I am convinced – from all of my travels and culinary experiences – there is nothing more homey and comforting than a Chinese buffet. Think about it: savory noodles, fried crust with soft fillings, hodge-podge sushi, and hot soup varieties found nowhere else. In a world of blandly familiar options, with coffee shop express lunches and tepid fast-food iced tea, Chinese buffets are warm haven from the norm.
Throughout this year, I’ve traveled back-and-forth to New York vising my boyfriend. As new-found custom dictates, we almost always visit a Chinese food buffet on Long Island. Throughout my adventures in Chinese buffets, I’ve found them all to have the same fare. Yet, when I bask in the neon glory of a Long Island Chinese buffet, I find slight contrasts from the buffets found in the South.
First, let’s talk crab rangoons. This delicacy, the Queen Mother of All Chinese Buffet Foods, is a delicate golden triangle stuffed with cream cheese and (probably artificial) crab meat. It’s a collision of warmth and deliciousness, and New York Chinese buffets have not received the memo. My first experience at a northern buffet left me shocked. I scoured the rows for crab rangoons, many times over, thinking I had overlooked them. But alas, no. Simply small, cheese wontons with their puckered tops and merely-stuffed bottoms. Eaten and forgotten in one brief bite at every buffet as crab rangoons stay forever in my heart.
As I move from the row of fried and baked foods, I’m approaching salads. In my years as a connoisseur of buffets, I have not run into salad/cold bars at Chinese buffets in the South. Rather, these smaller restaurants often opt out of salads in favor of warmer foods. Even in the smaller buffets in the Empire State, there is almost always a salad bar. Bright lettuces of the romaine and iceberg variety, sliced vegetables, beets, and pasta salads wait eagerly in the bed of ice. Dressings, too. With your chicken lo mein and fried dumpling, you can even out your plate with a salad drenched in ranch. It’s quite beautiful and much different from my norm.
Finally, after a pile of noodles, chicken, and rice, dessert is looms ahead. In many Asian cultures, China included, fruit is an acceptable dessert. In the West, we typically eat cake, cookies, or chocolate to cap our meals. When I lived in Korea and visited China, I ate more Asian pears, watermelons, and apples than I had in my whole life. In California Chinese non-buffet restaurants, fruit is brought to the table after a meal. At a Northern buffet, fruit reigns in her throne adjacent to red and green jellos. Often, I’ll opt for orange slices up North, which seem like an appropriate complement to the orange and honey chicken I’ve devoured minutes before. It’s wonderful and it’s sweet dessert.
I often think, as I sit among the din of chatter and the scent of soy-drenched chicken, that Chinese buffets are truly a tradition. My first interests in Asian culture were sparked as a I looked at an exaggerated painting of the Great Wall and a dragon. Even in the differences, with orange slices and a lack of crispy rangoons, any Chinese buffet anywhere in this country is a culinary miracle that I hold dear. As I live and travel, the two different styles of buffets will always provide double happiness.