Exploring a new (to me) Chinese Buffet
I hadn't had Chinese food for a while, and sometimes I like to stop in at a Chinese buffet. I was over in the West Chester, Ohio area and spotted the East Meets West Buffet and Grill in a strip mall near the Home Depot. I decided to give it a try.
I arrived at around 7PM. It was the middle of the week. I figured this would be a good time to go. Dinnertime, but not when they're likely to be totally slammed.
The place certainly had the standard "Chinese buffet" decor. A large bank of buffet steam tables lay in the center of the room with lots of very attractive-looking specimens. I ordered my drink (water) and asked for some chopsticks. I then headed up to the bar.
Plate 1: The Hot Table
Next to that, was an old stand-by. General Tso's Chicken. When done well, this dish will have some spice to it. After all, it's supposed to be a dish from the Szechuan region, which is known for its picante bite.
Cruising around the bar, I next encountered some pot stickers. These are rarely spicy, but often a pretty tasty thing to dip in the soy-ginger sauce that's always offered with them.
I returned to the table. My glass of water was there, but there were no chopsticks. I'm Caucasian. I don't look Asian in the least. So, I imagine that the waiter thought I was only kidding when I asked for chopsticks. Of course, there was no waiter to be found. Luckily, I spotted the container of chopsticks on the waiter station and fetched a set on my own.
I tried the shrimp. It had pretty good flavor.....except that it was barely even warm. Had this stuff been fresh, I would have really liked it a lot. However, it's seafood, and lukewarm seafood is an invitation for another "Lesson in Microbiology." So, I set it aside and moved on.
The General Tso's Chicken was sweet, but the heat was only barely perceptible. I didn't hold this against them, since most Americans don't like hot stuff, so the cooks deliberately tone it down. However, this stuff was only slightly warmer than the shrimp. It was fully cooked, and warm enough to eat (and I was really hungry) so I ate it.
Next on the plate was the pot stickers. I picked one up, dipped it in the sauce and popped it into my mouth. My first impression was that they had done a good job with the soy-ginger sauce. It was flavorful, but not too overpowering. It actually seemed like it was hot! So, I proceeded to sink my teeth into the pot sticker.
WTF? Pot stickers are supposed to be firm, and browned on the bottom, but they are never supposed to be crunchy! I tried to chew up the crunchy part, but it had simply sat out for too long and gotten too hard. It was like trying to eat dried pasta. I spat the damn thing out.
Plate 2: Hibachi
I chose lo mein noodles, shrimp, snow peas and bean sprouts along with their "house special sauce."
While speaking chinese with another employee, he stirred my food on the grill. No flair. No show. Granted, this is no Benihana, but I'd expect at least a smile. I didn't leave a tip in the jar. Once he shoveled my food onto the plate, I returned to the table.
My reaction was "Meh." The shrimp? Overcooked. This is a very common problem with a hibachi station. It's very easy to overcook shrimp. Even when my wife and I try to stop them and tell them that it's done, they usually look at us like we're nuts and just keep on cooking the bejesus out of it. I ate it anyway because it was actually hot and I was hungry.
Plate 3: Sushi
I could not detect the sweetened rice vinegar. This is one of the primary flavors I look for in sushi rice. I like the sweet acidity. I enjoy their juxtaposition. I've always liked the entire sweet/sour spectrum, and I was disappointed. Even the wasabi was somewhat weak. At least it made the rest of the items edible.
Bowls 4 and 5: The Soups
I was impressed by the large number of soups they had. The selections included the "Chinese Buffet" stand by items of hot/sour, egg-drop, and wanton. There were two others that aren't common. Miso and Red Bean.
I probed the hot-sour soup. It's often one of my favorites, because it is also in the sweet/sour spectrum that I enjoy. However, this soup was over-thickened with corn starch, and didn't have many really authentic Chinese ingredients like cloud ear mushroom (to date, the only mushroom I will eat) and the little straw mushrooms. Instead, it had the usual bamboo slivers, baby corn and canned sliced mushrooms. I decided to pass.
The wantons were in a separate steam table and they looked as crunchy as the pot stickers. I left it alone, too. Like the hot/sour soup, the egg drop was also thickened far too much with corn starch. I couldn't eat it, either.
So, that left me with two choices. Miso soup and Red Bean Soup. I decided to try both.
Plate 6: Dim Sum
Unfortunately, none of these items were particularly hot. They were warm enough to eat, so I dove in.
While the wrapper was a bit tough, the siu-mai was decent. It certainly wasn't made in-house. None of the dim sum was. Because of this, it wasn't terribly special -- just like all the other dim sum I've tried, except that these had been left to sit out too long.
The pork dumpling was also not really all that much to write about. there was a little bit of illegal crunchiness on the scalloped edge from having been out too long, but the flavor was just the same as any other pork dumpling. Boooorrrring.
I moved on to the shrimp dumpling. It was going really well until I got to the part where it was gathered. It was impossible to chew. Since this wrapper is made from rice starch, it doesn't try out like the noodle wrappers you see on siu-mai and pot stickers. It got really gummy. I just couldn't chew that part. The rest of it actually tasted pretty good, though.
I then sampled the shrimp and asparagus dumpling. It was hot. The texture of the wrapper was perfect. The flavor was shrimp-y and asparagus-y. I actually enjoyed this item quite a bit. I hadn't had this particular type of dim sum before, so it was a welcome change in flavor. Since I have nothing to compare it to, I can honestly say that it was the best example of one of these that I've ever had.
I saved the BBQ pork bun for last. This particular dim sum item has got to be my A #1 favorite of all dim sum. I sometimes even make them at home. This specimen exhibited the very common "exploded" look that comes from the cooks taking frozen bao and microwaving them to get them hot. The best way to deal with these when they are frozen is to allow them to thaw completely, and then gently steam them until they are at temperature.
Preparing them incorrectly doesn't affect their flavor, but it does affect texture. When done right, these things are so incredibly yummy that I can't help but eat 3-4 of them. This one tasted fine, although it wasn't as hot as I would have liked.
OK, Where's the "West?"
The place is called "East Meets West." When I went in there, I expected it to be different than your average "Chinese Buffet." It wasn't. The "west" part was 2/3 of one hot bar that had your usual "found at the Chinese Buffet" American fare. Pizza, mac-n-cheese, a roast beef, potatoes, etc. When I envisioned this place, I kinda thought I could get a steak cooked on the hibachi, or maybe even a freshly made cheeseburger.
I won't be returning to this place. First, had I been a health inspector, they would have been written up for low temperatures on at least 5-10 items on the bar. The waiter did not bring the chopsticks, the bland hibachi attendant and the overall crappy food means that I won't be wasting my money here in the future.
Maybe I just caught them at a bad time. But restaurants have to always be on their A-Game, just in case some blogger like me shows up with an appetite, a discerning palate and a camera.