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There is an arc to your average buffet.
They all start out fairly good — quick service, hot food, fresh ingredients, freshly painted, clean to a fault. By around a year in, most buffets have had their spirits broken. By then, it's usually clear that the cooks and servers have come to that most American of realizations: No matter how crummy the food, no matter how skanky the bathrooms, no matter how slow the service, people are going to keep coming back as long as they can stuff their faces with a potentially unlimited amount of food for one price.
When it comes to Chinese buffets in particular, once they hit that tipping point, it's all over. From there, quality keeps sliding down until … well, Arkansas is littered with Buffets of the Damned. Pay your $8.50, take a dose of penicillin, and go try one for yourself.
Here's hoping that the new Panda Garden Chinese buffet in the Shackleford Crossing shopping center takes a long, long time to hit the tipping point. With hot, fresh, interesting Chinese dishes, nice decor, great dessert choices and — dare we say it? — really good sushi, Panda Garden raises the (tragically low) bar several clicks when it comes to Chinese buffet-dining in Central Arkansas.
Having sworn off the buffet experience for more than a year due to the downward spiral described above, we didn't have much hope going in. Though the look was spanking-new nice, the first sight of Panda Garden's steam tables didn't do a lot to bolster our confidence. For some inexplicable reason, the buffet is stuffed into an unassuming room separate from the dining area. It's good-sized buffet, however, with more than 30 hot items, a salad bar, a dessert bar and a sushi bar. Putting our reservations aside in the name of informing the public, we got a sampling of food and dove in.
To our surprise, all the dishes were among the best we've ever gotten from a place with a sneezeguard. Piping hot and spicier than most Chinese buffets do it, everything we tried was really good, especially the coconut shrimp, which was not as sickly sweet as we've had it elsewhere. Also good was the General Tso's chicken, and the beef on a stick — tender kebabs of steak, grilled with onion and bell pepper. Junior, meanwhile, liked the kiddie fare: pizza, fries, onion rings, chicken fingers and more.
Heartened by our first helping, we next cruised the sushi bar, which is situated along one wall of the buffet room. Though our experience has been that trying the sushi at your average Chinese buffet is pretty much taking your life into your own hands, the stuff at Panda Garden looked really, really good. For one thing, they've got a dedicated sushi chef, as opposed to some guy who takes a minute between frying up batches of crab Rangoon to throw together some lopsided rolls. Too, the layout was lovely, and the choices on their bar went way beyond what we've come to expect from a buffet: complicated rolls filled with avocado, shrimp, crab and cream cheese, at least six or seven different types of sashimi (that's “bait” for all you folks in Smackover and Standard Umpstead), and more. Still, looks can be deceiving, so we took some various rolls and a piece of raw tuna, said our prayers, and headed for the table.
What we got turned out to be the best dining surprise we've had in some time. The rolls were, hands down, as good or better than we've had at some of the dedicated sushi joints around town. Even the tuna, which we had originally balked at, was good: well textured, not too fishy, perfectly flavored (and, as a bonus, we're still alive at this writing, so it looks like we made the right choice). The best, however, was a fat, deep-fried roll filled with veggies and crab and brightened up both visually and in flavor with a drizzle of three spicy sauces. We didn't catch its name, but you'll know it when you taste it — a crunchy, warm delight.
For dessert, Panda Garden raises the bar again. Though they have the standard dessert stuff you'll find most anywhere — fruit, cookies, and cakes — they also have a refrigerated pie case, with wedges of pumpkin, lemon, chocolate, pecan and cheesecake. Also, against one wall is their soft-serve ice cream machine, which features a kid-pleasing twist — literally. Punch in a number from a supplied list, and the machine injects a colorful ribbon of flavor into the ice cream — strawberry, fudge, banana, orange, butterscotch or green apple.
Panda Garden seems a bit more expensive than other Chinese buffets around town — $10.50 per plate at dinner, $8.50 at lunch — but prices include a drink. Too, you've got to take into account what you're getting. We know, for instance, that had we indulged in the amount of sushi we had there at one of Little Rock's sit-down Japanese places, we would have had to take out a second mortgage to pay the check. Add to that hot, fresh Chinese offerings, kid-friendly alternatives, good desserts and a snazzy decor, and you've got a real belt-loosening treat. If, that is, you don't mind bumping elbows with the guy next to you while fixing your plate.
Shackleford Crossing Shopping Center
2604 S. Shackleford Road, Suite G
Fresh, flavorful, all-you-can-eat sushi for under $11? Did we accidentally slip into some kind of parallel universe while we weren't looking? Long story short: As sushi lovers whose wallets are never quite as deep as our appetite, you can bet that if we knew the Japanese word for “heaven,” we'd be writing it right now.
11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Saturday through Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday.
All credit cards accepted, beer and wine, moderate prices.