That's surely one reason why all-you-can-eat buffets -- which were a rarity when I started working in restaurants nearly thirty years ago -- are now so widespread. It seems as if there's one in every neighborhood, either a chain like the Minneapolis-based Buffets Inc. (which operates the hundreds of Old Country Buffets, HomeTown Buffets, Granny's Buffets and Country Roadhouse Buffets) or a mom-and-pop operation serving everything from soul food to gristly, congealed "Chinese" food.
In my experience, those tiny Chinese buffets with only a handful of choices are the worst of the lot. But if you want to gorge yourself on inexpensive Chinese-American food, there's no better place for it than one of the big local restaurants that bills itself as a "super buffet." Instead of one vat of sesame chicken, there are two or three chicken concoctions alongside American variations on the theme: fried chicken nuggets, spicy chicken wings, chicken pot pie. In the case of China One, the popular buffet on North Oak Trafficway (right in front of the Sam's Club parking lot), "super" is no understatement. The dining room is the size of an airport terminal, and it's glitzed up like a casino lobby with beveled-glass windows, faux-malachite tabletops and flashing green-and-yellow lights wrapped around each of the long food stations.
I had sworn off such buffets for the same reason I had promised myself I wouldn't eat any more potato chips, pizza rolls or cream puffs: I have no sense of self-control. If I let myself eat two of anything, I'll take four. So it's dangerous for me to be set loose in a joint like China One, which lays out a feast worthy of the Emperor Taizong. I went with the program, greedily heaping my plate with deep-fried mushrooms, deep-fried scallops, crunchy corn nuggets and chewy pork buns, not caring if any of them actually tasted good or were remotely healthy.
Looking around at my fellow patrons, I guessed that few of them gave a damn about the subtleties of spices or texture or even the fat content in all those deep-fried egg rolls, crispy crab rangoon and golden brown "apple sticks" (which tasted like a cross between french fries and apple dumplings). These customers were there for one reason only, I rationalized: to chow down while "getting their money's worth."
But a good friend of mine, Barry, who is cultured and well-read, loves China One. He thinks the bargain food is delicious. He accused me of being a snob when I described the clientele -- which runs the socioeconomic gamut -- as overweight and, in some cases, frighteningly obese.
"Oh, you're making sweeping generalizations," Barry chided, though he agreed with me that China One had certain Twilight Zone qualities. Dreary Asian-style Muzak might segue into wild, techno-flavored Chinese pop. Polaroid snapshots of favored customers are pinned to one wall, and the place is decorated with enough fake floral arrangements to fill a couple of funeral halls.
But the flowers are there to add a festive touch. After all, China One is supposed to be a fun place. A recent advertisement suggested that it was a place for "love and fun!" A yellow happy face hovered above the words "Ha-Ha-Ha."