Monday, December 13, 2010

China Queen, or the Chinese Buffet-Chinese Mafia Connection?

Years ago, a former roommate of mine theorized that most Chinese buffet restaurants were run by the Chinese mafia. We’d been on a tour of several local buffets in the central Florida area when he looked up from his plate with the same gaze of epiphany that gave birth to Facebook, Pokemon, lint rollers, and the Macarena. He noted that most of the restaurants we’d been to seemed to have identical interior décor, identical menus, and even identical desserts—the same spread of chocolate-drizzled éclairs, macaroons, orange or green tea cakes, and dried-out Napoleon squares. That had to be the only explanation in his mind—the Chinese mafia had infiltrated the US through our biggest weakness: our love for unlimited quantities of sweet and sour pork, peel and eat shrimp, and soft serve ice cream sundaes with topping bars. What was scary was that ever since that conversation, I’ve cast a suspicious eye on any Chinese buffet I’ve been to—whether in Florida, Michigan, or here in the Triangle. What’s scarier is that the waterfall paintings, menu pictures, and even the dessert spread is almost always identical from place to place to place. The homogeneity is almost McDonalds-esque.

That doesn’t mean the food’s identical in quality from buffet to buffet, though. The Chinese buffet is the fat guy’s bar. It’s the one place where we can go, hide in a corner, and drown our stresses and sorrows in a sea of fried meats, salted carbohydrates, and soggy vegetables and feel no shame, as everyone else in the restaurant has mass consumption on the brain as well. It’s like that moment in Blind Melon’s “No Rain” video, where the little, dejected Bee Girl sees a welcoming gate in a field, with a troupe of dancing bee people on the other side, where she cavorts and finally finds her place in life. At a Chinese buffet, we’re all kindred spirits in gluttony, chubby bee people dancing together in a field of steam tables and MSG harmony…so long as you don’t mind having to hip check someone who tries to snatch the last egg roll when you’re reaching for it. And much like the Bee Girl, most of us have to search before we find “our” buffet—the place we don’t mind bellying up to. When I moved here, I tried to find a few places, and really didn’t find one that jived with me. It was the classic Goldilocks effect: too far, too expensive, too __________.

So when I first got the Urbanspoon app, I locked in west Raleigh and did some spinning, to get a feel for the area. China Queen kept coming up in the Chinese category. Then I learned that they were a buffet. A visit was destiny.  After all, having survived not one, but two trips to Raleigh's Crystal Palace (I won't bother going there again just to get fodder for an entry. I'll save us both the time: it's ghastly. Bad food, obnoxious crowds, and a wait staff that could take lessons on people skills from the DMV. Yes, it's an extreme buffet...extremely bad), I figured that I had nothing to lose, and might find the buffet that had thus far been elusive in the area.

It looks like China Queen used to offer the buffet for both lunch and dinner, but has since cut it back to lunch hours only. Paper covers up information about what used to be the evening buffet, and vinyl stickering on the door advises customers that the lunch buffet ends at 3:00pm. The restaurant looks like two strip mall stalls joined together with a door frames. One side houses the takeaway business, with a few tables for people to wait at, and the other side houses the dining room and the buffet. I took a booth, placed my food order, and went to investigate China Queen’s offerings.

True to my roommate’s theory, CQ’s buffet looked like it could have been one of a number of Chinese buffets from my past. The spread of food was almost identical—the expected collection of soups, carbohydrates, meats, with side dishes, and the obligatory peel and eat shrimp. I grabbed a plate and began to load up. When I try a new Chinese place—buffet or not—I always administer two tests on the overall quality of the food: the General Tso’s test and the hot and sour soup test. Just because the items are identical, that doesn’t mean the preparation quality is. So I take two favorite items and use them as a common base line against which I can compare the new restaurant.

For most Chinese places, General Tso’s chicken is a piece of fried chicken briefly sautéed in a spicy ginger-soy sauce. I’ve noticed that the same fried chicken stock can also become sesame chicken or orange chicken as well—it’s just a question of the sauce that the fried meat is sautéed in. I guess this is one of the tradeoffs for fast-food or buffet Chinese food—the versatility that can allow a chef to replenish supplies on the steam tables quickly. I don’t like my General Tso’s to be blazingly hot, but I do like a little heat on the meat. It’s always tragic when those red pepper pieces are at best a decoration. Also, a little steamed broccoli is a must—even if it’s one or two pieces to add a splash of color. CQ fell short on the General Tso’s test. The meat had no notable spicing on it—just a piece of orange chicken tinted brown from soy sauce. The pieces of meat were a bit too small for the fry time—making them tough and chewy before going in to the second phase of cooking. General Tso’s chicken jerky, I guess. The lack of broccoli doomed the dish. It’s not that it was bad. Instead, it was average. There was nothing remotely special or redeeming about the General Tso’s chicken.

Conversely, the hot and sour soup was solid. It hadn’t been on the line long enough to get a skin or otherwise thicken. The blend of broth, tofu, sliced mushrooms, and wood ear fungus played well against one another, with just enough spicing to leave some heat in the mouth after swallowing. It passed its test.

The other hot food I chose was average at best. It wasn’t that it was bad—there were just no entries that stood out, no “wow” items. The lo mein and fried dumplings were both a bit dry, probably having sat out under the heat lamps for too long. The egg roll was obviously just a premade roll that was reheated. And there, at the end of the cold bar, my Chinese mafia desserts—the same puff pastry, orange cake, and Napoleon that I’d seen at buffets across the eastern US for years.

While the hot food was average buffet fare, the sushi was amazing. I’ve had more than my fair share of Chinese buffet sushi, and I can honestly say that most of it was barely passable—something quickly put together with instructions from a book at best. For most Chinese buffets, sushi is one more thing to put on the buffet line to justify the “super” or “mega” title that so many are using these days. I’ll openly admit that I was braced for disappointment when I brought the plate back to my table, and I’ll also openly admit that the sushi was the turn that really started to make the visit worthwhile. At China Queen, the sushi was Japanese restaurant quality—perfectly prepared. The big disappointment is that the spread of sushi is small, three types of rolls that I’ve seen—a veggie roll, a California roll, and a shrimp tempura roll. Honestly, CQ has a great opportunity to do a sushi roll buffet and really carve out a niche in the Triangle, if they were up to it—add about six or seven more varieties of rolls, dish up miso soup and a nice ginger-dressing salad, and put on a sushi buffet. As far as I know, that’s one thing the Triangle is painfully lacking right now (EDIT: Not anymore, a recent entry in Cary has filled that void). If I didn’t feel guilty about clearing the plates out (hey, I’m a fat guy with a conscience at the buffet), I seriously could have had the chef making rolls for an hour.

A trip to a Chinese buffet should be like a visit with an old friend, with all the familiarity and acquaintance of any long-standing relationship. As I thought about my former roommate’s Chinese mafia analogy, I started to realize that’s what made them so comforting—the sheer homogeneity to them these days. Now admittedly, my first relationship with a buffet was a special one—an incredible restaurant in Tallahassee whose General Tso’s chicken set the bar for all others. But that’s the fodder for another entry. It seems that every Chinese place I’ve been to since has looked the same, from the menu, to the decorations, to the buffet desserts. The only thing that changes is how a chef might make the food itself. China Queen’s hot buffet line is painfully average, not standing out in any way, and finding itself easily outclassed by the sushi spread on the cold line. But that doesn’t mean that it’s bad. I mean, not everyone gets to be an astronaut, right? China Queen’s lunch buffet is as much an offering of fifty-item comfort food as the most maternally created meatloaf. Just because I was unimpressed with the General Tso’s chicken (then again, can anyone truly top our first love anyhow?), it didn’t mean that there were enough items on the like to make up for the disappointment. Unfortunately, though, it does mean that I’m back to looking in the triangle for my own “Bee Girl” moment with a local Chinese buffet.

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