Monday night marked the end of an unrelenting year-long quest for me: I ate at a Chinese buffet in New York City. Well, technically it was in Queens, because no actual buffets exist in Manhattan. Even so, most everyone I've asked since I moved here has sworn that they've seen one, but of course can never quite recall where it is. I've learned that the odds of seeing a Chinese buffet in the city are just above those of spotting the Abominable Snowman.
Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a lover of food, but particularly Chinese buffets. As a quantity-over-quality guy, I can't help but not get excited about the vast array and endless amount of Chinese food you can get for under 10 bucks. So what if it's not P.F. Changs? The sheer selection alone is something to celebrate.
Having been away for a year, merely standing inside the Chinese buffet was exhilarating. "Is this heaven?" I half-joked to myself upon surveying the glorious smorgasbord of a scene. After such a long wait, it sure seemed like it.
But once the initial excitement wore off after my third or fourth plate, I looked around objectively and finally began to understand why many people aren't fans of Chinese buffets. You can take issue with the number of overcooked, dried out, overly greasy, and high-sodium dishes that were put out two hours earlier. Or the damp funk of the bathrooms and the old stains on the worn-down carpet. Not to mention the semi-permanent odor that clings to your clothing and still reeks of buffet until the next morning. I dunno—I might argue that that's a good thing.
But those universal qualities aside, the New Grand Buffet had a few of its own funnies. For one, the numerous signs around the facility. Most warned parents to rein in their kids ("Please no letting children running", "For your children's safety, please accompany with them while taking food"). But there was one near the sink in the bathroom that read "Wash hands at own risk." I found that funny for some reason. Well, maybe I shouldn't wash my hands.
And then there were the employees. Upon putting water on the table, my waiter, apparently sensing that I was in it for the long haul, prompted me for a big tip later. If that wasn't enough, he made sure to shamelessly remind me every other visit to the table. "Here you go, my friend. You leave me good tip?" Question: What about me made him think that I would lowball him—or worse—dine and ditch? I'm not sure I'll ever know.
Besides stuffing my stomach silly and shutting the place down past 10 p.m., the highlight of the night came when the four waiters gathered to sing "Happy Birthday" to a lone Asian man enjoying his crab legs. A cheesy, exuberant rendition of the song started playing on the speakers, and I glanced to my left to see how they were doing. None were singing, just awkwardly standing in front of the stranger, half-heartedly clapping, and impatiently waiting for the extended song to finish its third chorus. One woman was looking aside with a painful "please let it be over" look, while another continually struggled to sync up her hands with the clap-clap-clap meter of the song.
But none of it really mattered, because the birthday man was happy. The best part, though? Three more people all shared the same birthday that night.
Chinese buffets: sad and beautiful all at the same time.
My fortune: "You will be free of the heavy burdens you have been carrying."