Chinese Buffets

My family doesn’t go out to eat much. My mom was almost always willing to cook, with the notable exception being after “Money Day” when she, as treasurer for the high school band boosters, ran kids through stations to pay for yearly expenses. Other than that, we generally avoid fast food and have tons of leftovers to tide us through slower days. As such, we never really developed a pattern or preference for any particular places, though we tended towards Chinese restaurants.

The most exciting place in recent memory is a Chinese buffet opened about 5 minutes from our house. Rave reviews from my parents, especially my mom who tends to describe most places as “okay”, have taken me there twice, most recently last night with my family. This place has managed to stand out above other Chinese buffets by offering sushi. Although they don’t have the most original rolls, the quality is decent, and we’re not particularly discerning about it, either.

The sushi does present a slight problem in that it throws off the system. Past experience with Chinese buffets has developed into a strategy, which is simply known as “beating the buffet”: eat more than what you would typically pay for an equivalent amount of food not at a buffet. Obviously, you want to go to the buffet to fill up. The next most important thing is to eat mostly foods that are worth a lot compared to how filling they are. For example, seafood, such as crab legs, and sushi are good targets. Although sushi does have quite a bit of rice, it’s well-compensated by how expensive sushi is. The sucker foods, however, are things like white rice and soups. Those are a poor investment of stomach space. My dad is particularly good about focusing on the important things: he’ll warm up with maybe a wonton soup (heavy on the wontons), then transition into a plate of crab legs, followed by a plate of crawfish and shrimp. After leaving the shattered remains of many shells, he’ll move onto the usual items, being all variety of fried meats and other entree, then finish out with fruit.

The last part of the strategy is the willingness to be a little shameless. The restaurant will pressure you into leaving soon, either by bringing out the check, cutting off your water and refills unless you ask, and constantly taking away plates and asking if you’re done. You can eat more if you stay longer. Therefore, stay longer and don’t worry about them, especially if you think you’ll get a second wind. And don’t worry about tipping too much. Maybe I’m just a bad person, but I don’t tip much at Chinese restaurants. It’s not expected.

Admittedly, I’m not quite as tough as my dad is when it comes to beating the buffet, but I try. Last night, I started with wonton soup, sushi, and shrimp. I moved onto a plate of entrees, taking just a little from every option, then had one more plate with the items I determined were the best. Then was the dessert plate and some soft serve. Success.

During the dinner conversation, I mentioned how convenient it was to have this place in Katy and not to have to drive out to our old mainstay in Sugarland. My mom complained about the quality there, which caught me off-guard. Chinese buffets are not known for quality. Quality is for real restaurants; buffets are for volume. The seafood is good, not great. The important thing is that you can get a lot of it. Caution about the jello, too. Chinese jello has a lot more gelatin than what you might get in Kraft Jell-O, so it’s hard and not very sweet. Frankly, I think it’s gross but get suckered for it every time.

I have determined that the only way to come away from a Chinese buffet is with a mild stomachache. If you didn’t work hard to beat the buffet by overeating, somewhere along the way, the fried food or mild food poisoning should finish you off. Fortunately, I have come to associate that feeling with generally good things. Thinking back, my family has always had a Chinese buffet that we could go to. In Toronto, it was Buffet King. In Houston, we had Happy Panda/China Bear (new ownership apparently was somewhat satisfied with the name, but not entirely) until the new place. I’m willing to bet that we eat Chinese buffet more often than Chinese sitdown with the lazy susan and communal dishes. It just doesn’t seem worth it to pay more for more seafood.

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