The Chinese buffet. Every major city in America seems to have one of them, usually located in some large strip mall visible from the highway, advertising Tuesday lunch specials, all-you-can-eat snow crab weekends, and a large selection of decidedly non-Chinese desserts. It’s a must-see attraction for the Asian bus tour that whirls you through three cities in four days, second only to a pit stop at the nearest premium outlet. The food is always decent, never great, the same way that the pungent hot and sour soup in their metal buckets are always just the wrong side of warm. Despite your best efforts, each visit leaves you with the irritating thought that perhaps it wasn’t quite worth the new lightness in your wallet.
On a recent trip to Houston, a desperate craving for cooked vegetables led us to seek out the local rendition. It’s been years since I’ve stepped foot in one and the mediocre Yelp reviews didn’t exactly incite any anticipation, but the cheap price eventually convinced me to give it the benefit of the doubt; it’s not everyday that you’re offered unlimited food of any kind for under fifteen dollars per person.
The first step in felt like stepping back over a decade in time, even though I had never been there before. Not much had changed from the Chinese buffets of my childhood. The food was still laid out beneath rows of heat lamps, each aisle bookended with a stack of white plates that had definitely seen better days. This particular buffet had a more impressive spread than most, offering sashimi, crawfish and cooked-to-order stir fry, in addition to the more typical spring rolls, green beans, and meat dunked in an inexcusable amount of oyster sauce. There was also the obligatory row of Western foods – deep fried chicken wings and french fries, limp spaghetti, pizzas that were all crust and no topping. The smells too, were familiar, reheated oil tinged with nostalgia.
These days I’m picky about the restaurants I go to – “authenticity” is a big deal, especially when it comes to Chinese food, and a buffet rarely makes the list of viable options. But as a kid, it was the epitome of fine dining to me, a place reserved for special occasions only. Friends were always celebrating birthdays there. Summers when I had music exams, the promise of a trip to the buffet and the latest Harry Potter book was the light at the end of two months spent hunched over the piano. I don’t remember if I genuinely enjoyed the food – my mother’s home cooked meals were definitely tastier, but there was always a strange craving for the buffet at the back of my mind.
I think it was mainly the freedom that I wanted – freedom to help myself to three scoops of ice cream and then go back for seconds. To pile my plate high with steamed white fish on one side and breaded fish sticks on the other. Here, I didn’t have to watch my classmates claim their brown paper bags of chicken nuggets and chocolate pudding from the school hot lunch while I spooned bitter melon and rice from my thermos. Here, also, was freedom from awkwardness. I didn’t have to struggle with trying to figure out the proper way to twirl spaghetti onto a fork and my friends in turn didn’t need to turn to me for a translation of the menu.
Regardless of whether these problems have disappeared or we’re all just better at faking it now, this isn’t something I’ve had to think about for a long time, and maybe that’s why I hadn’t been to a buffet in so long. Or maybe I’m overthinking and it’s just a case of more finely developed taste buds. What I do know is that when I go out for dim sum now, it’s my American colleagues that are most keen to try out the chicken feet. Still, it felt strangely comforting to know that these buffets were still thriving and waiting to be revisited like the perfect time capsule.
In the parking lot on our way out, we saw a family of five walk in – a mother and four boys. I wondered if they felt the same excitement that I used to, if they were were also celebrating – it was, after all, Christmas Eve, and nothing said Christmas dinner better than a plate of rubbery Peking duck.