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After my visit to Forbidden City (see review), I headed to the other side of Aurora's Asian/Russian triangle to try a place that occasionally creeps up in conversations with the buffet faithful: Mr. Panda Super Buffet, at 2852 South Havana Street. (There's a second, newer location at 9595 East Arapahoe Avenue in Greenwood Village, but I never hear anyone talking about that one.) No question, this joint has the best name of any of the local Asian buffets, as well as the best logo: a creepy, grinning, big-eyed panda with a knife and fork in his hands that I would get as a tattoo if not for the fact that I'd find such a thing difficult to explain to my kids one day.
2852 S. Havana St.
Aurora, CO 80014
Unlike Forbidden City, Mr. Panda is spotlessly clean, bright and cohesively decorated. Everything on the multiple buffet tables -- which hold over a hundred items -- is piping hot and refreshed with a frequency that's machine-like and efficient and comforting. The shrimp are held on ice, the ice cream and yogurt machines gleaming like the chrome on a muscle car.
Then again, Mr. Panda is also dry as a Mormon wedding and about as exciting as a flat roller coaster. There's nothing on the rotating board of fare that's surprising or exciting or has the potential to kill you. The wok-fried rice is admirably fresh, if a little bland. The breaded chicken is tender, cut into generously huge slices and actually tastes like chicken. The teriyaki beef is sweet and tender, as it should be, and slathered in teriyaki sauce that's sugary-smoky, thick and glossy, exactly as it should be. But the sauce on the chicken with broccoli tastes like water thickened with cornstarch. The spare ribs are huge, glazed in a honey-sweet sauce and look great, but the meat is so soft, so textureless, that the bone slides out clean. The egg rolls, spring rolls and vegetarian rolls are perfectly serviceable, but not memorable. The golden buns don't begin to approach the level of suicidally-bad-for-you greatness of those at Forbidden City.
And there's no real reason to stalk the regulars -- those truly committed buffet aficionados -- because everyone here has come for one thing only: snow crab, the cheaper, less popular, ugly cousin of king crab. On a good night, Mr. Panda staffers carry out hotel pans full of legs and claws every ten minutes, place them in their spot on the hot table, watch them empty, then crank up the rack steamers and do it all over again. And again. And again.
You know why we don't eat otters in this country? Because otters are cute. Snow crabs, on the other hand, are hideous, ugly, nasty, mean and brutish critters, armored from lips to asshole, covered in stiff hair and wicked spikes and a paint job like an unsightly rock suddenly come to life. They look like something out of Jules Verne, something that Gigerwould've kept as a pet. Of all the fucked-up-looking creatures of the deep, the snow crab is among the fucked-uppest, and even dead and disassembled for consumption, the bastard can tear you up if you're not careful how you handle it. These things are monsters. Unlike otters, they probably deserve to be killed and eaten just to make the oceans better-looking.
Also, otter probably tastes like shit. Snow crab, on the other hand, is delicious.
Which is why Mr. Panda is so friggin' popular that the house fills on Monday night, Tuesday night -- any night, really -- and why it's worth ten bucks to me to ignore everything else on the buffet tables (except the ice cream) and eat nothing but the big-ticket uglies as fast as I possibly can.
To its credit, Mr. Panda understands this compulsion. Mr. Panda is so understanding, in fact, that it foils any temptation to eat the place empty of crab legs every night -- in gloating vengeance for every poor sucker who's ever been ripped off by some seafood restaurant that charges twenty or thirty bucks for a pound of spindly king crab legs, or $19.99 for a half-dozen shrimp in a cheapjack scampi sauce -- by simply offering more crab than any single human could possibly consume in a single sitting. It's amazing, really, this overwhelming generosity, this all-you-can-eat abundance. And Mr. Panda's psych-out tactics be damned: If I were a really fat man (rather than the scrawny Irish peckerwood I am), I'd eat crab until the staff made me stop, until they slung a tow chain around my ankles and dragged me out of the place behind a tractor.
Mex and match:The former Papillon/Indigo/ Go Fish Grille space didn't stay vacant for long. Chris "Cactus" Douglas -- a former artist, former helicopter pilot and relative food-world short-timer, with only a half-dozen years in the business -- will open Tulathere next month with his wife, Kerri(a veteran of the Kevin Taylor empire, like her husband). While she handles the front of the house, Chris will see to the back.
"All my training is in fine dining," he says over the phone, while standing in the gutted room at 250 Josephine Street. "I love the fine-dining thing, the gelees and foams -- even though foams are kind of over right now -- and the foie gras with peanut butter and root beer, you know? But, look, I'm a pretty young chef. I understand that. And I didn't think it was right to open that kind of place for my first restaurant. I don't know if people would've been willing to accept that."
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