The Dos and Don'ts of the Chinese Buffet

YES! Weekly | June 19, 2012
Honestly, I just wanted some pho.

But the new noodle place near my office hadn’t opened yet and the next one was way down the road. So when I passed the China Wok en route, I did what a lot of other customers at Chinese super buffets undoubtedly do: shrugged my shoulders and said, “What the hell.”

I was starving, which is the first rule of a Chinese buffet: You gotta go hungry. If you’re just looking for a small bite, go somewhere else. The Chinese buffet — all buffets, in fact — is a value proposition, costing a bit more than a regular lunch but if you do it right, you can get your money’s worth and then some.

So I went in, took my booth, then grabbed a plate and began my first lap. It’s a good idea to get a look at the spread before committing to anything. China Wok’s set-up is laid out on three hot tables and one cold, plus another for desserts. I don’t mess with salads at a buffet, so I cased the hot entrees.

Don’t load too much hot food on your plate. A buffet-style meal is a marathon, and not a sprint. You don’t want to over-commit, plus new items could come out while you’re eating cold lo mein. On my first pass I took a couple crab Rangoons, a veggie spring roll, three small stuffed mushrooms and soup.

A word about Chinese soup: I discovered almost 20 years ago that if you mix egg-drop soup with won-ton soup in equal proportion, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. China Wok had both, so I was able to make this special-order favorite. Fabulous. Likewise, the crab Rangoon was superb, folded not into that flowery shape the dish sometimes takes but in large triangle filled with cream cheese and a close approximation of crabmeat. They went well with a mix of duck sauce and hot mustard.

Round 2 saw a cup of hot-and-sour soup, a fine example of the form. I also grabbed some pepper chicken, garlic shrimp and lo mein, because it was noodles I was after in the first place, and some whole sautéed mushrooms. The shrimp was noteworthy because they were large, and had been cleaned and de-veined. Some Chinese buffets use baby shrimp, and it pleased me to see that this was not the case here.

If the shrimp haven’t been de-veined, don’t get them. And if there is pizza on the buffet line, don’t get it unless you’re 10 years old. You’re not here for pizza. And don’t fill up on rice. That’s for suckers and fools.

But do feel free to try dishes you wouldn’t normally order. You’ve paid for your ticket, and it may turn out that you love mussels au gratin or tuna roll. The first time I ever tried frog legs was at a Chinese buffet, which in hindsight may have been a mistake.

My third plate consisted of second of the things I had already liked: the Rangoon, more soup and an egg roll.

Do save room for dessert — any good buffet will have lots of options. I took a creampuff, a Chinese doughnut, a flaky monkey-ear cookie, another star-shaped cookie filled with preserves, two kinds of cake — one espresso flavored and the other orange — and some Jell-o. There is always Jell-o.

When I was a younger man, I would never stop before I had consumed five plates, but experience has taught me another truism from the Chinese buffet playbook: Even though you’re there to commit an act of gluttony, you should stop before the food-sweats kick in. Trust me on that one.

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