The M.L. Guide to Beating the All You Can Eat Chinese Food Buffet

I fully admit that I am not a food expert.  I’ve never been to culinary school, my palate isn’t particularly advanced and I probably have no business writing about any kind of food (even if it is crappy carts and dives in Midtown).  But if there is one thing I could be considered an expert on, it’s Chinese Buffets.  I am a huge fan of the All of You Can Eat Chinese food buffet (emphasis on the huge).  The concept of all-you-can-eat is brilliant on its own, but once you throw in one of my all time favorite foods (Chinese), you’ve got one of the greatest inventions of all time.

In fact, it is a personal goal of mine to eat at a Chinese buffet in every state in the country.  Here are the states I’ve tackled so far:

  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Louisiana
  • Massachusetts
  • New Mexico
  • New York (Just recently… and the inspiration for this post.)
  • Nevada (Obviously)
  • Pennsylvania
  • Texas (A great buffet just outside of Houston that had fried frogs legs.  Delicious!)
  • Tennessee (Terrible.  My wife will never let me live that one down.)

It’s clearly a work in progress, but I take my work very seriously.  I really love Chinese Buffets.  And it is not just the fact that you get to stuff your face (something I enjoy doing very much).  It’s also the no waiting (you start eating right after you sit down), the variety (it’s the spice of life!) and of course, the competition.  That’s right…  the competition.  You vs. the Buffet.  The price is really just a dare.  A sign that says “All-U-Can-Eat for $14.50″, might as well just say “I dare you to eat more than $14.50 worth of food.  Signed - The Buffet.”

Basically, your goal from the moment you walk into the buffet should be “Win the Game”.  And the game is to eat so much food that the restaurant loses money.  You want to eat so much that when they see you come back the next time, they get scared.  You want them to worry that if you eat at their buffet too often, they might have to close it down.  But before you can learn how to beat your enemy, you must KNOW your enemy.

The three kinds of Chinese buffets, PLUS my tips to winning the game (and more buffet porn)- after the jump…

Working just outside of Boston for 8 years, I became intricately familiar with the all you can eat Chinese food buffet.  There are three kind of Chinese food buffets, and all were within driving distance from my job in Lynn, MA:

1.  Small Scale – The small scale Chinese buffet is exactly how it sounds- small.  Only one station, it usually has only about ten items, but ideally they do those ten items really well.  What you sacrifice in quantity, you gain in quality.  There was a great example of this in Swampscott, MA, about 5 minutes away from my work.  I don’t remember what it was called, but it cost $7.95 and was delicious.

2.  Medium or “Regular” Scale – Most Chinese buffets will fall under this size.  Anywhere from 2 to 4 stations, a regular all you can eat chinese buffet will have anywhere from 20-40 items across 2 to 3 stations (or one really long station).  All your standards should be covered, a few different kinds of rice, soup, noodles, a few chicken dishes, a few pork dishes a few seafood dishes, some dumplings, egg rolls.  Just a standard buffet.  A ten minute drive to the Mandarin Super Buffet in Salem, and we were golden.  Don’t let the name fool you… this place was not a super buffet.  They only had 2 stations, and nothing out of the ordinary.  And that brings us to the third example…

3.  The Super Buffet – The mother of all buffets.  Finding a true super buffet is an awesome feeling.  The Super Buffet has that wow factor.  Buffets are awesome in and of themselves, but if a buffet makes you drop your mouth when you walk in, it gets the title of Super Buffet.  A super buffet will have at least 4 stations (or a few super long ones), with 50 or more items.  When you see it, you’ll know it.  Sure, sometimes you’re sacrificing quality for quantity- but the sheer size and fun of it all makes it worth it.  There was one of these on Route 1 in Saugus, but I’m pretty sure it’s gone now (International Buffet King).

Massachusetts was a great place to work if you liked all you can eat Chinese buffets.  Manhattan, not so much.  There are tons of Indian buffets in Midtown, but only one Chinese buffet- the Mid Town Buffet on 7th Ave. btw. 39th & 40th.  It’s a regular size buffet, and only costs $7.50 at lunch time, making it fairly easy to beat.  But this is not always the case… so here are some tips for beating the all you can eat Chinese buffet.

1. Sit as close to the buffet as possible. Walking back and forth between the buffet takes up valuable time, so you want to be as close to the action as possible.  Plus, at buffets with big money items, they always run out of the best stuff (crab claws, etc.).  You will want to be as close as possible so that when the refills come, you can be front and center stocking your plate as quickly as possible.  They saw me for the professional buffet eater that I am when I walked in, and seated me in a corner as far as away from the buffet as possible.

To make matters worse, they put a guy on the outside chair of the table- totally blocking the aisle to get out.  These guys were good… but it wasn’t enough to stop me.

2. Never order a soda. The first thing they will do at any buffet is ask you if you want a drink.  Don’t even think about ordering a soda.  It costs them pennies and fills you up- making it much harder to win the game.  Sometimes it even costs extra, so they’re giving you the double whammy.  You can’t eat as much, and they make you pay for it.  The smart places know this, and will give you the soda for free.  Don’t be fooled.

3. Your first plate should be a feeler plate. Your first go around, don’t load up on any one particular item.  Take one bite of everything, that way you don’t waste any space on things that end up tasting bad.  On your second go around, load up on all your favorite things from the “taster” plate.  Can you see what’s wrong with this first plate:

6 shrimp!  2 dumplings!  3 pieces of sesame chicken!  Terrible.  And only 6 different items. (You should have at least 8-10)  A chinese buffet professional might be able to pick out the 5 or 6 good items on a buffet just from looking at them… but I suggest the feeler plate for everyone else.

4. Seafood is a make or break item, both a blessing and a curse. A big part of beating the game is making sure you get your fill of the “big money items”, and this is always going to be the seafood.  The problem is, if the buffet is too cheap, you have to be wary of the seafood.  If the deal seems to too good to be true, it probably is.  (If you are going to eat seafood at a crappy buffet, make sure it’s not on a Monday, chances are it’s leftover from the Friday weekend delivery).  If a buffet is more than $10 because it has crab claws, shrimp and mussels you MUST eat your share to win the game.  It’s the suckers who don’t eat the seafood that are paying for your seafood.

5. Beware the “American” food. Chicken Nuggets?  Mashed Potatoes?  French Fries?  Corn?  If you want American food, go to Hometown Buffet (or Sizzler… I used to love their buffet!).  Chinese buffet is for Chinese food.  The chicken nuggets are for kids and losers.  (The one exception I make is for onion rings.  I love onion rings, and allow myself to indulge in one or two… just to see how they taste.)

6. When you think you’ve eaten as much as you can handle, eat the crab. I know you are going to think I am crazy, but on numerous occasions I ended a huge buffet with a plate of crab, and ended up less full when I finished eating the crab than when I started.  I kid you not.  Crab has some sort of magical restorative properties.  I don’t know if it’s all the work breaking the shell that burns calories, or what… but I am telling you- eating crab at the end of a buffet makes you less full.  It’s some sort of strange buffet miracle… try it for yourself.

7. Don’t waste your time on the desserts. Chinese buffet desserts are terrible.  Occasionally there will be a soft serve sundae bar, or the random decent eclair- but for the most part those cakes and cookies are always terrible.  Stick to the fruit, which is a decent money item, and a great palate cleanser.  I’m also a big fan of the post Chinese Buffet Jello.  You can’t go wrong with Jello, and for some reason they have it at every Chinese buffet I’ve ever been to. (Although preferably, you don’t want it to be touching the peel and eat shrimp)

8.  And finally, DON’T EAT THE BREAD! It really should be the #1 rule.  Everyone knows it, but I’ve got to say it.  Never, under any circumstances should you ever, eat the bread at a Chinese Buffet.  It costs nothing, and fills you up.  In fact, if it wasn’t for pork fried rice, I’d probably say the same thing about rice.  Needless carbs.  Stay away!!!

If all this has made you hungry for a Chinese Buffet, I have only been able to find one in Midtown (it’s where all the pictures came from). The Mid Town Chinese Buffet on 7th Ave. btw. 40+41st is a regular size buffet, and nothing special.  It’s only $7.50, but I would still only recommend it if you truly love Chinese Buffets.  It’s the kind of place I will go to every six months, to remind myself why I only go there once every six months.

So there you have it…  the Midtown Lunch guide to eating at All You Can Eat Chinese Buffets.  It has taken me many many years of buffet eating to compile it…. so use it wisely & enjoy!!!

60 Comments

  • Great tips! Do you remember the name of the place with frogs legs outside Houston?

    I wish!  All I remember is, it was right off of I-10, just west of Houston- and I think it had “College” in the name of the exit (College Ave. or something), if that makes sense. -zach

  • Awesome and hilarious post! I wish there were more chinese buffets in Manhattan.

    On an un-buffet related note–i was in chicago a few weekends ago and we went to a Mongolian BBQ place called Flat Top Grill (http://www.flattopgrill.com/index.htm). I have always been a huge fan on the Mongolian grill concept (i.e. pick your fillings, noodles, sauce, etc and then have it stir-fried for you on a huge round grill). There was a place near my old office called Food Depot that had one. Other then that, does anyone know of any other’s in Manhattan?

  • This eatery is easy to miss, and I live on the same street as it and never took notice! Yet, it’s an amazing find, because after 5pm, dinner is only $4! Where else can you find that?? The place serves Chinese food buffet style, so you purchase your $4 plate first, and then pick any 5 entrées. There is a large selection of vegetables, chicken, beef, noodles, pork, even some random dishes like mashed potatoes and fried chicken that aren’t Chinese. Add a drink for another dollar. This is including tax, and there’s no tip since it’s a buffet. The place is cafeteria-ish, but there is plenty of seating up stairs, it’s clean and who can beat this price! If you’re looking for a fast, cheap, and filling meal, this is it for sure.

  • Try the Lunch Box Buffet on 34th Street between 7th & 8th Avenues.

    This eatery is easy to miss, and I live on the same street as it and never took notice! Yet, it’s an amazing find, because after 5pm, dinner is only $4! Where else can you find that?? The place serves Chinese food buffet style, so you purchase your $4 plate first, and then pick any 5 entrées. There is a large selection of vegetables, chicken, beef, noodles, pork, even some random dishes like mashed potatoes and fried chicken that aren’t Chinese. Add a drink for another dollar. This is including tax, and there’s no tip since it’s a buffet. The place is cafeteria-ish, but there is plenty of seating up stairs, it’s clean and who can beat this price! If you’re looking for a fast, cheap, and filling meal, this is it for sure.

    http://www.judysbook.com/members/42301/posts/2007/1/513342/

  • There is a deli on 40th bet. 7th and 8th (two doors down from the new Popeye’s) that does the Mongolian grill thing. It’s at the back of the deli. I think there might still be a Chinese buffet on the same block as an added bonus. :)

  • Try Minado, granted its not mid-town but all you can eat sushi for $15!! Its not Nobu quality but nothing to freak out about either. The place is always fresh and clean; for those not into the whole raw fish part there is a hot buffet with tons of great salads and typical japanese cuisine. check out their website http://www.minado.com I’ve been to their Natick,MA and NJ location many times, the Manhatten one has got to be good

    The Midtown/Koreatown version of Minado no longer exists.  It was bought out by Todai  -zach

    http://midtownlunch.com/blog/2006/11/06/todai-aka-the-buffet-formerly-known-as-minado-2/

  • Great article and funny, too. I been to too many chinese buffet for my own good around the SF valley, West LA, and South Bay area. I also want to include the Chow Mein as something you should have minimally. Most chinese restuarant serve those noodles that’s been cooked with alot of oil. Just one serving could fill you up. So if you’re spending $14 bucks for the buffet dinner and you have say-half plate of this appetite plugger, game over, you lose.

  • I like you’re style. A real pro!

  • you are a GOD
    a perfect master of the AYCE Buffet

  • Very interesting article about how to “best” a buffet. I recently wrote a blog on the economics of buffets that readers may find interesting…especially on how low the margins are. It is titled “How Do Restaurant Buffets Make Money.”

    The blog can be found at: http://www.pricingforprofit.com/blog/blog-view.php/blogid/76

  • Jordan – there used to be a deli on 45th between Madison and Vanderbilt that had awesome Mongolian BBQ; I haven’t been there for ages, but if it is still there, I definitely recommend it!

  • To read all about buffet dining come join us at The Art of the Buffet at buffets.blogspot,com.

    A new buffet article is posted every late Friday night. You will find buffet restaurant reviews, commentary on buffets, news of the buffet chains, buffet observations, and “The Rules of the Buffet”.

  • I’m sorry, someone said there’s no tip because it’s buffet? Can you repeat that please? I think they deserve more tip because they’re clearing more dishes. They don’t “bring you food” but they clear away more dishes and garbage than normal, especially if you’re eating crab and are a normal/semi-sloppy person.
    http://feistyfoodie.blogspot.com/2007/01/14-northern-blvd.html I know you commented on this, but I hadn’t realized the various types of buffets. You have to go here. It’s a super buffet (especially if you like all seafood).

    Also, there used to be (or still is) a buffet in LI, right off the Meadowbrook “Stewart Avenue” exit called “International Buffet”. They served half lobsters (split lengthwise), topped with some breadcrumbs and baked- they were small enough that the tail was the only part worth eating at that point, but still. They also had frog’s legs, prime rib, some other good stuff, I went there for a few birthdays or family events. Yum. We stopped going because they started having the lobster less often (at first it was consistently, every time for dinner) and they started raising prices, downgrading food.

    We think it’s because my brother in law and a few of his friends went once and one guy ate 19 lobster halves in addition to other food. The other guys were up there in the over 10 halves each, but I don’t recall exact numbers. :)

  • I think you’re the one who made my family’s restaurant go under. It was an all-u-can-eat in Houston called Hong Kong Cafe, a standard sized buffet with two stations but really high quality food. Our hot and sour soup had strips of tender pork.

    Yes, tip your table clearers, you cheap fux!! They have to pay their snakeheads back some how.

  • I can tell from the way this is written that the writer is a fat bastard.

  • The Buffet with the frog legs near Houston off College blvd is in Beaumont, TX. I don’t remember the name. Off I-10, exit college, it is in the strip center southeast between college and I-10. They also had decent sushi.

    That’s not it.  It was a stand alone place (not in a strip mall), and it wasn’t in Beaumont.  It was just outside of Downtown Houston, going West on I-10.  But thanks for trying!  -zach

  • all in all, you sum up typical chinese buffet eating standards. it’s easy to not play the game if you grew up around too many substandard super buffets like myself. i’m a chinese guy, 19, and i’ve hit up so many subpar buffets that the game, and chinese buffets in general, are no longer fun.

    and yes, every chinese buffet has jell-o. i was in china a few years back and you wouldn’t believe how many gelatin products they had. just to give you an idea, the amount is probably about.. two of those warehouse styled racks full, like the ones you’d see in a wholesale place like costco. of course, it was laid out in supermarket fashion. it might be more than that.. it was really gelatin heaven.

    additional tips:
    this goes along with the seafood: look for places with decent sushi. yes, they do exist! while realistically, it’s not the most expensive item, a good cost comparison with other sushi places makes it easily worth it, eh?

    look for places with dim sum. also rare. also, not the most expensive to make. but if you go to a dim sum restaurant, you get charged anywhere from $2.50 to $5 for about.. four of whatever finger-food sized item you get. cheap by comparison. i personally like the ones with shrimp inside, and it’s usually a good game winning item.

    avoid pan-fried dumplings. why? they’re usually not very good in buffets and soaked with grease. that’ll leave you feeling heavy and sick. varies with each place, of course. this is just a general rule. almost the same with egg rolls, except they’re usually too ungreasy and filled with crap items. that makes them dry, a little flavorless, and overly filling.

  • Have you ever been asked to leave ? I have. The manager came over, and in his best English said, ” You eat too much ! You go home now. ” Oy.

  • My post at ChowHound about Midtown Buffet.

    It’s best to eat when it’s busiest at dinner time; about 6 to 8 or so, although they’re open to 11. It aims to be a reasonably priced sea food buffet. At both lunch and dinner, grilled squid and salmon are (nearly) always out. At dinner, Alaskan king crab legs last until 9 or so. Also at dinner, but only when they’re busy, Peking duck pieces are available. Sometimes, they also have frogs legs, which are very good.

    Standard Chinese buffet items like beef with broccoli, general tsao’s chicken, and roast pork pieces are always there. If you take your time and watch as they bring stuff out to the buffet to replenish, you can get the food when it’s steaming hot and fresh.

    Seeing some of the people who eat there is part of the fun. There are some very big gangsta types trying to eat their way to their money’s worth, fraternity brothers visiting the city from nearby suburbs, UK commonwealth rugby and soccer teams traveling together, and Parson’s students. Some of the very thin young men at Parson’s must have very fast metabolisms because sometimes a pair of them will eat more than a group of three 300 pound trenchermen. French tourists and the Brits go to the buffet a maximum of two times, no more. Gangsta types and lower middle class Black and Hispanic families eat until everybody is very full.

    Dirty plates are promptly removed. Guests are provided two soft drinks per person, unlimited water and tea. If you’re alone, your waitress will bring you a check after your third trip to the buffet line, whether you’re ready to leave or not.

  • This is really good info. There is an All You Can Eat Buffet restaurant here in houston called China Bear located on the feeder road of I-45 @ Airtex if ever your visiting.They have a lot to offer. They even have a shopping mall inside of the restaurant. You’re going to enjoy it I gaurantee .

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