Sunday, November 10, 2013

Chinese buffet, American institution

Posted By on Sun, Nov 10, 2013 at 4:16 PM

Around here, "let's get Chinese" means one of two things: take out or buffet. The results in both cases bear only a passing resemblance to authentic Chinese cuisine — especially given the scope of regional variations that come with a country of billions that covers a pretty wide swath of planet Earth. The buffet, though — now that's as American as baseball and apple pie, a phenomenon built from gluttony and a need for cheap eats that comes together in an unholy marriage built on stack after stack of fresh plates at the end of steam tables keeping pans of crab rangoon, lo mein, and pepper shrimp warm and ready. It's a glorious and terrible thing, suiting an American palate that's fond of fried food, lots of protein, and soft-serve ice cream for dessert.

Not all buffets are created equal, though, and for my money, the best Chinese buffet in Central Arkansas is one called Buffet City in Benton. Little Rock fans of Tokyo House sushi buffet may be interested to know that Buffet City is where it all started. Hot food, hibachi, and fresh sushi, all for around ten bucks, and of course it's all you can eat.

I came across Buffet City when my wife and I first moved to Central Arkansas. In those days, we didn't live the high-class food writer lifestyle we do today, and the occasional foray out to eat meant getting the best bang for our buck. The buffet was an easy way for us to pick and choose our favorite things to eat — for me it was the always-fresh sushi and something called "tiny, spicy chicken"; for my wife it was beef and broccoli and lo mein. We still travel down to Saline County from time to time just for nostalgia's sake — and because there's no Chinese buffet in Little Rock that we find superior.

Of course, nobody goes to a buffet expecting fine dining, and there are certainly better Chinese places around. But for an all-you-can eat place, Buffet City does quite well. Folks wanting fresh cooked food can choose from beef, chicken, seafood, or vegetables and have them grilled hibachi style right before your eyes. Slip the sushi guy a few bucks for a tip and you're likely to get asked what it is you like — and then get the lion's share served right up fresh. And while the buffet has kid-friendly stuff like pizza and chicken nuggets, there is also a good selection of steamed and stir-fried vegetables, several kinds of shrimp, and some surprisingly delicious things like frog legs with hot peppers and steamed clams in a savory broth. It's fast and cheap, but it's also pretty good.

Buffet City is located at 1528 Military Road in Benton, and they're open daily for lunch and dinner. Weekend nights and Sunday lunch are the best times to go, as the restaurant really ups its game in terms of variety. Service is always good, and the place really is a cut above other restaurants of its type.

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