Look, I’m never going to really sell myself as any kind of foodie. For one thing, I reflexively wedgie anyone who uses the word “foodie” non-sarcastically. And for another, I love waaay too much stuff that’s either technically terrible or just terrible for a living body. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a fine meal as well, and I cook a lot of my own food, but come 2 in the morning I’m a lot more likely to have a mountain of Taco Bell and regret than a finely sous vided duck breast. No matter how much Top Chef I watch or fancy recipes I try, there’s a part of me that will always yearn for the greasy deliciousness of cheaper food.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in my love of cheap Asian Buffets. I’m not talking about the nice places with well-made food either, though I certainly like those too. When I say cheap I mean no more than $10, and usually closer to $5. Whether they market themselves as Chinese, Japanese, or just stick with the culinary catch-all of Asian, these buffets are among my favorite guilty pleasure places to eat. My friends have learned never to tell me if such a place is nearby during food discussions, because I will latch on and refuse to let go of the option, no matter how much everyone else brings up trivial matters like poor health department scores.
For a long while, I’ve joked around that if I couldn’t be a writer, then my ideal job would be restaurant critic who specifically only does Asian Buffets. And, earlier this week, I decided to actually whip up a rubric of the dishes I would evaluate for my version of that job. If you want to genuinely assess a restaurant, this probably isn’t much help, but if you want to follow the ravings of a madman as he quantifies what makes a cheap buffet delicious, then you probably need professional help. But until you get it, this will aid you in your task.
As a note here, these food items are arranged not in order of importance, which would make more sense, but rather the order in which they hit my over-crowded plate.
1) Fake Crab/Cheese Casserole.
I don’t know the real name of this, and neither do you, but anyone who has been to a cheap Asian Buffet knows exactly what I’m talking about. The fakest of crab, combined with a creamy, likely mayo-based sauce, covered in cheese and baked into a metal pan. Sometimes there are other components, maybe celery or onions in there too, but the core elements of fake crab, white sauce, and cheese are indispensable. I love the shit out of this dish, and even I can’t tell you why. All I know is that if this is bad, or worse, not there at all, you may as well shut the whole damn buffet down because not even I will come back. It’s that essential.
2) Smothered Mussels.
Again, no idea what these are really called, but it’s basically a mussel covered in the same sauce and cheese as the first dish. Shockingly though, I tend to scrape most of that off. As a Cajun man, I find most shellfish needs only the barest of flavorings, just a kiss of something different to bring out the natural flavors. I’m not looking for magic here, either. I know these are going to be ten years old and freshly defrosted. All I want is the mussel to be A) warm, and B) Not spoiled. You give me that, along with the topping that I mostly waste, and I’ll be pretty dang happy.
3) Peanut Chicken.
For some reason, I feel like peanut chicken is on the way out. There are several places I’ve been to that don’t serve it, and those places no longer have my business. If the first two choices didn’t tip you off, there’s a lot of creamy, rich elements on my plate. Peanut chicken works as an essential counter when I need a break from those flavors. Plus, it’s fucking delicious. I wish there was a drive-thru near me that did peanut chicken, because I would go by damn near every day. Actually, thinking about that, I’m pretty glad such a place doesn’t exist. Just make sure the chicken is hot and crispy, and the sauce fully coats the outer crust, and it’s hard to go wrong with this classic.
I know, I know. Sushi at a place that charges $5 for a buffet is basically asking for trouble, but sometimes in life you have to roll the dice. While some of the really fancy buffets will do sashimi, at a cheap one you need to brace for low-end rolls, and maybe a few varieties of sushi. Here I judge by variety as much as quality. Extra points for salmon, obviously, as well as for eel, which used to be everywhere and isn’t anymore and it pisses me off because I love it so much and… sorry, had a tangent there. I also add positive marks for every roll they offer that doesn’t have cucumber in it. I shit you not, if I had three wishes I would genuinely be tempted to use one to stop making cucumbers a default ingredient in so many sushi rolls. Sorry those of you who love cucumber, I’m just not a fan.
I’ll admit, I’m skipping a few other regulars on my buffet plate, but rather than break down every single thing I like, I’m really trying to keep this focused on the big elements, and dessert certainly qualifies. Now sure, most places will have fruit, and that’s great. For those of us who didn’t spend $5 on buffet because we make smart choices though, there are really two staples here you can count on: the fried dough with sugar and ice cream. The fried dough is nice, when you’re in the mood, but you can tell a lot about a buffet by the ice cream they stock. If it’s a “scoop your own” situation then anything other than Blue Bell means immediate point deductions. This is Texas, damn it, and we have access to some of the best ice cream around. Don’t half-ass it. On the other hand, if it’s a soft-serve machine then it’s hard to go wrong. Even if they skimp on toppings, I’m usually pretty happy with a small bowl of soft-serve, although of course there are bonus points for sprinkles or hot fudge.
Congratulations! Now you too can evaluate a discount Asian Buffet using the protocol of someone who has clearly spent far too much time at such establishments.