Monday, December 13, 2010
China Queen, or the Chinese Buffet-Chinese Mafia Connection?
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 __________.
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.
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.
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.