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!!!

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