Adventures in Eating
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. Buffet was 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.
On a Saturday night, most of the L.D. Buffet crowd (a mob diverse by every available measure -- age, sex, weight, ethnicity, what have you -- and united solely by a cowish love of large portions and casual disregard for table manners) was following Yakov's lead, loading up heavy on the crab, ignoring almost everything else.
What they were missing was a spread that included every food I could ever want if my dream of having a Chinese delivery service open a franchise in my hall closet came true, a thousand different dishes -- and every one of them a more or less disappointing steam-table take on what's offered at every strip-mall Asian restaurant in the world. There was sesame chicken, all shining and glossy and golden in its candy-floss sauce, tough as eating a sugared Birkenstock and only slightly better-tasting. That was just one of a dozen ways the kitchen had devised for abusing chicken -- masking the cheap dark meat in a gummy sweet-and-sour sauce, mixing it with cashews so long on the heat that they had the consistency of damp Advil tablets, doing it moo shu, doing it moo goo, doing it with kung pao sauce that was probably the best chicken dish of the flock because the heat of the spices made up for the fact that the bird was lukewarm at best. The kitchen had brutalized seafood a double-dozen ways. I ate crab, of course, and a lot of it, even though it wasn't very good crab. (I'm fairly sure the meat of a steamed snow crab isn't supposed to be quite that shade of yellow.) I tried hot-and-spicy shrimp over desiccated white rice, saving some of the sauce on the edge of my plate so I could cauterize my tongue after trying the aforementioned clams (read: mussels) casino (spelled "Caino" on the little paper tag hanging above the sneeze guard). There was stringy chow mein, rice noodles as crisp as some freaky Asian breakfast cereal, and soup so salty I swear to God that deer were lining up by the back door waiting to get a lick.
I don't know that for certain, because I never saw the back of the house. But I did see the poor bastards drafted into sushi duty at the buffet's attached sushi bar, forced to dress up in some kind of native costume like they were auditioning for the road company of The Mikado, rolling sushi that, granted, was mercifully fresh, but of slightly lesser quality than what you get out of the deli case at King Soopers. And I should know: In times of absolute desperation, I'll eat the stuff at Soopers. But after just one bite of a lopsided, poorly cut ahi tuna roll from L.D.'s sushi line that somehow managed to be both dried out and spongy at the same time, even I wouldn't go back for seconds.
And L.D.'s spread didn't stop there. Besides the expected array of lukewarm round-eye delicacies; beyond the stacks of crab, the iced bowls of shrimp, the salt soup and the salt soup with tofu; beyond the sushi bar; beyond even the few traditional Chinese dishes on offer and labeled in a language I don't speak, the buffet continued on. There was a lineup of fresh fruits, a salad bar that might as well have been made out of wax for all the attention it was getting, desserts (mostly cut sheet cakes and neon-hued pastries of indescribable pedigree, but also some rather delicious almond cookies), an ice cream cooler, a dim sum bar, a barbecue section serving the most horrific Chinese ribs I have ever had the misfortune of thinking might be okay if I just tried a second one. And off to one side, a special section filled with Korean foods. I generally avoid kim chee under even the best conditions, but this stuff -- left to grow warm and mean all by itself, unrefrigerated, just allowed to fester in its own terrible misery? I had to try it. After all, I'd already eaten the clams (mussels). And that which does not kill me makes me stronger.
Surprisingly, the kim chee wasn't as bad as I'd thought it would be. That doesn't mean it was good, because kim chee is never really good, by any definition. It's a food that's made to be bad -- to be sour and bitter and spicy and nasty and gooshy all together -- but at least L.D.'s kim chee was a decent example of the norm. And here I even went back for seconds, because kim chee has well-known anti- bacterial properties. Not because it's medicinal, but because it's so nasty that germs would rather die than be too close to it.
And the kim chee must have worked, because I didn't get sick from anything I ate at L.D. Buffet. No, I got sick from how much I ate there. After stuffing myself for two hours, I went home, put on sweatpants and slept that night in the sweaty depths of an MSG coma, rolling around like a bloated killer whale on the beach, blowhole stuffed with chow mein, rising every half hour to try and scrub the fetid stink of crab juice off my fingers.
I've had bad meals before. I've been to restaurants where even the water wasn't safe to drink and it was wise to call a doctor before you ate just to prevent having to wait later (these places have mostly been in Mexico). But never before have I been to a place as truly awful, yet intriguing, as L.D. Buffet. It has virtually no redeeming characteristics -- it's not cute, not quaint, not authentic, not well-maintained, not even friendly. And yet there are those crowds, there's that color, that mélange of foods from around the globe, that cheap-dope smell of scorching steam-table pans when the water has run dry -- and the pure, unadulterated, guilty joy of being in a space where the normal rules of society no longer apply.
So I'll go back just for that floor show, to watch so many cultures bump up against each other when the fresh crab hits the ice. I'll go back and sit quietly, eat my mound of crab and rub shoulders with the Everyman, knowing now where the American appetite truly lies.
I'll go back just for sport.
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