A brave new buffet

The folks at King Buffet are brave—I’ll say that. It takes guts to open an all-you-can-eat establishment that competes for diners with the Roman feasts many casino buffets provide.

Although it offers some standard buffet fare, King Buffet sets itself apart from its casino brethren by emphasizing Americanized Chinese food. I’d heard this before I stopped by for dinner (all you can eat dinner is $7.99; lunch is $5.99, with discounts for children and seniors), so I secretly hoped the place would be rigged out in what I call “Hollywood Chinese décor.” Black lacquered chopsticks. Golden plaster dragons snarling on the walls. Red banners with Chinese characters proclaiming Good Fortune or Long Life.

Alas, there wasn’t a tasseled paper lantern in sight. King Buffet’s ambiance is strictly utilitarian. Mauve industrial carpet. Wallpaper the texture and color of a grainy salmon mousse.

But no matter. Buffets are about serving a variety of reasonably tasty foods at a good price. In this, King Buffet succeeds. Still, diners should exercise culinary caution. While the kitchen prepares some dishes competently, others have problems, even for a buffet.

Things began well. The sweet-and-sour sauce fused its flavors nicely. The hot and spicy soup announced itself with a refreshing, peppery zing. And the lettuce at the salad bar was cool, crisp and without blemish.

But King Buffet faltered with some of the basics. The dry, grainy white rice fell listlessly from my fork. Rice served with Asian food should be stickier. Overly thick wrappings obscured the tastes inside the egg rolls and spring rolls, turning them into cylinders of fried dough. The lo mein noodles weren’t salty enough and would have benefited from a culinary elbow jab—a little ginger, maybe.

These are just quibbles, however, compared to the sushi disaster. I’ll be blunt: The shrimp layer on the piece I chose smelled as if it had begun to spoil. My dinner companions agreed with me. Yikes.

Granted, bad shellfish can turn up even in the best establishments. But sushi is notoriously difficult to make and keep fresh in large quantities. And it’s a generous but unnecessary flourish at a buffet, anyway. Given all this, perhaps King Buffet should stop serving it.

Redemption for the restaurant came with its more substantial offerings. Sweet-and-sour pork was mildly chewy—as it should be—with the sauce once again balancing flavors properly. For poultry lovers, barbecued chicken chunks were clustered on wooden skewers, the skin lightly crunchy, the meat moist.

The kitchen really understands how to prepare this bird and maintain its quality in a buffet setting. One of my companions sampled Peking roast chicken at both the meal’s start and finish. Each time, it was juicy and warm.

But the highlight of the main courses was the mussels with black bean sauce. A hint of soy added robustness to the gravy, setting off the shellfish without overpowering it.

When the entrées were finished, my thoughts turned to sweets, as many other Americans’ thoughts do. But desserts don’t really exist in Chinese cuisine, either here or in China itself.

So it’s no surprise that King Buffet’s offerings seemed almost an afterthought. Cookies that probably came from a bag. Chocolate and vanilla ice cream. Banana cake. That’s about it, unless you want to count the fortune cookies that arrived with the check.

I cracked open mine and read the fortune. I said, "Look to the future." Good advice for me; good advice for King Buffet. With improvements in food preparation and handling, the restaurant could become one of Reno’s buffet destinations. Until then, there are better buffets at the same price elsewhere.