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The Rise and Fall of Chinese Buffets?

Ed Dibble Dec 26, 2008 01:41 PM

Where I live, a number of large "Chinese" buffets opened, beginning around 2001. Before that time, there had been two or three small family run buffets, but most Chinese food in the area was menu service. Then, within a brief span of time, four buffets opened, each one seemingly more gigantic than its predecessors. Even the mainline establishment Chinese restaurant in the area went to buffets for lunch and dinner.

Of course, a number of smaller Chinese restaurants went out of business over the same time period.

Now, however, every one of those four large buffets has closed, the first one maybe two years ago and the last two within the past nine months. Even the establishment Chinese restaurant has returned to menu service at dinnertime.

I was wondering if this is some sort of a nationwide trend, or is this simply a fluke in my local area? Have you seen a rise and fall of Chinese buffets recently?

ed

  1. h
    HollyDolly Jan 6, 2009 05:23 AM

    I sometimes eat at the ones around here on the northeast side of San Antonio,not all the time, but once in awhile.China Seas on Thousand Oaks does offer steak,and of course,pizza, enchiladas, sushi,etc.
    The buffets here offer it seems the same stuff, though China Harbour will change things out once in awhile. There was a Super Buffet opened where the old Luby's and later Wyatt's Cafeteria was located in Rolling Oaks Mall.
    Ate there once, it was alright, but last time I went to the mall, I noticed it was gone. Most people eat at the food court, which has a chinese place, think it's called Magic Wok or some other chain name,plus Chik A Fila Subway,etc.Or they drive over to IHOP by the mall or Jim's a local San Antonio diner chain, or some of the other fast food or regular restaurants on Nacogdoches Road.
    There are some other buffets in town, but never eat there. Ate at a local mexican place and cost me like 10 bucks, so sometimes people when they see the price of the buffet,versus a regular restaurant ,even a chain one, they go there since they feel they are getting their money's worth.
    San Antonio never i guess really had a chinatown like say San Francisco or New York.Here it was mainly a mexican section, with other groups scattered around, the Germans were in the King William area, the english name for the king of Germany, the Belgians had their area, etc.
    None of the buffets have a sign here talking about a 50 dollar fine for wasted food.
    And yes, some of these people should be in a gym.Me I am losing weight by cutting out a lot of things. When I do eat at one of these places, I take just a little of each item i know I like, or if something new.
    Most of them carry like the spare ribs,salt fried shrimp,etc. that I guess they know people will eat all the time. If they made something more exotic , like duck's tongue,they know the average person won't eat it except for maybe a european. By the way, have never seen roast duck on any buffet here in town.I only see it on a regular restaurant menu.Long time since I have had any.

    1. c oliver Jan 2, 2009 07:32 AM

      IMO, there is NO cuisine that less lends itself to a buffet than Chinese. Steam table can never do anything good to Chinese. If it's a stir-fried anything, then it's steamed which isn't right, of course. If it's a steamed item, say a dumpling, then it will be rubbery and/or dried out. If my only choice for Chinese food were a buffet, then I would never eat Chinese food. And please; prime rib and salad and rolls? Give me a break. Yuck to all of it :(

      7 Replies
      1. re: c oliver
        Soop Jan 2, 2009 07:39 AM

        Mine was nice. they had a selection of spring rolls, wontons and that, with a decent enough turnover to keep them fresh, and then hot trays full of noodles etc.
        Then they had a sushi bar, with a dedicated chef topping up the sushi at all times, and a dedicated griddle chef cooking anything from squid to porkchops (I had two scallops), although from here you could only have one thing, and it kind of takes a while (done fresh to order).
        So I had:
        4 tuna nigri (all nigri was bite-sized)
        2 salmon nigri
        1 mackrel nigri
        1 smoked eel nigri
        2 spring rolls
        3 prawn toast (oh! this was so good my mouth is watering now)
        3 meatball things
        1 wonton
        1 spoon of thai green currry
        1 spoon of thai red currry
        2 scallops
        2 peices of roast duck
        quite a lot of crispy aromatic duck
        qnd probably more other stuff before desert. It was good, but it was like £12 a head.

        1. re: Soop
          c oliver Jan 2, 2009 09:36 AM

          But do you realize that most of the things you ate weren't Chinese food? It's one thing to go to a buffet that has some Chinese items on it. (I'd still have to be dragged probably!) But to go to a Chinese buffet? No way. I've NO doubt that my having lived in San Francisco for 20 years causes this aversion. I've finally gotten comfortable enough with dim sum that I rarely pick from carts but rather order. The freshness factor is the #1 thing for me when favoring (or not) Chinese food. Where we live now, we don't have good Chinese food, so I don't eat it. I wait til I'm in SF, NY or LA or other places with a large enough Chinese population. Again, this is MY bias.

          1. re: c oliver
            chowser Jan 2, 2009 12:14 PM

            Exactly--Chinese buffets aren't chinese food. They're "everything people think is Chinese, plus anything that the owners think will please that crowd." If you read the list of food at these buffets found on this thread, w/out being told that they were from a chinese buffet, you wouldn't know what type of restaurant they were talking about. My husband's uncle started an authentic chinese restaurant but no one came. He switched it over to "Chinese" buffet, added french fries, pizza, various foods on a stick, his wife makes "sushi" (not even going to ask where she gets the fish) and told me she brings in desserts from recipes she's found on Kraftfood.com. She's very proud of herself because the crowd here loves it and tells her to open a bakery. A doctored up cake mix bakery. Business, meanwhile, is booming and not a duck tongue which was on the original menu in sight. Maybe they could just call them "The Great American Melting Pot" buffet.

            I do, though, prefer to get food off the cart in dimsum over ordering. There's something about the quick indulgence of immediate food that can't be beat. And, if it's busy, quick turnover so food is fresh.

            1. re: c oliver
              Soop Jan 5, 2009 01:24 AM

              Yeah, true, most of it wasn't chinese tbh.

          2. re: c oliver
            q
            queencru Jan 2, 2009 02:25 PM

            Ick- I agree. I hate Chinese buffets. It always seems to be gloopy and overly sweet chicken dishes that really don't lend themselves to being on a steam table for hours. I must go to exceptionally bad Chinese buffets because I never even see the rubbery dumplings.

            1. re: c oliver
              raytamsgv Jan 6, 2009 05:11 PM

              I agree completely. I live in the San Gabriel Valley (just east of Los Angeles), which has a huge number of Chinese-Americans. The only "Chinese buffets" around here are really a mix of lots of different kinds of styles, including Japanese, American, Italian, and some chow mein. I have yet to go to one that was decent. It's cheaper to go to a decent Chinese restaurant than to go to a buffet, too.

              1. re: raytamsgv
                c oliver Jan 7, 2009 07:16 AM

                We live at Lake Tahoe and haven't made it to SGV but what I read here is that's the BEST Chinese food. Why would you even GO to a buffet down there? I can see it if you're in some part of the country where that's your only choice. We're going to make a road trip one of these days :)

            2. Soop Jan 2, 2009 07:28 AM

              One opened in my town about ... over a year ago, and one just opened around the corner which I went to yesterday. It's been very busy since it opened, and it seemed very popular with chinese people (when I went, about 50% of the customers were chinese)

              1. danhole Dec 29, 2008 11:12 AM

                Here in Houston we have a ridiculous amount of chinese buffets. There are small ones, and the mega ones. What really gets me is when you go to a large one and you have your traditional chinese dishes next to the tacos, enchiladas, nuggets, chicken wings and french fries. LOL! In some strip centers there are even more than one. There are a few that are good but most are passable.

                6 Replies
                1. re: danhole
                  p
                  paulispumonti Dec 29, 2008 12:32 PM

                  I think they all have the same Chef!!!! I have tried these mammoth buffets in New Jersey and Chicago...and they are literally carbon copies....I'm suprised that there are any more crabs left in the seas the way I see people piling up on the crab legs!!!! Everything is overgreased including the vegetarian options like Bok Choy in oil slick, Green Beans in oil slick,. There's usually a fried table with wings, egg rolls, fried shrimp, Dim sum with mystery meat- and the entree tables with egg foo dreck, seafood w/ chinese vegetables except the seafood is the fake surimi...... And the non-chinese foods like Veal Parmigiana, pizza, mac and cheese....YUMMO I could go on and on......the only thing I enjoy is the soft ice cream machine............and not to be offensive, but these buffets seem to attract all the people who belong in a Gym, not a buffet line

                  1. re: paulispumonti
                    mrbigshotno.1 Dec 30, 2008 04:23 AM

                    Wonder why the soft icecream coming out of a patched up 35 yr old taylor machine is always so good? Just don't like to stand behind "los gordos y gordas" and the little kid spilling it all over.

                    1. re: paulispumonti
                      happybellynh Dec 30, 2008 10:32 AM

                      I agree- my grandfather always despised buffets of all stripes, because "It encourages people to make pigs of themselves," and I guess he passed that on.

                      That said, the ONLY way to get Chinese in my hometown is at a buffet, so I indulge occasionally. But I always hear my grandpa's voice, and try not to be a pig!

                      1. re: happybellynh
                        p
                        paulispumonti Dec 30, 2008 06:06 PM

                        ....and I love how they try to trick you with filling up on the salad bar...salad does not go with Chinese Food, Nor does BREAD...from my prior post hehe...I got slammed for that one...

                        Anyway my other gripe is that on the receipts out here in the Midwest ( You pay first, then eat!!!) they indicate that there could be a $50 fine for wasting food!!!!! I could understand that this may discourage some customers for overloading their plates( or purses and backpacks!!!)......but if something I take is so utterly disgusting that I am not going to eat it...can I be fined??? will it hold up in a court of law????? It makes me wonder if I should stuff the grisly pork rib inside the tea pot, or maybe place the rubbery twice cooked pork on my neighbors table while they are making their 6th trip for their 38th pot sticker, 23rd chicken on a stick, and 15 more pounds of crab legs....oh how I do miss the days of 1 from column A and 2 from Column B....pass me the War Shoo Op

                        1. re: paulispumonti
                          d
                          dolores Jan 2, 2009 07:20 AM

                          >>they indicate that there could be a $50 fine for wasting food!!!!!

                          Noooooooo. That's hysterical. And how exactly do they ENFORCE that rule? Do they have cameras at the table and automatically send a ticket to your house?

                          Funny stuff.

                          1. re: paulispumonti
                            The Professor Jan 2, 2009 08:52 AM

                            <<..they indicate that there could be a $50 fine for wasting food...>>

                            I have seen similar admonitions at other buffets...while it amuses me, it does say a lot about our culture that such a disclaimer is even deemed necessary by the management.
                            Of course one look around at how some folks go out of control with plate loading ay places of this sort and I almost understand; and seeing the amount of food that gets thrown out, I "root" for the fine.

                    2. mrbigshotno.1 Dec 28, 2008 11:03 AM

                      Have you seen this scam they have going? Big display in the front of the house "One of the top 100 oriental buffets in America" I saw one in WY, One where I live in MT, 4 in AZ in the last couple years and I read a blog where some guy counted 40 of them in the bay area. Hilarious. I like them OK, we have one close to the house, olny about 15 items but very well prepared. The largest one in town is terrible, they put the night befores leftovers back out on the line when opening, in the same hotel pans, mmm mmm. I think they will be the next to go.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: mrbigshotno.1
                        AmyH Dec 29, 2008 07:06 AM

                        We have one of the top 100 Chinese buffets here in Albany, NY, too! I wonder how they get this designation? Send $ to the " top 100 buffets in America" club?

                      2. c
                        cstr Dec 28, 2008 06:01 AM

                        I have a thing about buffets, can't stand the thought of people breathing germs over the steam table and kids snotty little fingers in the food. I'll pass.

                        1. luckyfatima Dec 28, 2008 12:24 AM

                          In my opinion the average Joe non-foodie still prefers the buffet. I have never liked buffet in particular, but about twice a year get a craving for it. For whatever reason, the two most popular super buffets in my hometown are owned by Koreans and keep Korean items among the huge American Chinese spread, which is usually where I indulge my need for American Chinese but have some good Korean pancakes, seafood soup, and so forth on the side. There is also a Chinese-Vietnamese superbuffet, a mimic of a couple of very very popular VN superbuffets in a nearby big city. In that big city, the Chinese Vietnamese super buffets are packed with people because of the all you can eat freshly prepared seafood, and other freshly done items...so this is a huge step above the gloppy American Chinese offerings steamed to death for hours on a buffet table.

                          I have also noticed a trend even in smaller scale buffets to keep more seemingly authentic Chinese items like bean paste/black sesame balls, or authentic dim sum items (usually bought in bulk frozen, not prepared onsight by a dim sum chef). Also mixing international East Asian items all on one buffet hasn't died out either. It is a sign that somehow average Joe non-foodie has become more savvy and wants the exotic "authentic" or multi-national offerings, but still needs a safety net of the traditional buffet setting. I don't see the buffet dying anytime soon.

                          1. k
                            KevinB Dec 27, 2008 10:06 PM

                            Ed, I live just north of Toronto in Canada. Toronto, you may not know, has a very large Asian population, and there are a number of "AYCE" Chinese buffets, or (glacially slow) Japanese table service spots. Despite these, there are literally hundreds of Asian restos that offer all varieties of national cuisines, from cheap and cheerful through to deluxe.

                            The Chinese buffets are generally well attended. Depending on which one, you will actually find a fairly high proportion of Asians eating there (some cater more to Western tastes and have clientele accordingly). Is the food ever great? No. Can it be surprisingly good? Yes - the one near my home has quite good Peking duck, pot stickers, and roast beef(!) on weekends, and waffles made to order with fresh fruit for dessert. There's the usual steam table confusion of rice, noodle, and stir-fried dishes, along with the popular and ubiquitous breaded and deep-fried chicken/pork/shrimp with your choice of Day-Glo(tm) sauces. Desserts and salad selections vary widely by location. One offers "sushi" with the encouraging sign "Contains No Fish".

                            I'm white but my wife is Chinese. We go with her family and friends one or two times a year. It ain't great food but it can be tasty in small and infrequent doses.

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: KevinB
                              j
                              jlawrence01 Dec 31, 2008 09:06 AM

                              Are you referring to China Buffet King on Yonge St.?

                              1. re: KevinB
                                q
                                Querencia Jan 1, 2009 05:23 PM

                                KevinB---When the question of Chinese buffets comes up in the United States, know that the negative language spoken would not be intelligible in Ontario, Home of Great Chinese Buffets. My husband once asked me where I wanted to go to dinner on my birthday and I said "the Mandarin" so we went to Toronto---and we lived in Chicago. For non-Canadians: the Mandarin (at my last count) had 48 hot Asian dishes plus a Canadian buffet of prime rib and Yorkshire pudding plus a grill with salmon steak, chicken, and lamb chops, plus a huge salad bar with ad lib shrimp, plus six soups, ten kinds of ice cream, a waffle station, and a dessert bar with French pastry et al. And yes, it's a buffet and no, it's not sophisiticated and foodies, eat your hearts out. The Mandarin is wonderful. I have not seen a Chinese buffet of that quality in the States. I think you can google it for pictures of the buffet.

                                1. re: Querencia
                                  k
                                  KevinB Jan 2, 2009 08:17 AM

                                  The Mandarin chain is OK, but it is definitely more "Westernized" than the other buffets. Still, my wife's family will camp out around the crab station, and bring back huge plates of crab legs; the crab rarely lasts long. As you pointed out, there are grilled foods as well, which are hard to mess up. We do prefer China Buffet King, though - more Asian specialties.

                                  1. re: Querencia
                                    s
                                    small h Jan 2, 2009 09:20 AM

                                    What is ad lib shrimp? I've never known shrimp to perform from a script. Confused!

                                2. h
                                  Harters Dec 27, 2008 02:02 PM

                                  Dismally, the local "Chinatown" in our nearby city continues to see buffets open and, seemingly, thrive. It is forcing the ordinary restaurants to cut costs/corners in an effort to compete, particularly at lunchtimes. Price for price, I'd still rather not eat at the buffet.

                                  That said, in the small industrial town where I live, a Chinese buffet is about the only place in the town centre to get anything to eat (other than the usual fast food crap).

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