Nowadays, mounds of food rise and fall on plates like graphs of the stock market. The affluent ’80s gave us the two-beans-and-a-lettuce-leaf austerity of nouvelle cuisine. After we tired of our expensive enforced diet, pre-millennium madness saw plates heaped with massive cudgels of chops, mountains of flavor-infused mashed potatoes, and lamb shanks the size of a linebacker’s thigh. Hunger proclaimed, we’ve been seduced again by the buffet. Where once this meant cruise lines, resort luncheons, or Florida early-bird dinners complete with ladies bearing plastic-lined pocketbooks, in the ’00s, ethnic restaurants are entering the all-you-can-eat sweepstakes with variations on the pile-the-plates-high theme.
Trawling Kissena Boulevard for a new spot, the QC lunch bunch and I noticed the bunting that signals a change of management. “Eastern Buffet,” the new sign read—”Lunch $7.99, children $4.99.” We entered what had formerly been a cavernous dim sum emporium. Chopsticks and forks were clicking on plates; diners slurped and chattered away in the companionable cacophony of dining’s commensal tradition. The room was full, so we, the only non-Asians present, were guided to an overflow space that soon began to fill up as well. Pan-Asian cuisine was the theme, and the three two-sided service bays offered samples from Japan, China, and Korea. Grandparents parked strollers next to round tables seating 10, colleagues held business meetings and birthday parties, and couples stole minutes from work at the scattered two-tops.
My friends and I, never known to be shy, found the stack of plates and headed into the fray. Orville took the traditional course route and selected a warming miso soup dotted with cubes of tofu and several pieces of California roll, while Eulas simply piled his plate high with cracked crab pieces, a mess of heads-on shrimp, some steamed mussels, and a beef short rib or two. Phyllis pointed out that we’d missed the fried rice section, and I discovered the sesame chicken and garlic string beans. We ate heartily, but served ourselves judiciously, respecting the sign that enjoined us not to waste food, but rather to enjoy as much as we wanted and return as many times as we wished. Return we did. I needed a nibble of the short ribs, tender and slightly sweet, and my moist sesame chicken also garnered some takers. We all discovered the salad bar and were almost too full to indulge in the dessert section, which consisted of glistening cubes of multihued Jell-O, orange segments, slices of watermelon and cantaloupe, a wall of almond cookies, and other confections. I didn’t need a fortune cookie to know that we’d be back soon.
The buffet had changed slightly second visit. A fiery hot-and-sour soup appeared, and a so-so fishball soup replaced the abalone porridge we’d all passed on. A pickle sushi roll was available along with the California roll, and the dim sum included a steamed shrimp bun. The toothsome sesame chicken remained, as did enough standbys to ensure continuity. We left convinced that this was a perfect spot for those in search of fast, inexpensive food that is not only good and plentiful, but also plenty good.