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The Man With the Golden Bun

The bountiful buffet at Forbidden City is help-yourself heaven.
Mark Manger

If Colman Andrews can come clean over his love for the crab rangoons at Trader Vic's and Ruth Reichl can fess up to her preference for coffee and doughnuts bought on the street in front of her old office at the New York Times, there's nothing weird about my admitting that I love buffets.

I don't necessarily love them for the food -- certainly not all the food. And I don't love them for the service. Nor do I love them for their settings, since buffets generally occupy cavernous strip-mall spaces that have all the charm of Lutheran church basements and are not so much decorated as haphazardly labeled: needlepoint samplers and framed Saturday Evening Post covers at an American buffet, sombreros and crossed maracas at a Mexican one. The owners of a Chinese buffet will often hang a couple of curling dragons from the ceiling, stick a really big vase in the corner and call it a day. I once ate at a Vietnamese buffet in a former auto-parts store that was decorated with pictures of Vietnam torn out of a glossy travel magazine. They weren't framed, hadn't even been trimmed, but were just taped to the walls where Edelbrock calendars and pictures of girls fondling Holley intakes had once hung. At a lot of buffets, you can still see traces of the space's former life: the rough, industrial-grade carpeting of a department store, rusted bolt holes in the floor where clothing racks once stood, scars where counters were torn out, naked seams in the drywall where partitions between floor and kitchen were hastily erected.

No, I love buffets for the people who eat at them, for the liminal quality of the crowds they draw. In America, we no longer have town squares. There's nothing in our shared experience (except maybe the mall) that resembles the Mexican zocalo or old-world European markets, no public place where people of different ethnicities and income brackets, colors, shapes and languages go to interact in spite of all demographic barriers.

Instead, we have buffets, a purely American (and largely immigrant American) way of bringing together the residents of our often fractious suburbs and apartment blocks and insular townhouse communities, using cheap food to lure them all under one roof, forcing them to use manners, and proving that everyone -- no matter their skin color, native language, style of dress or checking-account balance -- turns into a grinning six-year-old at the make-your-own-sundae bar.

At the three-year-old Forbidden City Buffet, which is attached to the nearly deserted Buckingham Plaza mall, the big draw is volume. Volume and easy access. Volume, easy access and seriously cheap booze. People come here because the hot tables are so long they almost have a horizon line, because the average time to target -- as measured from the instant you walk through the door to your arrival before the tray of peel-and-eat shrimp -- is about twenty seconds, and because the bar sells three-buck glasses of chardonnay, margaritas and (because the crowds here always include a lot of first- and second-generation Russian and Eastern European immigrants from the surrounding apartment blocks who goboryat more po russky than English) entire bottles of vodka.

Selling bottles of hard liquor may not be legal, but so what? At the dearly departed Astoria Restaurant, Laura and I would order a bottle of vodka decanted at the table and knock it back with our black bread, pickles and blini, so if the expats want to do the same with their lemon chicken, lo mein noodles and California rolls? More power to 'em. Skol, comrades, and welcome to the melting pot.

On a recent Saturday, I showed up at Forbidden City in the middle of a lunch rush and was seated, beveraged and ticketed all in under a minute. The 200-seat dining room looked worn around the edges -- not in any cozy, broken-in sort of way, but rather in an exhausted, used-up, Battle of the Somme sort of way, with evidence of the grinding violence of a protracted culinary siege everywhere. The tables were battered and sticky, the plastic shell over the drink menu covered with some grungy funk, the plates chipped, the walls dirty. As for decor, Forbidden City boasts its own art gallery in the form of straight Midwestern yard-sale paintings hung over all of the booths, each one for sale. I sat beneath a small framed portrait of someone's cat with an asking price of $150. It was titled "Oliver II," leading me to the uncomfortable conclusion that either a) something terrible had happened to Oliver I before his portrait could be committed to canvas, or b) "Oliver II" was the second in a series of cat portraits, and "Oliver I" had actually been purchased by some collector. (I'm guessing it wasn't the Louvre.)

 

Regardless, beneath the placid gaze of Oliver the Second, I ate passable lo mein, gummy nuggets of battered chicken drizzled with candy-apple sweet-and-sour sauce that tasted like gelatinized Fruity Pebbles, and a plate of bright-pink shrimp off the cold table (the smart-money draw at lunch). I skipped the Swedish meatballs because I don't trust Swedish meatballs served in a Swedish restaurant, let alone a Chinese one, and also gave the fried pollock a pass because a fish fry made with anything other than haddock is a travesty. The breaded strips of chicken katsu (multiply-purposed as fried chicken, as well as the base for lemon chicken and chicken with vegetables) were so desiccated on my first trip around the steam tables that they'd begun to curl, but the kitchen soon replaced them with a fresh batch that had already finished dehydrating into the consistency of chicken jerky.

On any buffet line, certain items inspire a creeping mortal terror and memories of some very bad nights: clams, mussels, oysters (bivalves of any taxonomy, really), any sauce with cream or butter as its base, anything made with eggs, anything that's an obvious utilization of yesterday's leftovers -- meaning frittatas, stews, most soups and any dish where land and sea creatures mingle in an unnatural fashion. For safety's sake, I usually avoid these offerings, sticking with the less potentially injurious deep-fried and cold items. But at Forbidden City, I ate indiscriminately because...well, because I was curious. Other people were eating this stuff, and they looked perfectly content -- and alive.

By following my fellow diners' leads, I found some worthy dishes. At the table across from mine, I watched a French-speaking Russian with salt-and-pepper hair, a dark-skinned wife and beautiful, cappuccino-colored children put away a couple dozen greenlip mussels in a thin, murky gravy. I went for two, and although the broth was greasy and lukewarm, the mussels tasted fine.

At a table near the far end of the southernmost buffet line, I spotted Asian families eating bowls of white rice topped with shrimp and tofu in a starchy egg sauce, so I hunted down some of that, as well. It was so good, it inspired my next act of daring.

Egg drop soup is iffy no matter where you get it, because bacteria love nothing so much as a nice, warm, eggy hot tub in which to get freaky and multiply. Therefore, sipping your average buffet-line egg- or cream-based soup is a lot like slurping the water straight from Hef's Jacuzzi after a party at the Playboy Mansion. Still, I went for a cup of Forbidden City's egg drop soup and not only survived, but found it better, fresher and less salt-intensive than the egg drop soup you get at most sit-down Chinese restaurants.

I took a cue from a Mexican family that had piled a plate high with egg rolls, and was pleasantly surprised to find that Forbidden City's egg rolls tasted an awful lot like the East Coast takeout version that's so hard to find around here: crisp-skinned and stuffed with seasoned pork pâté, easy on the cabbage and vegetables. The family was also dipping their egg rolls in ketchup, but while I'm a closet buffet fan, I still have some standards.

The sushi was a horror; even the most clueless eaters pushed their over-large, dried-out and oddly colored California rolls to the side of their plates. The desserts were mostly fruit cobblers, bright cups of Jell-O and frosted sheet cakes of the high-school-cafeteria variety. But there was also soft-serve ice cream with sprinkles (of course), and nothing is a greater equalizer than ice cream. Just watch a bunch of gangsta-clone mall rats trying to look badass while scraping the bottoms of their bowls. Neighborhood tough, father, grandmother, restaurant critic, what have you -- we all turn into kids again over ice cream.

But even with the hundreds of square feet of food already on offer, the best was yet to come. When the skinny kid in the stained apron finally came out of the kitchen carrying a half-sheet pan full of golden buns -- those deep-fried, sugar-crusted doughnuts you only find at Chinese buffets or certain Asian bakeries -- I wasn't the only one tracking his progress. Old men and teens and solo diners and families all eyed him like he was the lucky pachinko ball or a long-shot pony legging it through the back quarter. And when he put down his precious cargo, we all pounced. The golden buns were fantastic: greasy, sweet, crisp and glittering with plain table sugar on the outside, soft as pillowy buttermilk biscuits on the inside.

I am fully, totally and shamelessly addicted to these doughnuts and will wait, often a very long time, for a fresh batch to come out of the kitchen, then eat three or four or five at a sitting, licking sugar off my fingers, feeling my arteries clog and my heart swell.

 

The moral here is to be brave, to trust in your neighbors and your fellow diners, to pay attention to what the professional buffet aficionados eat. Making a buffet work for you -- especially one without an obvious draw like crab legs or a carving station -- takes skill and a little practice, but your efforts may pay off with a few dishes that make all the flaccid noodles, gummy chicken and meatballs fade from memory.

And when all else fails, just drink deeply from your bottle of vodka and wait for the man with the golden buns.


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