Smile Politely

Why is Finding a Good Chinese Buffet So Crazy Difficult?

I was lured to Crazy Buffet in the North Prospect Big Box Retail District the other night on the recommendation of a friend who told me that this place was “better than the others.” By the others, I’m assuming he meant Chinatown Buffet, the now defunct Four Seasons House and Eastern Taste down in Savoy (conveniently located next to Friar Tuck). Of course, my excitement at eating at Crazy Buffet was fueled by the fact that I hadn’t eaten much all day and, aside from its abundance and variety, it dished up food that looked and smelled good. Yet, on finishing my third plate, I looked down at the substantial leftovers (bits of this or that I didn’t feel like eating) and thought to myself: Nothing here was really very good.

There’s no way else to say it: The Chinese buffets here in town aren’t anything special. Believe me, nobody wants them to be great more than me. When I lived in San Francisco my coworkers and I would take the streetcar down to an all-you-can-eat buffet that sold some of the best shaomai I’ve ever tasted, not to mention an overwhelming array of salty, yummy, greasy goodness, fresh and piping hot, dishes as good as any restaurant in Chinatown could make. My stomach would growl at the mere thought of eating there.

But — and here’s what the Chinese buffets operating in our area should realize — every item, from the California rolls on the sushi buffet to the sticky sweet General Tso’s chicken, should taste as good and as fresh as if it was made to order.

That said, I have to think that most people who patronize buffets realize they’re getting inferior stuff and they don’t really care. Eating at a buffet — excluding those rare bastions of quality — is more about value and variety than satisfying our inner epicure.

Of course, it’s possible that eating at any buffet requires more sampling to find the hidden culinary treasures than I’ve been willing to put in. Though both Japanese restaurants in town, Kamakura or Sushi Kame, serve better sushi, Crazy Buffet’s rolls had actual fish in them (not just tofu and imitation crab meat) and their nigiri had sizable chunks of raw salmon — not bad for a run-of-the-mill buffet, though the chalky wasabi left me disappointed.

Feng Liu, a graduate student in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Illinois and a native of China, lends some support to my claim: “The buffets in town just aren’t good,” he says. “The food is better at other places like Mandarin Wok on Green Street or The Wok in Mahomet…. But if you’re hungry,” Liu admits. “Buffets can be good.”

And this seems to get at the heart of it. If you’re hungry and you want to eat lots of different kinds of food and you want as many calories as you can possibly consume for your dollar, then mediocre Chinese buffets are your best bet. And lucky for the hungry among us, there are a number of them here in town.

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