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A History of The Last Time I Ate at a Chinese Buffet
H.D. Miller comment 17 Comments access_time 9 min read

For the past few weeks I’ve been doing an intermittent fasting-style diet, in which I don’t eat from roughly six in the evening until two in the afternoon the next day. The idea being that if I abstain from food for twenty or more hours at a stretch, my ravenous blubber will consume itself in a fit of “autophagy”, a term that seems both clinical and lurid at the same time.

Don’t ask me. I majored in English.

On the plus side, for me this regime is mostly doable. I’ve found that after the morning pot of French press I have little problem coasting on the fumes until mid afternoon. Breakfasts are now a mere pleasant memory of lost love, a vague nostalgic longing for sausage and grits.

On the downside, when mid-afternoon arrives and the eating lamp is lit, persons of delicate sensibility and the easily frightened — small children, vegans and Unitarian ministers — should back slowly out of the room. I have half-jokingly (only half) referred to this as the “zoo animal diet”, one large ursine feeding a day which unsqueamish visitors may find of scientific interest.

Last year, I lost nearly fifty pounds this way, with a giant meal, once a day for four-and-half months, until late November when the whole thing foundered on the turkey-flavored shoals of Thanksgiving. And a month later, when the holidays ended, I wallowed into the New Year ten pounds heavier.

After that, in January, I flew off to Chile for the semester, where I ate and drank what I wanted and walked six miles a day, and didn’t gain or lose a single pound more.

Now, however, I’m back in America, land of the drive-through cheesecake and the Barcolounger scooter, and I’m back on my fat-boy, polar bear, feeding schedule.

The real secret to making this system work is that I can eat anything I want during my feeding time, and so I don’t feel deprived because I’ve missed out on deep-fried butter on a stick and a jumbo stein of doppelbock. Those things are never more than twenty hours away.

Hollenbeck Burrito
The Hollenbeck Burrito at Manuel’s El Tepeyac Cafe.
A four-pound monument to gluttony.

“A carnitas burrito the size of a Yule log? You’ve earned it, Homes. 20 hours and 17 minutes is almost a new record. Have two.“

Generally it’s hard for me to cram in much more than 3,000 calories during my Dionysian mini-festival, a fact I attribute to sloth and latent shame. Luckily, given the amount I weigh, 3,000 calories a day filtered through my metabolism means that I should I lose a pound or two a week. And at that rate, I should be svelte enough for Hedi Slimane pants about the time the moon crashes into the earth, extinguishing all life on the planet.

Fat Lagerfeld versus Thin Lagerfeld
Wanting to wear Hedi Slimane, Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld lost 90 pounds on a regime of blueberries, protein shakes, incessant Diet Cokes and horse meat.

In any event, this past week, in celebration of 20 hours of food-sobriety, I did something I rarely do, and took myself off to a Chinese buffet, an experience by turns exhilarating, disappointing, disgusting and shameful.

Challenge accepted.

As a food snob I’m a failure.

For me, as for Stalin, quantity has a quality all its own, which is to say that occasionally (more often than not, according to my wife) I prefer heaps of greasy peasant food to a single perfect molecule of eau d’potato swaddled in an insouciant Tuscan fig foam with an amuse-bouche of sous vide lamb’s tongue delicately balanced on deconstructed kohlrabi crostini…

When presented with such descriptions of fancy food, my first response is often,  “give it a rest, Ferran-You-Ain’t”.

If I ever catch Nathan Myrhvold out in public,
I am so giving that nerd an atomic wedgie.

To come through the front door of the average strip mall Chinese buffet is to enter a world of wonder and promise, from the golden plastic Buddha to the plastic, red-dragon-spangled decor, the exotic orient beckons the unwary.

The average strip mall Chinese buffet is unlikely to be so luxuriously decorated.

Such were the thoughts that occupied my mind as I slid through the entrance of the Hibachi Golden Grand Asian Buffet, a fantasy land of fried food from ingredients of unknown provenance. None of that “farm-to-table” blather at this establishment, just stingy bits of dodgy meat battered in something-or-other, fried in an oleaginous substance possibly derived from nature, and smothered in an orange sucrose sauce compiled in a factory in Guangzhou and shipped to America in a waxed cardboard tube hidden inside a crate of iPhones.

In other words, molecular gastronomy for the common man.

Hibachi Asian Buffet: cowboy hats and big bellies are de rigueur.

Inside, I was greeted and seated at table distant from the food. I was not the fattest man in the restaurant, that title belonging to a 400 pounder in a pair of too-tight Dockers and blue polo shirt.

“Thank goodness,” I thought, “the pressure is off,” and then, aloud to the waitress, “I’ll have a Diet Coke, please.”

I have vowed to not “drink my calories,” exceptions made for an evening glass of red or anything dispensed from a keg with a wooden spigot.

As the waitress went off to retrieve my drink, I stood up, aimed myself at the buffet, and….


It’s easy, especially if you’re somewhat tallish and large-bodied, as I am, to imagine yourself as Godzilla, grabbing up random things — egg rolls, fishing boats, pork dumplings, Tokyo office towers — and snapping them with your jaws, the crumbs of buildings and chicken parts falling onto the dun-colored carpet below.

Godzilla Eating Lunch
I love these things! They’re all crunchy on the outside, but there are these savory little meaty bits inside.

This is why I try to restrain myself: no eating while standing, no more than two full plates carried back at once on the first pass. I have a strategy and rules for dealing with an Asian buffet, one that naturally differs from my strategy and rules for dealing with, say, a Thanksgiving buffet, or a dessert buffet. At the Chinese buffet, I go for the appetizers first, egg rolls, pot stickers, crab rangoons. Although, also like most gluttons and Godzillas, I’m easily diverted from that plan, picking up things I shouldn’t simply because they’ve caught my attention.

For example, I’m distracted by the recent addition of sushi to the Chinese buffet repertoire. I like good sushi very much, almost as much as I dislike bad sushi, and invariably, in a triumph of hope over expectations, I now grab a few pieces of Chinese buffet sushi on that first trip.

This always ends in tears.

One would think that a decent California roll could be produced by anyone, its ingredients — rice, nori, sliced avocado and crab-stick — being standardized and universally available.  Unfortunately this is not the case at most places, and certainly not the case at Hibachi, where the few pieces of sushi I tasted were soggy and stale and poorly made.

Sushi in a Chines buffet
Sushi in a Chinese buffet. Jiro does not dream of this.

And that brings me to the ultimate and obvious point, most of the food is crap.

It’s not just the sushi that’s unpalatable, it’s almost everything. The sweet dishes are sweet beyond tolerance and the things that should be spicy are not.  Gloopy, sticky, sweet and soggy. Almost nothing satisfies, or pleases, or makes me think I’d enjoy another helping.  

I’ve eaten good Chinese food, at noodle joints and dim sum palaces in Monterey Park, San Francisco and New York City; places where the chefs are straight off the plane from China; places, where the food makes you want to go back and eat the same thing again every day for a month.

This have never happened to me at a Chinese buffet.  Worse that that, eating at a Chinese buffet often puts me off eating for a few days, makes me believe I have better things to do with my time than think about what’s for dinner.

It’s a matter of expectations dashed.  One enters the buffet in a state of heightened anticipation. We’re expecting a feast, a celebration. Gluttony means fun! We overeat at Thanksgiving and Christmas with family and friends and laughter and love. Or, in a good restaurant, we order more than we can eat and drink, because the food and fellowship satisfy us, and the luxury of the meal and our full bellies are proof that we have briefly lived well.

But, because so much of what is served at a Chinese buffet is of such poor quality, and because I am tempted to overeat so terribly to mask my disappointment, the ultimate effect is regret and sadness and shame.

The worst part is that I know this will happen even before I go into the Chinese buffet. But apparently I have to be reminded of this about once a year.

  1. Being a natural glutton I had to go low-carb. You don’t get to eat whatever you want but you get to eat as much as you want and what you eat is filling and satisfying. Meanwhile you lose weight and all your “numbers” improve. Every once in a while I eat a whole pizza and drink way too much beer…and that’s o.k. as long as my weight stays down.

    1. I’ve tried the low-carb, paleo thing, and liked it for a month or two. It always fell apart because I was missing something too much to give it up, usually sugar. I have a terrible sweet tooth.

  2. This story rang so true. Especially the last paragraph. That need to be reminded of just how bad a certain food establishment is, is how I used to feel about White Castle. Once a year I would go there knowing that I would be totally unsatisfied but still I was compelled to try it one more time. The last time was maybe 7 years ago. Since then I have not eaten ANY fast food. After 50 years finally I learned my lesson.

  3. Please diet at any casino in Macau. It will pleasantly overturn the very American conception of a Chinese buffet.

  4. I always have a similar experience with fried foods. I rarely eat them, and when I do, I look forward to the event with much anticipation. In the end, it never tastes as good as I think it should, and I’m ultimately disappointed… until I forget about the experience and find myself looking forward to yet another meal that will remind me that fried food is not worth the time, effort, mess or calories. Sigh…

  5. I actually once had good food at a Chinese buffet off Rte 95 in North Carolina. I was surprised. I also have never been able to find the place again despite five or six attempts. I do remember it was across the street from a McDonald’s.

  6. You have to tell me why this fasting thing is a good idea. I’ve never seen evidence of it.

    Also: I share your perverse love of the Chinese buffet (talk about food gone wrong!), but lawdy lawd, the German version of it is even worse. It also features the horror movie version of sushi.

  7. I’ve found a few decent Chinese buffets, but invariably the quality declines the longer they are open. My rule of thumb is to avoid them, but if you must eat at one try to pick one that’s been open less than 6 months.

  8. Most Chinese buffets are good, in my experience, although occasionally you run into one that has some poor dishes or where it’s a good idea to wait until the new stuff comes out. I love it when you get the little steamed buns with red bean or mooncake filling, or where they decorate them to look like peaches. Yum!

  9. The Chinese buffet experience of which you so wittily chronicle: anticipatory disappointment and dashed expectations is a synecdoche for Las Vegas. Or Disneyland.

  10. I love sushi, but I have a rule. It must be made by someone from Japan, whose national origin is verified by a photo of a distant relative committing seppuku, and I see it made in front of me. The words “chinese,” “buffet” and “sushi” most definitely do not go together.

  11. I am voracious but very petite. So. The diet does not apply.

    My nemeses are the all-you-can-eat smörgåsbord with the greasy fried chicken and paste-like mashed potatoes with gluey gravy (disappointing) and the Lido deck buffet on Holland America cruise ships (which is actually pretty okay). With the “Carnivalization” of the Holland America fleet, the cuisine is slipping. Not as many choices, no caviar appetizers, no “Dutch Night” in the dining room, no Baked Alaska at the farewell supper and – worst of all – no Chocolate Extravaganza at one of the midnight buffets. Yes. A whole buffet of chocolate. Beyond hedonistic. Complete with chocolate fountains and chocolate sculptures although I tend to specialize in chocolate buttercream frosting.

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