From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Demise of the Buffet

Yesterday, one of my new employees asked “Where can I get a great Chinese buffet?” I could not help but cringe, as, here in San Antonio, truly, there is no such thing. I have visited a couple here in town whose food has left much to be desired. They are a veritable hodgepodge of flavors that ended up tasting the same, regardless of the actual menu name.

Rudy and Jerry were determined, however, to get their mitts on a buffet, so I suggested Golden Phoenix, which is down the street from the office. (Okay, more like 10 minutes away.) I seemed to remember bringing some of their food to my wife’s office, years ago, and enjoying their hot and sour soup to excess. (The memories of heartburn still linger.) So I figured, why not, it’s been a few years since I have been here, let’s give them a try again.

I should have let them go their own way, and I should have fended for myself.

The restaurant, while recently remodeled and pretty, was the typical buffet, with islands of food in spread out across a broad expanse across the dining room floor. The food, in fact, was the first thing that I saw when walking into the restaurant.

There was plenty of food, including enchiladas, baked fish, sushi (that looked unappealing) and chicken nuggets, as well as the typical assortment of “Chinese food” to appease the locals. I helped myself to a spoonful of Kung Pao Chicken, Broccoli Beef, and Pepper Steak, a skewer of teriyaki chicken, and a few sautéed green beans.

I am already not a fan of “all you can eat” concepts, and the idea that so much of this “food” is available for people to fill up on is a bit horrifying, as the food I ate was the typical generic taste. If I had been in a true “analytical” frame of mind, I would have gotten a separate plate for each menu item, with a generous portion of soggy white rice to go with it.

But alas, I did not do so, and after about one mouthful of each item, I lost track of what flavor profile I was supposed to be enjoying. The broccoli beef was salty in flavor, the pepper steak was not peppery, and there was no “POW” in the kung pao chicken. I worry that they toned down their seasoning in the hopes of not offending the sensitive (hah) San Antonio taste buds.

Where had good Chinese food gone? Definitely not the way of the buffet.

The place was spotless, not just at the time we were there, but probably always as it was 'voted the cleanest restaurant in town' by a local newspaper. What also impressed was that the hot food was hot and refreshed every few minutes.

At that time food offerings, except for at the salad and dessert bars, were almost all Chinese though there were a few Canadian and universal non-Chinese dessert items included. The Mandarin buffet honored Chinese cuisine. Why is it that good things cannot last? On this visit there were more non-Chinese items being served and there was some slippage in quality.

Much has changed in the buffet restaurant scene and all is not for the better. Now there is a proliferation of buffets. Within a fifty mile radius of my suburban home, there are more than fifty; and they are not all equal. Some maintain food and ambiance standards, others are messy. Some are inexpensive while others cost the price of a meal in a good full-service restaurant. Some food served at them is more authentically Chinese than others. And, most recently these Chinese buffets are becoming a United Nations. One honestly put a sign outside that said 'international.'

Why this growing phenomenon? These restaurants speak to the shortage of trained staff and owners need for more income. Most importantly, they speak to the demise of the mom and pop Chinese restaurant. On the customer side, people want more variety at their meals, want a perceived bargain, and they love pigging out. Perhaps these buffets also shows that all too many people do not care about freshly made hot food and even that some do not know good food from mediocre.

Chinese buffets have greatly expanded in number and number of food offerings. No longer are non-Chinese items restricted to dessert selections. In our area, these buffet eateries first added Japanese food items, then one by one, foods from Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere in Asia. Most recently we have seen Italian and other European food selections, even South American and African foods. Common signs outside buffet restaurants read 'Chinese, Italian, and American items daily' or 'Chinese and Japanese food, here with a complete sushi bar.' We most particularly like the one that says 'Foods of twenty counties available on our buffet tables.'

Many buffet restaurants do catering on and off site and when they have a few parties to attend to, the restaurant customers fend for themselves. We have seen senior citizen discounts of ten to twenty percent, places with twenty to two hundred different food items, special prices for children, and costs listed with and without lobster. We also know of places that feature all the snow crab legs or all the lobster you can eat. Some have fruit bars with canned selections, other include a few fresh items and advise how healthy their buffet is. Many provide complimentary soda and tea, with or without free refills, most charge for coffee, and all tab the alcoholic beverages. A few have Mongolian barbecue selections or roasted meat prepared and sliced in full view. Still others provide hard and soft ice creams. And there is more. They are offering more and costing more, too.

In some ways these buffet restaurants speak to galloping changes in Chinese and all food, the increase in variety and preparation requirements, and other expectations folk have. As has the local supermarket that sells frozen dumplings, frozen Chinese TV dinners, and varieties of tofu, they are expanding their offerings. They are meeting the competition be it restaurant or the local supermarket's take-out selections.

As each city, state and country increase their ethnic populations, people learn foods from neighbors and friends and want to share meals with them. Everyone travels more wants to eat foods they tasted elsewhere. With more mixed-ethnic families, people want different foods to please everyone. The mixed buffet restaurant meets these particular needs. These are things small local Chinese restaurants can not do.

I wonder what local children think is Chinese food because many Chinese buffet restaurants bill itself as Chinese and food choices run the gamut from Sushi, found on the dessert bar, to Buttered Potato, Corn on the Cob, French Fries, and Onion Rings. These were next to Vegetable Lo Mein, Boneless Spare Ribs, Mushrooms in Oyster Sauce, House Special Mei Fun, Happy Family, Chicken with Garlic Sauce, and Stewed Sweet Potatoes.

I have been confused as the sushi was next to Canned Peaches, Carrot Cake, Chocolate Pudding, Fresh Cantaloupe, Pickled Carrot and Daikon Sticks, and a choice of vanilla or chocolate yogurt. I have seen Steamed Dumplings next to a tray of Jelly Donuts. The beverage area crosses cultures, too, mixing Orange Soda, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and other carbonated beverages with Chinese or American tea, and coffee your way, Cappuccino to regular.

We can only wonder where the buffet syndrome is going. Also wonder about its impact in small cities and towns. It has been spotted in one European city and may be in others. Clearly, we have to make a trip to Asia and see its impact there, if any. How is it doing in your neighborhood?

Until Then, Good Eating, Friends…

Golden Phoenix on Urbanspoon

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

a pie must be there on the second tuesday of the chinese new year

1 comment:

  1. That's a really good, comprehensive review. But what does that last line mean? ("a pie must be there on the second tuesday of the chinese new year")