By Cafe Society
By Kristin Pazulski
By Chris Utterback
By Cafe Society
By Jamie Swinnerton
By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
I believe that life, in all its brutish, stupid grandeur, is the ultimate extreme sport. Forget mountain biking, snowboarding and base jumping. You just haven't lived until you've Indian leg-wrestled a hungry Russian grandmother over the last fistful of peel-and-eat shrimp bobbing in the melted ice at a Chinese buffet, and you don't know shit about looking death in the eye if you haven't stood, quivering, before a stained hotel pan stacked with lukewarm clams casino made with greenlip mussels and blobby, orange cheez product, thought to yourself, "Aww, what the hell," and then shot one of those bastards down quicker than you can spell botulinum toxin. I'm the man who'll try anything twice, and although I've never jumped out of a perfectly good airplane or stood on top of a fourteener as master of all I survey, I don't think I've missed much.
On a recent Saturday, I was primed for a challenge: a big, honkin' buffet, where no one was going to bother me with the night's specials and I could just dig in, elbow deep, eating a little bit of everything and then eating lots more of some of it. And conveniently enough, L.D. Buffetwas right around the proverbial corner. This all-you-can-eat Chinese joint has been open about a year, having moved into the space formerly occupied by some tumble-down Mexican roadhouse grill at the entrance to my favorite restaurant 'hood. And yet I'd never eaten there, because I'm not, under normal circumstances, a buffet kinda guy. I've worked buffet lines and run buffet kitchens, so I had no misconceptions about what I was getting myself into, no expectations of fine dining or anything of the sort. But while driving by, I'd noticed that the place was packed to the gills on many occasions -- parking lot full, people waiting hungrily by the front doors looking ready to chew the paint off the gilded dragons and imperial red trim. And since I'd never seen an ambulance pulled up in front, I felt confident of the kitchen's ability to work fast, work clean and not poison any of its customers.
At least, not with so much frequency that you'd notice.
Because let's face it: Buffets can be scary places when it comes to bacterial control. Put that many people and that much food together in one room, and without some incredibly rigid safety precautions, you've got yourself a real germ circus. Sneeze guards weren't invented for fun, you know.
As I walked through the doors at L.D. Buffet, I was instantly reminded of the prime -- perhaps the only -- rule of successful buffet management: volume. The draw of buffet dining is the opportunity -- nay, the challenge -- of attempting to consume your entire body weight in mediocre food, and the thrill of knowing that however much you eat, there will always be more. More in gloriously overspilling abundance, more in such a variety that no matter your taste, no matter what fleeting urge strikes you, something hiding in those acres of steam tables will scratch the itch.
And even above and beyond this excess, a buffet must offer one item that's seen by the crowds as a luxury item and offer it in unending plenty. At many of the nicer hotel buffets, it will be prime rib -- huge, steaming whacks of bloody-rare beef mounted proudly under the heat lamp with some snot-nosed dolt in an ill-fitting chef's coat and paper toque carving as much as you want. I worked a catering job once where it was caviar, mountains of it spilling out of carved ice bowls. People literally swooned when they saw it -- eyes wide, mouths hanging open -- and what I wanted to tell them was that we got the stuff by the five-gallon bucket, and if they wanted to cure themselves forever of their caviar addiction, they should get a whiff of one of those buckets at the end of a long party. The smell of rotting luxury is indescribable.
At L.D. Buffet, the thing is crab legs: "#1 Alaskan snow crab," according to the menu, and presented steamed, baked, fried, whole on the hip and mounted on ice. This is fantasy fulfillment for crab-loving buffet diners, because no matter how much they eat, no matter how high they stack their plates, there is always more.
Sitting in the tawdry dining room -- a cavernous warren of interconnected seating areas radiating outward from the pulsing, supernova heart of the buffet zone and decorated in such a way that the space seems suspended halfway between the steerage-class dining room on a hellish gay cruise and the most affluent high school cafeteria in Tokyo -- I watched a man who looked like a dead ringer for Yakov Smirnoff's older, fatter brother toddle back to his table bearing two dinner plates with crab legs piled like Tinkertoy towers. Eschewing the shell cracker and even the simple dignity of a fork, he went at the crab with his bare hands, snapping the shells like twigs, picking out chunks of meat with his fingers.
This display reminded me of another draw of the buffet: no rules. In this environment, you are free to indulge in your basest, most animalistic urges. The buffet is like an underground sex club for indiscriminate eaters. There are no taboos, and no one (except me, of course) will judge you, no matter the depths of your perversion.