Monday, December 13, 2010

China Hibachi Buffet, or "The restaurant in which the panda has his 'Bee Girl' moment"

Once upon a time (okay fine, it was 2001…but doesn’t a decade qualify for that opening?), there was a new Asian buffet in Orlando, Florida—or at least it’s more shi-shi suburb, Altamonte Springs—named Crazy Buffet. Unlike most buffets in the central Florida area, Crazy Buffet sought to slog off the lowbrow food troth image of their contemporaries and bring an element of upscale class to the all-you-can-eat circuit. The restaurant was elegantly decorated. In the evenings, live piano music greeted diners as they waited for tables. The food was a step above the usual fare in terms of its quality. Crazy Buffet sought to bring upscale Asian dining to a market where the local Mongolian barbeque restaurants were considered high class. It featured a three station sushi bar, grilled steaks, a hibachi grill, a Mongolian barbeque station, as well as a solid spread of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese delights.

But then, tragedy struck. Crazy Buffet became a victim of its own success. What was once the well guarded secret of Orlando’s semi upper crust soon leaked its way down the socioeconomic spectrum. Pressed shirts gave way to shorts, t-shirts, and flip flops. Couples and adult gatherings gave way to hordes of children running through the buffet area. It was like that episode of The Facts of Life, where Jo opens a pizza business and eventually had to start cutting corners as her orders escalated. Demand exceeded production capabilities, and management started making cutbacks to keep the tables turning over regularly. The crazy wok (their name for the Mongolian barbeque) vanished. One of the three sushi stations was mothballed. The Chinese food selection was simplified, and the duck station found itself relegated to weekends only. Eventually, Crazy Buffet became an ordinary Chinese buffet with a sushi line. Sadly, in researching this entry, I learned that Crazy Buffet closed in August--either a victim of the economy or health inspectors, depending on the site.

My biggest regret about my move to Raleigh was the lack of an all you can eat sushi place. Don’t judge me, we’ve talked about my relationship with sushi before here. Until last week, the best I had found were some places with moderate to decent BOGO specials. Then, when talking to friends at a holiday party, one of them mentioned a new Chinese buffet in Cary with a sushi bar.

I was skeptical. I’d had Chinese buffet sushi before. In Orlando, several Chinese buffets boasted “SUSHI!” on their marquees. It was like asking Santa Claus for a Generation 1 Optimus Prime or Megatron (you remember, the one that transformed into a gun, before he was Brady-Bill-ified into a tank, truck, or whatever vehicle was available) and instead getting a box of Go-bots under the tree. And not even the good Go-bots from the TV show, like Leader-1, Turbo, Cy-kill, or Cop-turr. We’re talking the D-list of Go-bots here: Scooter. All you could do was begrudgingly take the offering while nursing a quiet inner loathing as you braced for the first school day after the holiday, when your friends returned with Cybertron’s finest…while you had the store brand equivalent of transforming robots. Yeah, the sushi on those buffets was always that disappointing. Save for one place near NCSU that only offers a very limited sushi spread on a lunch buffet, I’ve never had good sushi at a Chinese buffet. But, as I’ve said in the past, a fix is a fix.

I pulled into Hibachi China Buffet in Cary with my roommate, promising myself that I wouldn’t allow myself to get my hopes up at the thought of sushi. If I pulled a Go-bot, I pulled a Go-bot. It was almost like a clichéd scene from a movie. Through the framed glass doors, I saw crowds congregating in front of the maitre’d, obscuring my view. As I opened the doors and stepped through, the crowds parted and revealed the buffet in all its glory. I felt myself falling in love all over again.

It was like stepping into Crazy Buffet, circa 2001, all over again. All that was missing was the pretentious waterfall, the lacquered driftwood bar tables, and a piano player laboring his way through “My Heart Will Go On” for the third time that night, in hopes of perhaps fishing a tip from one of the couples waiting for a table. My Sotalol-restrained heart almost skipped a beat.

When I eat at ethnic restaurants, I like to apply what I call the “minority test” as a means of preliminarily gauging the quality of the food—minority not because of the people eating there, but because as someone who’s as non-ethnic as you can get (a fat white guy of mostly Scottish stock, with a splash of Irish), if I’m made the minority by virtue of the presence of native diners, then that says something about the quality of the food. I’ve been to many Asian buffets where the only Asian people were working there, while the diners looked like they'd just stepped out of an Old Navy commercial. The night I visited, I saw a very heavy distribution of Korean, Japanese, and Chinese families there (including a large group in the back room), so my hopes already started raising as we were led to a booth.

No "you'll shoot your eye out" here
Once placed at a booth, I surveyed the lines. It was like that scene from The Simpsons where Homer visits the land of chocolate. Everywhere I looked, I saw the familiar foods of Crazy Buffet. We passed the cold line, with the salads and desserts. We passed two hot lines. Neon signs drew attention to the hibachi grill and a noodle soup station. Then there, against the wall, the reason for the visit: the sushi bar. Looking it over, I almost fell to my knees, crying a glutton’s tears of joy. In front of me, on piles of ice, I saw trays of sushi—nigiri and rolls, both basic (like simple, single item nigiri and California rolls) and more elaborate rolls. I marveled like Ralphie pressing his nose into the department store window in the opening scene of A Christmas Story, when I overheard the chef talking to customers as they loaded their plates up.

"Think he'd roll me some eel, cream cheese, masago, and scallion?"

“If you have any special requests for sushi, please let me know.”

Special orders don't upset them...
In my years of making all-you-can-eat sushi entrepreneurs in central Florida cry over lost profits, I’ve never had any of them offer up custom rolls. Ever. With one sentence, I went from love affair with Hibachi China to “In eight hours, we can be in Vegas, in front of an Elvis impersonating justice of the peace,” and I hadn’t even put chopsticks to my mouth yet.

So of course, the sushi bar was my first stop. The nigiri is pretty standard fare, with things like shrimp, tuna, salmon, crab (or “Krab” for purists) stick, and similar offerings. The rolls seem to be left to the chef’s discretion. If you’re adept at deciphering the cross-section of rolls, it can be a fun little adventure in interpreting a chef’s creativity. For example, fried sweet potatoes were in one of the rolls I picked up. It’s random…in a good way. Also worth noting: China Hibachi solves the dilemma of the Philly roll by making both variants—the salmon-cream cheese and the crab stick-cream cheese. The actual amount of rice on the rolls was a bit sparce. Maybe I’m just used to a thicker layer of rice on the rolls, or maybe the chefs were just hurried in a dinner rush, I’m not sure. In spite of the waifish appearance of my rolls, the sushi hit its mark for taste—the fish was fresh and the rice was neither over nor under seasoned. I’m working on a wish list of things to see if the chefs will make for me next time as I write this.

My next stop was the noodle station. China Hibachi offers four types of noodles served with a variety of broths, meats, and vegetables. I do have to admit that my impaired hearing (thanks mostly to an adolescence and twenties surgically attached to a personal stereo) made it a bit difficult to hear the chef, so I ended up doing some pointing and gesturing in between rounds of “what?” but I wound up with a bowl of shrimp udon after a few minutes. The udon was thick and perfectly firm—neither mushy now chewy. The broth had a nice spicy heat to it that stayed in my mouth for a few minutes after.

The hibachi station was more of the offspring of a hibachi grill and Mongolian barbeque—with a selection of meats, vegetables, starches, and sauces that are put into a bowl and handed off to a chef for cooking. The hibachi chicken plate I assembled was okay, but it was nothing spectacular.

The hot station offers up a variety of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean dishes. Because I was close to full, I sampled a few stand-bys, to gauge them against other places. The coconut shrimp was sweet and well cooked, neither drowned in sauce nor soggy. The sesame chicken was some of the best I’ve had in ages—with large, meaty chunks of meat in a tangy sauce. Usually, the meat in dishes like orange, sesame, or General Tso’s chicken is too heavily fried when I have them on a buffet, some places almost fried to dryness. The sesame chicken at China Hibachi was perfectly cut and prepared. Finally, the seafood delight (shrimp and crab stick with vegetables, in a brown sauce) was on par with what I’ve had in the past—passable, but there was nothing that made it stand out.

On one of the hot stations sat the added bonus for the weekend—dim sum. There were eight bamboo steamers, each with a small card in front of it. Some of the dishes were familiar, like shumai dumplings, shrimp dumplings, shrimp rice (served in leaf wrapper), while others were a bit more exotic. For example, when I saw the steamer marked “Phoenix Claws,” I obviously wasn’t expecting parts from a mythological critter, but I also wasn’t expecting chicken feet.

The desserts were standard fare—eight flavors of hard serve ice cream with the almost ubiquitous assortment of pastries: the same cream puffs, Napoleon, cream cakes, and other pastries I’ve mentioned in the past.

I’m not hiding my bias here. China Hibachi is a restaurant I’ll go to for the sushi and consider the rest of the buffet as either filler or bait to convince my sushi-phobic friends to join me. The sushi is freshly prepared and tastes amazing. The hot food has highs and lows, but no low enough to make me reconsider it. The desserts, tragically, are the same desserts that I’ve seen at cheaper buffets.  I think I'm just going to start calling them "Chinese Mafia" desserts, in honor of my former roommate. Honestly, I’d love to know where the distributor of these desserts come from. I’ve seen them from Florida to Michigan. The restaurant has promise and potential. The fact that it was packed the night I visited it suggests that it’s got a prosperous future ahead of it. However, I’m reminded about the cautionary tale of Crazy Buffet, which used a near identical model to build a successful business on…then proceeded to cut corners and quality until it was a shadow of its former self and eventually collapsed under its own success. China Hibachi has established a solid mark of quality for buffets in Cary, and I’m hoping that they strive to keep it high in the months and years to come.

Akari Express, the C student of NCSU's sushi scene

Rice, seaweed...goldfish? Why not?
My entry into sushi culture was far from ceremonious. If anything, it bordered on disastrous instead.  In the spring of 1987, my uncle’s frequent flying had earned him a free trip to Hawaii, which he gave to my father.  Never one to deny his sons the chance to experience America (which just conveniently put him on the beaches as well), he bought tickets for my younger brother and I, and we soon found ourselves in the islands.  I’m not a big fan of sun, surf, and sand.  Though I had a physique that could make many a marine mammal jealous, I was never big on baking myself on a large towel in between rounds of saltwater marinatings.  So instead, I wandered around the various shopping districts, where I was amazed at the unique fusion of American and Japanese cultures.  In particular, I was obsessed with the ubiquitous presence of sushi in the area.  Up to that point in my life, my sole experience with sushi was the scene in The Breakfast Club where a defiant Molly Ringwald defends her lunch choice to Judd Nelson: “You won’t accept a guy’s tongue in your mouth, and you’re gonna eat that?“  It was more of a food daredevil experiment, really.  I wanted to see if I could eat it and get a rise from my father and brother, who registered their disgust as soon as they saw their first plastic sushi model at the first Japanese food stand we passed.  I’ve never been one to give up a chance to eat something for attention.  One of my great thanks in life is that during my undergraduate years, none of my friends had goldfish around when we drank.  Between the intoxication and my John Blutarskyesque appetite, yeah, I’d have likely gone there…

Small, green, and candy like...what could go wrong?
Days of denials passed, as my father and brother refused to indulge my requests to stop at a restaurant wherein I might get my first fix.  Then finally, we stopped in a buffet for dinner, and there on the cold bar was a plate of sushi.  After I confessed my virginity, the waitress was happy to help me.  She explained each piece as she put it on the plate, and then she put a lump of salmon-colored slices and a small green pellet on the plate.  I returned to the table, my father and sibling both staring with a combination of curiosity and revulsion.  Remembering Ringwald’s character, I poured soy sauce over each piece, grabbed my chopsticks, and adeptly put the first piece between them.  With each piece, I announced the contents and ate it, to my collected family’s disgust.  Then finished, I began to work on the salmon colored slices.  Spicy and sweet—must have been an edible, post sushi digestif, I rationed.  So then, I put the green ball in my chopsticks (another post-sushi digestif, I thought) and drew it to my mouth.

If my positive reviews in the preceding minutes had at all broken down my father and brother’s reluctance to sushi, the next thirty seconds would forever scar and scare them away from it.  I mashed the green ball between my tongue and the roof of my mouth and wrinkled my face as I proceeded to gasp and reach for any fluid in a glass—my water, my soda, my brother’s water and soda, my father’s water and soda—I didn’t care.  In those moments, my only concern was in addressing the oral Chernobyl I was experiencing.  Wasabi, the waitress called it when she came by moments later, with a convenient pitcher of water.  To this day, I believe that the entire crew of the restaurant was watching behind a curtain somewhere, snickering as money changed hands in a bet as to whether or not I’d eat it.  Swing over to Waiter Rant.  Restaurateurs, cooks, and waitstaff can be dicks like that, especially with tourists.

But I was always the resilient fat kid, never one to retreat in the face of failure.  When I fell off my bike, I got back on it and rode again.  When a middle school guidance counselor told me I was too dumb for college, I fought my way through high school, an undergraduate degree, a masters degree, and a doctoral program (and you thought you were obsessive?) just to prove myself in my mind.  While dating, I went through enough evil exes to make a bisexual  Scott Pilgrim sequel before I found the right partner.  Never quit, never retreat.  So in the years that followed my wasabi-fueled indoctrination into sushi culture, I continued to sample it where and when I could.

Being just a bit gluttonous, I’ve never been much of a food snob.  My rule (usually) is that if something won’t kill me, I’ll at least try it.  Some of my college kitchen creations stand testament to that.  When you’ve earned the title “Iron Chef Ramen,” it becomes a badge of honor to the degree of things you’ll create to consume.  However, having had some truly bad sushi in my past, I do harbor a few prejudices here and there when it comes time to break out the chopsticks.   The biggest and most egregious offenders seem to be the restaurants that offer sushi as an add-on to another menu—like the legions of C-grade Chinese buffets that began putting sloppily-slapped sushi on cold lines across the country in the last 90s and early 00’s.  Either the rice was poorly prepared, or the fish itself bordered on rancid.

I became aware of Akari Express while I was playing on the Urbanspoon app one afternoon.  It was near one of my part time jobs, and fit my one-star criteria, so I stopped in for a late lunch (or early dinner…whichever category 3:30pm falls in to) one day in between gigs.  Akari Express seems to have been born Miyako Express and underwent a small identity crisis at some point in the recent past, thus the new name.  It’s in the upper level of a strip mall across the street from NCSU—a bit hard to find the first time there.  The restaurant itself is small and simply decorated, with just a few banners and other knick knacks to provide a setting.  But let’s be honest—with one-star Japanese, most people aren’t there for lacquered fixtures and elaborate décor.   

The menu is simple—barely large enough to cover the front of a standard piece of paper, a small assortment of: sushi, yaki soba, tempura, udon, teppanyaki, and a few side items.  Most of the seating consists of tables, though the presence of barstools in front of the sushi station suggests that patrons could sit there for a more traditional experience.

I was a bit taken back by the pricing on the sushi. It seemed a bit higher than average, probably padded to accommodate for the BOGO specials throughout the week, allowing for the illusion of getting a deal.  Moreover, it seemed that everything on the menu was ala carte.  Salad?  Separate.  Soup?  Separate?  There was a single sushi combo special (a Califormia roll and a Geisha roll), but there was nothing beyond that for thrifty customers, much less a lunch crowd.  My first impression with the staff wasn’t stellar either.  The woman who took my order was a bit brusque when I asked some questions.  She seemed impatient and standoffish, as if I was taking her away from the television behind me.  Not one to want to anger the person who was likely making at least part of my meal, I quickly placed my order, and looked around the restaurant while I waited for my food to arrive, which took about ten minutes.

Both the miso soup and salad arrived in Styrofoam containers.  The soup was hot and had a nice flavor, unmarred by the rancid, oily taste that sometimes hinders miso.  The salad, however, was disappointing.  The greens were fresh, but the dressing had no real flavor to it—no sweetness, no ginger tartness, nothing.  It was a faintly-flavored pulp that lubricated the otherwise dry greens.  Given that I was paying ala carte pricing, I expected something better—or at least enough taste to warrant not bundling it in with a meal and charging $1.99 as a side.  Even grocery store ginger dressing has more flavor than Akari’s ginger dressing.

The sushi was solid, in terms of taste.  The rice grains had a faint hint of vinegar and stuck together well—neither falling apart on the chopstick nor feeling like a rice brick on the mouth.  Trying to get some variety in the meal, I opted for the sole sushi special—the California roll and Geisha roll.  The California roll was as generic as every California roll I’d had in the twenty-three years before.  The only way to mess this roll up is with aged ingredients.  Fortunately, the crab stick was fresh, and the avocado had a nice green color to it.  Safe, generic sushi, that California roll, ordinary in every way. But at least it was a good benchmark of the freshness of the food.  The Philly roll (this one being the salmon-crème cheese variety, and not its crabstick cousin) was also plain and ordinary.  For $6.50, I expect more—either a larger roll (instead of the smaller, inside-out roll) with a bit more filling or a little something extra.  Even sesame seeds would have justified the pricing more.

The Geisha roll was the unique roll I chose for the meal.  Each restaurant has a few signature rolls, and I try to find something to break out of the spread of nigiri and rolls common to every place.  Akari Express has two, the NC State Roll and the Geisha.  The Geisha roll combines tuna, masago (flying fish roe—that’s eggs to the initianated), scallion, sesame seed, in a fried roll, topped with an eel sauce, spicy sauce, and butter sauce.  In spite of its almost overwhelming ingredient list, the roll delivered, both with a nice blend of textures and flavors.  The deep frying left the roll crisp on the breading but still soft inside. The heat from the spicy sauce stayed with me for several minutes after.

The sushi is good, in that it’s mostly a smattering of safe offerings that will appeal to the most mainstream of diners.  Unfortunately, it’s also expensive for the caliber of food served up.  Ordinary rolls that would cost $4 elsewhere run up to $6.50 at Akari Express, and taste exactly the same as the $4 roll.  The ala carte menu makes a one star meal quickly inflate to two star territory. They seem to be taking advantage of their collegiate proximity and pricing for car-locked students.  The homogeneity of the menu was broken up by two unique sushi rolls, which seem to be the only the only thing that makes Akari Express stand out from its competitors.  The signature roll I had was a nice stand out, but can’t justify the pricy nature of the food itself.  Perhaps if Akari rebrands itself again to try and begin with a fresh public image, they’ll either think about lowering their prices for the caliber of their menu or raising the menu’s quality to reflect the pricing. 

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.