Most towns that have a restaurant have at least one but usually two Chinese buffets. For some, these restaurants are a quick, cheap way to consume a lot of food. However, there are some whose love for the Chinese buffet grows into a passion or a way of life. These individuals will affirm there are some things about the buffet everyone else just doesn’t understand.
Never authentic, often sketchy and woefully unprofitable without cutting corners, Chinese buffets remain a staple of picky children, quick weeknight dinners and a host of odd dates. No matter how you actually feel about the Chinese buffet, chances are you will end up eating at one whether you like it or not. For those who don’t like it, the Chinese buffet is a miasma of too many people fighting over the last scoop of beef with broccoli and that one weird, deformed egg roll. However, those who love Chinese buffets can look past the superficial into the spiritual and affirm the following universal maxims.
1. It’s not authentic, but who cares?
Crab rangoons are made with Philadelphia cream cheese. Chop suey is a complete American invention made by a Chinese chef without the proper ingredients. General Tso’s (especially sweeter, browner General Tso’s) feels like it’s something a desperate buffet cook concocted. The bottom line, though, is that we who love Chinese buffets love them anyway.
2. Soy sauce stains are a badge of honor
Salty and dark, soy sauce possesses the magical benefit of making everything taste five-star-gourmet amazing. It also stains any lucky clothing or skin it touches, becoming a badge that says, “I went to a Chinese buffet, and I loved what I had too much to care about hygiene.”
3. Chinese food isn’t one cuisine — it’s millions
This is especially true of the multi-row Chinese super buffet. These cornucopias of culinary creations offer something for every taste. Want a salad? Aisle one. Want steak? Aisle four. Want fried chicken? Check near the egg rolls. Just need ice cream and generic Oreos? Over there at the dessert aisles. Nearly the whole world’s eats lie in one glorious eating location.
4. Chopsticks are an extension of the hand
You think it’s impressive that some guy caught a fly with chopsticks in a movie? We can eat individual rice grains, croutons and jello with our chopsticks. We have become one with our inner chopstick.
5. We’re not picking out the good stuff — we’re honoring the finest ingredients
You may notice some Chinese buffet aficionados picking out certain things from various dishes (usually shrimp from the less-than-honestly-labeled “seafood delight”). It’s not that we don’t love the 2-year-old squid or imitation crab; it’s just that we’re paying homage to the shrimp. Seriously.
6. It’s Sichuan, not Szechwan
Unless it’s Szechwan, not Sichuan. Either way, it’s spicy and delicious.
7. Plates are for beef with broccoli, platters are for fried foods
Point of Chinese food etiquette. Most Chinese buffets offer three serving dishes: small plates for children; regular plates for your sauced items, like General Tso’s, lo mein, beef with broccoli, butter shrimp, coconut shrimp, Sichuan (Szechwan?) green beans, etc.; and platters to hold the small mountain of egg rolls, fired shrimp, wontons and crab rangoon that you refuse to share with anyone else.
Also, as a side note, soup bowls are for red dipping sauce. The soup is for… well, we’re not exactly sure what that’s for.
8. Dim sum > tapas
Spanish small plates were all the rage a few years ago, but really, the consumption of small snacks started with Chinese dim sum. Of course, what gets labeled “dim sum” in a Chinese buffet is usually pretty mediocre, but it’s the pride of the thing that counts.
9. There are literally thousands of Chinese dishes
No, this doesn’t refer to China’s unique cultural heritage or the long history of its many dishes. It refers to the fact that even if you (improperly) fill a platter with different saucy dishes and leave lots of space, the dishes will eventually all mix together. General Tso’s sweet and sour spicy sautéed green beans probably won’t find their way into a cookbook, but they’re so good when you shove them into your mouth.
10. There are two types of people in the world: mixers and wallers
Which actually brings up an interesting point. There are two types of people in this world: those who dump their Chinese buffet bounty into one pile and happily munch away (mixers), and those who feel that somehow physics will abandon its rules and the buffet takings won’t mix together (wallers). There’s no wrong way to do your buffet, but the wallers spend a lot more time jiggering their food or making many trips to the buffet.
11. Weird red sauce is all you need to be happy
Sweet and sour red sauce, which is likely just red food coloring, corn syrup and some secret spices, is essentially the Sriracha of Chinese food. It goes with everything, even when it shouldn’t.
12. Chinese food + Christmas = magic
Those who have found their passion at the Chinese buffet carry in their hearts a story. The story of the one Christmas they found themselves eating Chinese food in a place and situation that should have been alienating and lonely. However, those of us who love the buffet look on that time with warmth, gratitude and soy sauce stains.
13. Chinese food is better off the menu, but we don’t care. Bring the buffet!
Most people who love the Chinese buffet will admit the food is better from the menu. These same people will admit they don’t care. It’s buffet or bust for no other reason than it’s there. Trust us: Even if the menu-ordered items are amazing, the fact that all that food is sitting just over there in a steam tray always makes us regret not getting the buffet.
14. Life isn’t complete without a stale cookie
To the American palate, Chinese desserts are a little iffy until you develop a taste for red bean paste. In the meantime, American diners learn restraint, minimalism and wisdom as they savor their single cookie dessert.
15. Even when it’s bad, Chinese buffet is still amazing
Remember, gentle reader, this if nothing else. We who love the Chinese buffet love it because it reminds of better times, fully bellies and bank accounts that are mostly full. We don’t love it because it’s five-star gourmet. In fact, we often love it despite itself.
Yes, in the end, Chinese buffets are like democracy. When democracy is good, it’s great, and when democracy is bad, it’s still pretty good. If it’s true for government, it’s true for our most popular culinary import.