My penchant for Americanized Chinese food—orange/sesame chicken, egg rolls, and the like—is no unpublished secret on this site. Though I tend to eat more regionally these days, I'll always return to my saucy first love, at least every once in a while. But all the cornstarch-thickened dishes spooned over rice I've eaten in Chicago have merely been a warm up to the yet untackled culinary bastion of my youth: the Chinese buffet.
I can't comment on how ubiquitous an experience the Chinese buffet is for most people (although it looks as though at least one other Serious Eater has somewhat fond memories), but I can say that back home, the only other semi-reliable source of this strange, enticing food from the East was the mall food court. Which explains my sometimes cravings for Panda Express, too.
Fast forward to present day Chicago, and Chinese buffet pickings are slim. I could only turn up three on Yelp, all curiously located on the northwest side of town. The aptly named China Buffet gets the highest rating, so on a snowy Saturday, I made the slow drive up Pulaski to check it out.
Inside, the mirrored walls can't hide the fact that the room itself is tiny. Communal tables and booths radiate from around a single steam table, and patrons are expected to pay first and sit with strangers. No matter; $4.95 is a literal small price to pay for such slights.
Eating at a buffet is all about managing competing impulses: you don't want to wreck yourself right out of the gate, so pacing is a must. On the other hand, how do you know what you like unless you try it all? You try it all, of course, albeit in small amounts.
The first round is about getting the lay of the land: a little of this, a taste of that, I can't hardly pass up this, and the like. Pile it on without shame; no one comes to the buffet to judge, as the well mounded plates (most topped with garlic bread, of course!) circulating the room can attest. Regardless of what the sign says, "waste not, want not" isn't exactly the point of a buffet.
Not much of this plate will make it past round one: the noodles are gummy, the sweet and sour chicken is pasty, the chicken on a stick tastes like lazy tandoori, and the bubble-skinned egg roll is all watery cabbage. Clearly a strategy is in order here.
Watch the swinging kitchen door, or at least perk up your ears. Look up at the slightest creak and follow the man with the steaming bowls of food. More often than not, hot food is good food, and as with all buffets, this is the key to success.
The stars aligned for round two. Honey Chicken and Hot and Sour Spiced Chicken (I've never heard of this dish before, either), the two best bets from round one, arrived fresh just as the fried rice was being replenished. Fortified with a few packets of soy and a drizzle of sriracha, this plate was everything I could've hoped for: crunchy, saucy-sweet chicken, lightly charred veggies, and peas that still popped.
I wasn't hungry for round three, but I went back up anyway for a small pile of those noodles and a little more fried rice, this time topped with a surprise ladleful of chili oil found at the dessert end of the table. I should've left on a high note—the now oily noodles were still gummy and more than a little cold—but rest assured: I definitely got my money's worth.