In a world of big box retailers, it was the dining out equivalent of Walmart. Oversized and underpriced, we knew the knew Chinese buffet in town would be a good deal – we just didn’t know if it would be a good value.

So one night last week, my husband and I packed up our two children and headed down the street to try the place out. To say we were doubtful was an understatement; my husband was making bets as to whether any of us would end up with food poisoning (he’s had some bad buffet experiences, to say the least). But, undeterred, we headed out anyway.

First Impressions

Whether you’re staying at a new hotel, shopping at a new store, or dining at a new restaurant, it’s true that you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. From the outside, the Chinese buffet was unimpressive. Like Walmart, it was plain and boxy. But once we stepped into the lobby, my daughter – she’s three-and-a-half – started oohing and aahing as if she’d just arrived at Walt Disney World. She was awestruck by the huge golden lamp – her words, not mine – that illuminated like a Christmas tree. (You’ll have to take my word for it; this piece of “art” is otherwise impossible to accurately describe.) She was captivated by the large fountain, and immediately began begging for change to toss in the water.

As we entered into the dining area, we were escorted to a table in the back corner – fine by me: with two children in tow, it’s easier to be seated somewhere out of the way. My daughter continued to be amazed by the faux-Chinese artwork on the walls. To my husband and I, it was a hokey theme restaurant. To my daughter, it was another world.

The Dining Options

While my daughter was wowed by the decor, my husband and I couldn’t help but notice the ten different sections of the buffet. On one end of the buffet floor was a sushi bar, with an actual sushi chef preparing ingredients. Closer inspection revealed the restaurant offered more than a dozen different sushi rolls, all prepared fresh and properly displayed on ice to keep them cool. On the opposite end of the buffet floor was a Hibachi grill with two chefs manning the station.

In between, there were eight different islands of food, including:

  • one island dedicated exclusively to appetizers, such as potstickers, crab wontons, and spring rolls
  • one island that included various types of soups and rice options
  • two islands offering every type of Chinese dish you could imagine, including (but not limited to) General Tso’s chicken, Mongolian beef, sweet & sour pork, and Kung Pao shrimp
  • one island devoted to more kid-friendly fare, including potato wedges, macaroni and cheese, and chicken tenders
  • a full-sized salad bar
  • a full-sized dessert bar
  • one island comprised of American food, such as pizza, pasta, and BBQ wings and ribs

It took my husband and I a full 15 minutes to fully inspect all the options before plotting our course and diving in. I started with wonton soup, a spring roll, and a few pieces of sushi, including a crunchy tuna roll, a California roll, and something with avocado. The soup was a little salty – but let’s be honest, when was the last time you had Chinese food that wasn’t a little high on the MSG? – but everything else was right on target. For my “main course,” I headed to the Hibachi station, where I loaded my plate with lots of fresh vegetables and a rib-eye steak. I was pleased when the chef didn’t add any soy sauce, oil or butter to my selections, instead simply using water to help steam them on the grill. The result was a light, crisp entree that didn’t overload my palette with too many competing tastes.

But Was It A Good Value?

This Chinese buffet had three tiers for children:

  • kids three and under (this included both my children, although my three-and-a-half year old packed away enough food to rival any adult): FREE
  • Kids 4-7: $2.99
  • Kids 8-12: $4.99

My daughter happily ate a spring roll, a plate full of mac & cheese, a few potstickers, and several desserts. My son chomped away on veggies from the salad bar and potato wedges (I’d brought his standard baby food from home).

Halfway through our meal, I mentioned to my husband that if we got out of there for under $40, I’d be happy. After all, I’d been able to sample a little bit of everything, including high-end extras like sushi and Hibachi. Since kids eat free, I figured the price of the adult buffet would more than make up for it.

I was pleasantly proved wrong.

Instead, each adult buffet was just $9.25. Our pre-tax bill was $18.50 (we’d all ordered water to drink, as we generally don’t drink soda). After tax and a small tip (a plus side of buffet dining), we met our dining out on a budget goal of eating for less than $25; in fact, we paid just over $21 for our family of four and were stuffed.

On the way out, my husband happily handed my daughter a few pennies to toss into the fountain. After all, our Chinese buffet adventure had come in well under-budget; we had some change to spare.

Libby Balke

Libby Balke