Substitute crockpot chili for the braised tripe and replace the gilded dragons on the walls with Scripture-touting banners, and New China Buffet could pass for a church potluck. On a Monday night, the San Leandro strip-mall restaurant came nowhere close to operating at capacity, yet the maze of tables teemed with families of all shapes and sizes. Dead center, four generations lobbed conversations over and under one another, their table orbited by whizzing four-year-olds. In a more secluded corner, a pair of empty-nesters, napkins tucked into their collars, ate off plates containing just two items -- sautéed shrimp and bok choy -- before silently splitting a bowl of ice cream. A twentysomething couple locked in the eternal hug tandem-trotted around the dim sum station. And somewhere along the wall, a bemused restaurant critic pled silent prayers that the lukewarm unagi nigiri he just ate wouldn't lay him up for a week.
It didn't. This week, when I decided to try out a couple of the many, many Asian buffets around the East Bay, I had no idea I would enjoy myself so much. Just as long as I ignored what was going into my mouth.
Painted a distinctive shade somewhere between mint and lime, a color engineered to say both "Have fun!" and "Don't stay long!," brightly lit New China Buffet bustles with diners and the friendly busers scrubbing up after them. A sign near the entry apologizes to the patrons that the buffet recently had to raise its per-person price from $10.25 to $10.75. That's right: You can fill four -- okay, six -- plates with dim sum, sushi, salad, seafood, noodles, and dessert for less than it would cost you to order takeout.
It seems buffetgoers belong to two species: grazers like me, who dart between the buffet and the table to nibble on tiny amounts of forty dishes, and loaders, who make a full meal from two trips, returning each time with feats of structural engineering.
The warren of buffet tables, each with its own microclimate, covers the basics of Asian food, with dishes that range from Americanized General Tso's chicken to dishes white Americans tend to shy away from, such as braised book tripe, which is by far the better choice. More than 150 items represent: Three or four soups. Dim sum from stuffed crab claws to siu mai. A dozen varieties of sushi, none of them appealing. And entrées from broccoli beef to baked stuffed mussels. The salad station includes iceberg lettuce and seaweed, the fruit bar fresh watermelon and canned lychees. Scattered around are American kid foods like pizza, french fries, and three colors of Jell-O (get the red).
The control-queen in me most enjoyed the Mongolian BBQ station, where I picked out a tangle of noodles, cabbage, green onions, and a few strips of gristly pork, then passed it over to a guy who stir-fried it competently on a griddle right in front of me, adding seasoning and sauce. But apart from a few dishes -- a simple shrimp and squid stir-fry, dry-fried green beans, steamed fish with ginger and scallions -- the quality ranked somewhere between airplane dinners and Costco samples. Still, the variety was intoxicating, and the people-watching couldn't be beat.
All-you-can-eat smorgasbords have been popular in the States since they debuted in Las Vegas casinos in the late 1940s. Their pan-Asian cousins are now proliferating rapidly. Eugene Muscat, who runs the University of San Francisco's Family Business Center, attributes their popularity to a number of trends. Number one: People are time-bankrupt. "The Asian buffet lends itself to busy people because you don't need reservations, you pick what you want, and you can be in and out in no time at all." Trend number two, Muscat says, is that Asian buffets offer "three or four nexuses of what people perceive to be healthy" -- most notably fresh, stir-fried vegetables and a lot of seafood.
Sunday was family night at China AA Buffet in Hayward. The parking lot resembled the lot of a minivan dealer, and we arrived behind a party of nine, who only had to wait five minutes to get seated. The room, a 1960s A-frame ringed in ski-lodge rock walls and lit by a giant, twinkly chandelier, was hopping. The tables right around us were speaking Spanish, Cantonese, Russian, Tagalog, and English, which only hinted at the demographic variety of the crowd. All-you-can-eat exerts a universal appeal.
Rather, shrimp does. There was a school of cold unpeeled shrimp in the salad bar and whole salt-and-pepper shrimp, stuffed butterflied shrimp, and breaded popcorn shrimp under the heat lamps. The four-deep line for the shrimp stir-fried with garlic and zucchini rarely dwindled, and each person who took up the spoon scooped around the veggies to get as many of the plump little buggers as she could. Replenished constantly, the garlic shrimp was probably the best dish I tried.
In fact, all the seafood, from squid to salmon, was the main draw at China Buffet AA. The baked mussels didn't attract as many fans as at New China Buffet, but the pan of crab legs emptied out twice as fast. A guy one table over had constructed a six-inch-high fort solely of crab legs and octopus. It took him ten minutes to hunt down a crab cracker, but once he returned to the table, holding it like an Olympic gold medal, he worked quickly, piling the discarded shells in the center of the table, a monument to whoever invented fishing limits.
The selection at the two buffets was remarkably similar. Same stir-fries, pepperoni pizza, and Portuguese doughnuts. Same salad-bar fixings. Same soups. China Buffet AA does offer fewer kinds of dim sum, a bigger Mongolian BBQ setup, and a fresher sushi station, with a sushi maker and raw fish that still glistens, but the quality didn't differ. With the exception of a few dishes, such as the egg-drop soup, the cold and the stir-fried shrimp, and the green beans, its food aimed for mediocre and often came up short.
For me, both meals ended with the same inexplicable but mild stomachache I used to get from my college dining hall. But at $11.75 a person -- for all the seafood you can eat, mind you -- this and a host of other Asian buffets cost as much as a family dinner at KFC, with twenty times more fruits and vegetables and eight kinds of ice cream.
On the way out my friend and I passed the leader of a large family telling the host that her son was five (kids five and under pay $1 less than six-to-eight-year-olds). "But I'm seven," the boy yelled, ignoring the kindercidal stare the matriarch beamed at his fragile skull. "I'm SEVEN!" We laughed all the way to the car.