Wide variety at Chinese buffet

by Brian Clarey

Education is something we value in my family, so when our oldest came home with a blue ribbon from his elementary school we let him choose the restaurant for the celebration, the only condition being that it could not cost more than 10 bucks a head.

He immediately seized on the idea of a Chinese buffet.

“But I don’t like Chinese food,” his younger brother said in a tone and timbre of voice we in my house call “cry talking.”

And that was fine. Because a Chinese buffet recently opened in our neighborhood – the Super China Buffet in the bank of shops that sprung up seemingly overnight by the Wal-Mart off Highway 29 – and though the menu is dense with American-style Chinese food, the fare is not limited to Asian cuisine. I know this because I’ve been there, on its first day of business, no less.

And I should say that despite all the noise I raised about the opening of said Wal-Mart – non-living wages and pushing out the small businessman and such – the area really has responded to the installation of the superstore with a cluster of stores on the periphery that seem to be doing well. My bad.

So we settled into a long table, ordered drinks and then set upon the buffet.

Regular readers of this section know that I approach a buffet strategically, aiming for maximum value and plethoric samplings. But Super China Buffet poses a challenge, even for an inveterate buffet hound like me. Inside are six steam tables laden with dozens of dishes, and as I’ve mentioned, the selection is not limited to Chinese food.

And were I to list every item available, it would take up the rest of this space.

My first foray through the buffet netted a fine variety of tastes: a house spring roll, rich with pork and cabbage; a few “chicken balls,” which are like deep-fried chicken meatballs; a couple crab rangoon; shrimp dumplings; a slice of medium-rare roast beef; and a bowl of soup – I like to mix won ton and egg drop together, and the buffet paradigm allowed me to do so without explaining my fetish to a waiter.

It’s a tough room for one not blessed, as I am, with a prodigious appetite. So many choices, so many options. There is sushi and seaweed rolls, pizza and garlic bread, roasted chicken and salmon, several soups, French fries, hot and cold mussels. There are basic Chinese dishes like sesame chicken, sweet and sour shrimp and chicken, pepper steak, lo mein and, occasionally, egg foo young. And always there is a selection of dumplings and steamed rolls.

I hit up the dumplings big again on my second trip through the lines, and also pile on some imitation crabmeat sticks wrapped in bacon – a favorite of my children – and a bunch of shrimp: coconut fried and peel and eat.

As with any restaurant with a huge menu, there is much repetition in ingredients. The imitation crabmeat also makes appearances in a crabmeat au gratin dish and, I believe, makes an able substitute for scallops in another. And in one warmer sits a bunch of actual crab legs, though to partake in these babies will cost a few bucks extra. Shrimp is everywhere; there are several fried options, a few dishes built around them and a bunch relegated to the ice chips next to some cold mussels, which pair as well with a deep red chili sauce as they do with the more traditional cocktail sauce.

Options options options.

On this night a few of the dishes genuinely surprised me. The inclusion of crawfish on the line intrigued me, but after I tried one I reaffirmed my policy of never eating those particular crustaceans outside of Louisiana. And atop the same steam table was a chafing dish holding frog legs batter-fried and mixed with julienned vegetables. I felt obligated to try them, and so I did – to my wife’s dismay. They tasted, as the meme goes, a bit like chicken. Except they kind of grossed me out.

Frankly, the food at Super China Buffet does not exactly live up to its name. Some of it is mediocre at best, and a couple dishes were what I like to call “one-biters.” However, the selection is so large that there can’t help but be a few items that make the place worthy of return visits. The staples of Chinese cooking, for example, are adequate examples of the form – egg rolls, dumplings, soups, entrees. The roast beef was solid, and I could eat peel-and-eat shrimp all day.

And a word about dessert: While the predictable selection of canned fruits, Jell-O, almond cookies and a few puddings make regular appearances on the line, there will sometimes be the option of lychee and Mandarin orange, which is always cool. A soft-serv ice cream machine stands against one wall, and there is a version of tiramisu that, seriously, is quite good.

And, of course, you can count on fortune cookies at the end of your meal.

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