Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The First Ten Minutes At A Chinese Buffet

They are all the same, with relatively few variations, so you would think that you would learn. But you don't. Especially on the road, or some other occasion when you are hungrier than you need to be to make rational decisions.

So there it is. Chan's or something like that. And they've got over 150 items. And they've got sushi. And they have been voted "Best Chinese Buffet." By whom? For what area? Which year? Who knows? Who cares?

The smell of garlic greets you almost as soon as you open your car door. Everyone is happy, expectant. You walk into the temple. Your family follows. A kind-looking man or woman is waiting to greet you, to get you seated immediately, to let you know how much pleasure it gives her or him that you have selected their humble trough as your dining destination.

You are led in, past the fruits and desserts, the sushi and the grill station, the steaming hot trays filled with Asian delights, too many to grasp. But it is bounty. You settle into a booth. Some go to the bathroom. Not you. The waiter arrives. Waters all around, any more complicated drink an unnecessary distraction that keeps you, your brain, your stomach from getting to that buffet. And then, opening his arm in a semi-circle, the waiter welcomes you to indulge while he gets your drinks.

The first plate, before anything is even on it, shines with promise. "Oh, look," one of you says, "They've even got pizza." The pizza place you tried to go to had gone out of business, so these slightly-undercooked slices of pepperoni seem like a gift from the gods. But, your thoughts tend toward Asia. Pizza? Maybe later.

First plate gets set down on the bar, as you fill up a bowl with wonton soup, sprinkle it with a few chopped scallions, and move on. Potstickers, those semi-crispy dumplings are next, drizzled with an impossibly sweet/impossibly salty sauce. From there, chicken on a stick (an homage to an old friend), salt and pepper shrimp, vegetable lomein, an ample serving of "Japanese Chicken," which you assume means teryaki.

Enough. For a start. Everyone has gathered back in the booth and begins to eat at breakneck speed. You don't even know what is on anyone else's plate, so focused are you, but peripherally, you can see greens and browns and reds in heaping piles. Traditionalist that you are, even though you could eat everything at once, you start with the soup. It's a serviceable wonton, actually a pretty good one, a fine intro for your stomach. For a moment, you act as if you will eat as in a traditional Chinese restaurant, each course slowly ingested as it arrives.

Then you try a shrimp. It's a little bland, so you start dipping the shrimp into the rich wonton broth, with a bite or two of dumpling on the side. The chicken on a stick, with its hints of Five-Spice powder, brings a subtle, unusual sweetness. One of your children wants you to try something, you don't even know what it is, and you shovel that into your mouth. Both hands are at work, one with a fork, one with a stick. To hell with the chopsticks! The glistening Japanese chicken brings the complex pleasures of teriyaki.

And just like that you are finished. You pause, for just a moment, the tastes of your entire buffet so far lingering in your mouth. The children talk of going to the desserts. Your vegetarian wife has been enjoying a plate of fried scallops, which she eats without guilt because they "don't have a face." You make a casual, offhand remark:

"You know those aren't scallops."
"Yes, they are. It said."
"Think about it. Look how uniform they are. Scallops that size would cost $18/lb. at a grocery store."
"So what is it?" She sets her fork down.
"Some kind of fish with a similar texture, I'd guess."
"They use fake crab in all the sushi," one of my sushi-aficionado daughters chimes in.
"I think they're scallops," my wife says desperately.
I cut into one. The separation between layers of meaty flesh looks nothing like a dense scallop. "They're not scallops," I say.

Feeling violated, she vows to eat nothing but fruit.

But you, still you have to have a second plate; you showed incredible restraint the first time out. You have to go back. Get your money's worth. There are meats and chickens, mushrooms and dim sum, steamed buns and sushi out there.

But after the first ten minutes at a Chinese buffet, something happens. A reality sets in. You realize that many, many of those options are ones that you wouldn't normally order or eat in a restaurant anyway--they're piles of fried meat that you could dump a sauce on. Fully one-fourth of the buffet is taken up with desserts. You don't usually eat desserts and have never been intrigued enough by bananas with red goop on them to give them a try. The grill looks like too much trouble, having to pick out your options and make awkward talk while you stand there and the cook tosses your stuff around, and you wonder, by now, how long those bowls of raw meat have been sitting there anway? And so you walk past almost all of it and return to the things you have already eaten, maybe try one new thing, and get a few pieces of a sushi roll.

When you sit back down, where everyone else has been sitting, you announce hopefully, "Hey, I just discovered they have ice cream over there, too. A bunch of different flavors. I didn't even realize it was there."

But no one responds and you come to understand quickly that they are all waiting for you to finish your sushi so they can get back on the road.


troutking said...

I used to fall for this at Ryan's Steak House. About once a year, I'd walk in there and say "This place is awesome! Look at all this stuff!" About 20 minutes later, bloated and disgusted with myself, on my way out I'd say, "This place is horrible. I'm never coming here again." I haven't been to Ryan's in about 10 years, but Chinese buffet has taken over that annual phenomenon.

rodle said...

Where did you stop to eat when you were hungry again and hour later?

Bob said...

Ryan's Steak House.

Sumon Ahmed said...

Buffet is really a nice style of having food to me. i always like buffet style dining.