suggestion to get the fuck out. How much a management will hate this crew depends on several factors. If the restaurant’s pretty full and the marathon eaters not picky, then the manager will probably have no problem shoveling his/her cheap wares down their throats. If it’s a rowdy crowd of Chinese college students at a mostly dead buffet? Well, that’s another story.

Finally, we have your third kind of diners, the shriveled old Asian grandmothers. Don’t let their size or general aura of kindness fool you; these women will just as soon drag a shiv made of disposable chopsticks across an artery as they would smile at you. They’ve come to the buffet to do battle against the management and consume as much of the expensive stuff as possible. They will fight for the seafood dishes, especially when a new load’s being added. They will cram as much as possible of that good stuff. They will cut lines. They will scream at you in Asian dialects. They will generally fuck your shit up. Managers can’t stand them, but what the hell else are they going to do? Trying to charge one of these ladies a cent over the regular price is akin to opening one of those shrieking letters from Harry Potter. Not particularly good for business or the buffet’s image.

Holding all of these forces at bay are the owners and management of the establishment. They’re the ones who’ll decide exactly what dish gets reserved for the more expensive dinner options, and how best to get you to fuck off as soon as possible. Their secret weapons? Dessert and soda.

Dessert are, relatively, cheap and simple to make. They’re also almost always packed full with filling carbohydrates, whacked out color schemes and energy inducing sugar to set off the children in your party.

Soda, on the other hand, is designed to target everyone. You’ll almost always be charged for a drink with free refills, and the restaurants will almost always make a massive profit off of it. Soda also has the nice properly of filling you up, thereby limiting the amount of food you’re able to ingest and getting your ass out of the seat faster than otherwise.

What’re your defenses against all these dark forces conspiring to rip you off? Well, not much. It’s a fact that the most expensive items at these buffets (usually seafood) will run out first, especially if they’re heavily advertised. Additionally, the proprietors will probably also figure out ways to cut corners in preparing these dishes, either using low-grade seafood or hastily cooking up batches. Your other selections won’t fare much better. There’s no good way of telling how long a dish has been slowly dying underneath those evil heat lamps, and no way to tell if that thing you’re looking at is fried shrimp, fried frog, Chicken McNuggets or a bovine enema. Whatever you do, don’t trust the signage above a dish. If you’ve got allergies or religious/diet considerations, just avoid buffets altogether. Spare yourself the anxiety and the heartache.

Of course, all of the above are grossly simplified generalizations. Just as there probably are dignified and respectful Chinese grandmothers, there are probably decent Asian-style buffets out there in America. Of late, there’s been a boom in the number of sushi buffets, which offer inventive and flavorful, if not astonishingly fresh, all-you-can-eat sushi alongside more traditional Japanese/Korean/Chinese dishes. If you live in a big metropolitan city, i.e. New York, there are probably some decent choices for buffets out there. But, generally, if you see a glowing neon all you can eat Chinese food sign…think with your brain, not your stomach.