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."
I wasn't laughing when I took my friend Jennifer to lunch and she turned up her adorable Taiwanese-American nose at almost all the dishes on the steam table, returning with only two fried sesame balls on a plate. "You didn't think I'd eat any of that stuff, did you?" she asked. Ha ha ha.
My friend Bob, who loves any kind of buffet, looked cross-eyed at the vats of neon-orange macaroni and cheese dotted with bits of ham, "pizza" covered with a shiny white cheese that looked like latex paint and stuffed wontons that had turned yellow and rubbery. He would have none of it, so we both sauntered over to the Mongolian-barbecue area, where we found slightly defrosted beef, chicken and seafood, assorted vegetables and dozens of oils and seasonings. Bob began shoveling meat, lo mein noodles and different chopped vegetables into a small black plastic bowl and then approached a scowling cook at the round, steaming grill (which we agreed needed a thorough cleaning).
The cook snarled at a willowy young woman in front of us, who had made the egregious error of handing him a china plate piled with her selection of meat and vegetables.
"Next time, use a plastic bowl!" he snapped, snatching the plate out of her hands.
Ha ha ha! As my turn approached, I noticed that the sullen cook glared at customers until they stuffed dollar bills into a clear plastic jug that served as a tip jar. In one sweeping movement, I deftly crammed a dollar into the jar and handed him my little bowl filled with sliced beef, peppers, chopped nuts, chili paste, soba noodles, dried basil and garlic sauce. For a moment, I thought he might have softened, but after a few minutes of absently watching the ingredients sizzle on the grill, he used a wooden stick to spoon it onto a plate and derisively shoved it at me.
The barbecue was the highlight of that dinner. The ingredients I had tossed almost thoughtlessly into the bowl turned out to taste fresh, and the grill seemed to intensify the flavor of the spices.
The same could not, however, be said about anything from the steam tables, with their ethnically helter-skelter assortment of apple cobbler, roasted ham, General Tso's chicken, pork with vegetables ... and pizza. And I had to push aside the skinny crab legs with watery "meat" beneath ironlike armor and gritty meatballs in a sauce that tasted like hot maple syrup. Perhaps I was being too critical, I thought as I looked down at a rumaki of imitation crab meat wrapped in bacon. After all, China One is actually better than a couple of the low-priced casino buffets, and the point of a super buffet is quantity, not quality. Everyone around me seemed perfectly happy.
Or did they? At a table just a few feet away from my booth, I watched a chubby father smack his doughy five-year-old son on the head and scream, "That's not the way you eat pizza in a restaurant! Don't ya have manners?"
I never knew good restaurant manners included hitting small children at the table, but my sense of decorum had already been trounced by that cook at the "barbecue" station.
I confess that once the dinner plates had been cleared, I let my snobbishness slip long enough to skulk off from the dessert table with both a bowl of soft-serve ice cream drizzled with chocolate syrup and a plate artfully arranged with a fluffy chocolate cake roll and stamp-sized squares of moist cake iced with a thick layer of frosting that looked creamy and delicious but tasted vaguely like hand soap. Fine pastries they weren't, but what's better than being able to get as many desserts as you want? Ha ha ha!