Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Buffet China / China Buffet

3833 Lemay Ferry Road
St. Louis Mo.

The Place:
Located near the South County Mall , in a strip mall adjacent to Kmart.
A Chinese buffet in a strip mall? How odd.
We love Chinese buffets. We’ve only found one or two halfway decent ones near where we live. One of them, ‘Emperor’s Wok’ is okay. The other one, in Festus, burned down several months ago. We’ve pretty much been doing without since then. Last week a couple of friends from my writers group, Marty and Cathy told me about this place. They’ve been going there for about fifteen years and were never disappointed. When my turn to pick a place came around I declared it as my choice. There are lots of places to eat, but I was hankering for some Chinese.
As it turned out it was a fortuitous choice, I needed to drop my deer-damaged car off at a dealership less than three miles from the restaurant. We convoyed up to the repair shop then I joined Angel and Adam in the family truckster for the remaining short hop.
It was typical of any strip-mall Chinese buffet; even the name of the place was generic. It said ‘China Buffet’ on the unlit sign outdoors, but the take-out menus said ‘Buffet China.’ Not that it matters really.
We were met at the door by a slight and smiling Chinese lady who merely asked us ‘How many?’ We answered with the universal sign language for ‘3’ *. As she led us toward a nearby table she took our drink orders. We didn’t even need to sit down. She pointed us to the steaming buffet lines; we knew what to do from there. The interior was dimly lit, the walls and floors plain, unremarkable and decorated with the requisite bright red and gold colorful Chinese things.
At the line the plates were still warm in the spring-loaded contraption that reminded me of a card dealing machine. The stainless trays in the warmer were all near full.

The Food:
The food looked fresh, not like it had been setting there percolating since the Ming dynasty as the case in some of these places. There was a wide variety of offerings. As I usually do in a new place I chose a little of just about everything that I determined to be remotely edible.
There were about eight kinds of chicken, Sesame, General Tso, ‘Spicy’, ‘Crispy’, etc. There was also the usual rices, white and fried as well as stir-fry noodles and the normal soups. There were two kinds of hot shrimp available, breaded and non-breaded. I was pleasantly surprised to find the non-breaded and loaded up on them. My first plate was filled with small portions of about twelve different items including each of the chicken types, fried rice and noodles, a crab rangoon and a couple of dumplings (pot stickers). We also found ‘lobster rolls’, something else unique. There was a simple krab (fake crab) concoction that seemed appealing.
When we returned to the table our drinks were waiting for us in mismatched plastic ‘Coke’ labeled tumblers. The tea was fresh but nothing special.
The food was for the most part outstanding. Angel noticed immediately that the vegetables in the fried rice were crispy and fresh tasting. A small thing perhaps, but it makes a difference. They had distinct taste and texture. In fact in every offering where there were veggies they were fresh and not overcooked or limp.
The chicken was cooked perfectly, not dry or tough. The glazes were bright and flavorful. I decided the ‘Crispy’ was the best, but I wouldn’t refuse any of them. The stir-fry pork was full of green peppers and onions, all masterfully prepared. The rangoons were wonton style** and not overcooked. There were no fried wontons. We discussed this and decided it must be a local thing. We haven’t seen many fried wontons since moving to the area. There was also no cashew chicken. (see bonus section)
The food was all quite good, with one notable exception, the dumplings. They were thick and doughy. The filling was fine (not too much ginger) but the wrapper was simply too thick. Also, The lobster rolls, essentially egg rolls with lobster meat, had been cut into two-inch medallions before cooking which made them seem a little overdone. They would have been better if sliced after frying.
Adam declared his favorite, the General Tso’s chicken. He mentioned that it was spiced exactly right, not too hot, but still spicy.
Each of us returned for another plate, Adam dived into the traditional desert offering of banana pudding topped with that Chinese staple, bananas in red gelatin sauce. Angel and I seconded on some of our favored selections. I got more of the Crispy Chicken, which was like General Tso’s but not as spicy, nor as sweet as the Sesame chicken, somewhere between, and cooked just to a slightly crispy caramelization.
I finished up with a return trip to sample the deserts. Of course I glopped some red-gelled bananas on top of some pudding; I also tried a little slice of a thin cake and a white cookie looking crisp with wavy brown line on it.
The cake and the cookie did nothing for me, the bananas and pudding hit the spot.

The service;
The drinks were refilled in a timely manner, the used plates always cleared by the time we returned from a refill. The staff was polite and efficient. The hand written ticket was torn from a book of generic guest checks and listed only ‘3’ and ‘Coke’, ‘Diet Coke’, ‘tea’; and ‘Total $ 31.07.’

We’ve certainly had worse Chinese food. A place in Hillsboro comes to mind. China Buffet / Buffet China was among the best we’ve tried locally and certainly better than any that we ever came across during our five years in Maryland. We liked the place in Festus just as well, but as I mentioned earlier, it burned down. We decided we liked this place better than Emperor’s Wok (at the corner of Gravois and Lindbergh), but not by a huge margin. Angel liked the booths here better than the wide open style at Emperor’s, Adam disagreed. I liked this place better because the waitresses were hotter. So it was officially a tie since I didn’t actually say what I was thinking. That is until we discussed the meal again and were reminded of the freshness of the vegetables.
The price was excellent The evening buffet s listed at $8.49 with the lunch buffet an exceptional $5.79 Our evening total as mentioned earlier was just slightly more than the cheapest meals we’ve found (Steak and Shake and Los Portales) but a better value because it is ‘all you can eat!”
We certainly would highly recommend China Buffet / Buffet China, and indeed we will return there. It would be a fantastic lunch spot before, after, or during a hectic day of shopping at the mall or big box stores in the area.
Final Score: 94.

* Seriously, you’re looking down here to find out what the universal sign language for ‘3’ is? Wow.

** I classify rangoons into two types; Wonton style which is folded triangular or flat with a dollop of creamy filling, and balloon style which has much more filling and is not folded so much as it is twisted at the top like the wrapper were a bag around a ball. I prefer wonton style as they are less messy.

Extra! Extra!: A personal commentary on Chinese food.
I know more about Chinese food than most people. No brag, just fact. I first tried Chinese food in the early eighties while serving a three year tour in northern Japan.
Hang on, don’t throw our atlases at me just yet! I’ll explain.
I know Japan isn’t in China and never has been. (China almost became a part of Japan though as you history buffs may recall).
When you think Japanese food you probably think sushi, sashimi, blowfish, fermented octopus testicles, etc. Well, that’s correct, but only to a point. Just as you’ll find as many similarities as differences between Spanish, Italian, and Greek food in Europe, around Asia you’ll find the same thing. Take rice for example. There’s only so much you can do with rice. Boiled/steamed, fried…. Well that about covers it. Poultry, same thing. Fry it, roast it boil it… it comes down to what you coat it with or dip it in. Japan and much of China share similar growing conditions so spices are fairly common between them. Pork and poultry abound in both countries’ interiors. With all these similarities there is bound to be some natural crossover. Many dishes in either country are very similar to something in the other.
The first several-course meal I had in Japan was indistinguishable from what we Americans consider Chinese food. Egg drop/wonton soup, fried chicken chunks with either a sweet or savory sauce, rice fried with onions, carrots and egg, etc. Sure you could order candied lobster brains and sticky rice wrapped in seaweed around raw fish, but not many Americans did, nor did that many Japanese folks I knew. I also spent a month in Korea, guess what. Similar foods, with a few unique items on the fringes. (Kimchi being a standout, in more ways than one. As if someone wanted to know what would happen if you buried a pot of sauerkraut in the ground long enough for it to go really, really bad.)
Bottom line, there is hardly anything on an American Chinese restaurant menu that is very different from many working class restaurants in Japan, China or Korea.
However it should be noted that to this reporter the center of the Chinese food universe is NOT in the eastern Hemisphere at all. It is in Springfield Missouri. Doubt me?
Go here:
Springfield is absolutely nuts for this stuff. As the article points out the dish was modified slightly from its original Chinese form to suit the local palette. This is no different from the evolutions of dishes throughout Asia. China itself has no less that eight distinct flavor regions. Chinese food in China is at least as diverse as chili or pizza in The U.S. or pasta in Europe. That Mr. Leong took his recipe and tweaked it to fit a certain midwestern U.S. preference, is no different from what his own ancestors did in China. So there.

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