It was 11 a.m. by the time we pulled into the empty parking lot, and already I was overcome with a sense of dread. Who in their right mind eats at a buffet with no other customers? Crazy people, that’s who. The only other time I’d made this mistake was about a year ago when my wife and I had dinner at a now defunct Chinese buffet in Savoy. Its name escapes me, but it was the one that used to share a strip mall with Friar Tuck. It, like so many Chinese buffets before it, could not find the ever-crucial balance between good food, wide selection and a decent price, which is likely why it went the way of the woolly mammoth. The building that it once occupied has since been taken over by a Vietnamese restaurant.
Gone but not forgotten, to this day, each time I drive past the tall façade which now sports the name Saigon in bold red letters, I’m overcome with the memory of dried out chicken, smelly sea food, impenetrable spring rolls and gelled over dipping sauces. Indeed, I’m still shaken at what came in the days and weeks that followed my experience there. Since then, I’ve found that most people have a bad buffet story, and while the word traumatic might be too strong of an adjective to describe such an experience, it might also be the perfect adjective. The things we eat stay with us in one way or another.
So suffice it to say, after that fateful day, I vowed to never again subject myself to an under-attended buffet. And yet, for reasons outside of my understanding, last Friday, I found myself standing — nearly frozen — in the almost vacant parking lot of the Crazy Buffet. Mike, my lovely lunch date and one time poetry professor, was already ambling towards the front door, oblivious as the neon red light from the Open sign glinted in his eyes. I was afraid and Mike was excited. This did not bode well. And yet, upon sitting down at the sturdy and well-upholstered booth, the nerves that I had been carrying with me subsided almost completely. Housed in the former Bennigan’s (708 W. Town Center Blvd., Champaign), the Crazy Buffet has a downright durable feel to it. The booths are comfortable, the tables don’t wobble and there is an abundance of napkins at the customer’s ready disposal. Indeed, all of these things would prove to be important in the hour or so of voracious eating that I was about to engage in.
Shortly after getting settled in, we were served our drinks and told that we were free to begin grazing, an invitation to which we immediately obliged. On our way from the eating area to the food acquisition area (furnished with a sushi bar, a salad bar, an ice-cream freezer and four, count ‘em four steam tables filled with an unimaginably strange variety), Mike proffered some advice: “There’s a rhythm that establishes itself here. You just have to go with it, otherwise someone could get hurt.” Before I could think to question — nay — even process these words, I began to appreciate their meaning as I found myself being pulled into the gravitational field of the very first steam table I saw. Skillet beef, pork and chicken each adorned with chopped peppers and onions; delicate spring rolls and egg rolls and modest little stars of crab rangoon…
From the very instant I began scooping warm portions of Pan-Asian cuisine onto my plate I felt a shift in the way my brain was functioning: my inner-monologue became fragmented, it was hard to read words or interpret the expression of the employees who where still hustling to set out dish after magnificent dish. And yet the colors and the smells emanating from the food could not have been more vivid. With my reptilian brain in full control of my actions, my higher functioning mind was relegated to the passive task of observation. It noticed the funny things. The mislabeled food items, a set of tongs where there should have been a spoon, a fellow patron walking in through the front door, crawfish marketed as “Baby Lobster.” All the while, my body continued to move in accordance with buffet itself; whenever I tried to resist it, I was like a molecular particle approaching the event horizon of a black hole, split between the grilled dumplings to my left and the pepperoni pizza to my right. Yes, the rhythm of the Crazy Buffet was both powerful and uncompromising.
Oddly, I remember very little about actually eating the pile of food I had amassed for myself, only that it was varied and delicious. By the end of my first plate, despite being completely full, I was ready another almost immediately, but this time, things happened a bit slower. Sure, my decisions were still governed by the overwhelming power of the place, but I was also able to take in a little bit more. Instead of haphazardly slopping food onto my plate, I began to arrange it in a formation (pictured on the right) that reminded my lunch companion of a Kandinsky. His was more of a Pollock.
Some other things I noticed on this second round was that the steam table in the corner served a variety of things I would never think to eat. Chicken feet, beef tripe (pictured bottom left), that sort of thing. And yet upon opening the crock in which these strange foods sat waiting, I felt strangely compelled to eat them. As a testament to my will or to my wussiness, I was successful in overriding my instincts… this time. Another thing I noticed was that the place filling up pretty quickly. By the time we got to dessert (I helped myself to a cup of both peanut butter ice cream and green tea ice cream), the place was practically full. By this time, my side of the table had been reduced to a mound of napkins and noodles, soy sauce and crawfish parts. It had all gone by so quickly.
In the days that have since followed this experience, I have found myself slowly understanding more and more about it. Sure, I learned how to persevere after a bad buffet incident and sure, I learned that I shouldn’t judge a buffet by its parking lot at 11 o’clock in the morning, blah, blah. I mean, all that is great, don’t get me wrong, but what I’ve begun to understand is that the Crazy Buffet is no less than a symbol of true freedom. Freedom to eat as little or as much food as you could possibly imagine eating, freedom to construct and consume a chicken foot pizza if you wanted to and freedom to eat a massive lunch before the clock strikes noon. At the Crazy Buffet, you are given freedom that is limited only by the constraints of time, space and your physical body, and at $6.99 a plate (for dinner its a mere $4 more), I think we can all agree that there ain’t nothing more American than that.