Feeding frenzy

China Buffet

1402 Broadway
Sacramento, CA 95818

(916) 930-0888

There is something unsettling about a restaurant whose marquee proclaims, in bright, multicolored neon capital letters, “SUSHI STEAK GRILL ITALIAN”—even more so if the restaurant’s name seems actually to promise Chinese food. The enormous, gleaming China Buffet—a relative newcomer to Broadway’s ethnic stew of restaurants—offers all this and more, with everything from spookily long snow-crab legs to bowls of chocolate pudding on its many, many buffet stations. Not for nothing does China Buffet’s busy, multicolored flier proclaim, “The largest and most elegant international buffet in town.” I’m not sure about elegant—I don’t know how elegant any place that has cubes of Jell-O at its salad bar can really be, though boat-shaped crystal-and-gilt chandeliers make a game attempt—but I can’t argue with largest.

There’s a feeling of being on the midway here, with all the bright lights and a huge fair of food. Just as on the midway, one doesn’t really know where to start. A dinner buffet is only $10.99 for all you can eat, and the lunch buffet is $6.99. (Several of the fancier options among the many steam trays, however, are listed as dinner only.) Kids 2 and under eat free, while those between 3 and 10 are charged 75 cents per year of age. Numerous tables, including our own, were taking advantage of this fact and the kid-friendly fried food to snatch a family dinner out.

Honestly, I could spend the whole review just listing items from the buffet. Fried spicy-salt frogs’ legs, a grill station replete with sizzling whole fish, sushi (with super-sweet rice and not-so-great fish) made before your eyes, fruit from strawberries to watermelon to canned mandarin-orange sections, tapioca pudding, beef with broccoli, fried chicken drummettes, an iceberg-lettuce-based salad bar, three or four kinds of soup (including a quite creditable hot and sour), chow mein, fried rice, a huge lump of roast beef, broiled oysters on the half-shell, eggplant with garlic sauce, candy-sweet teriyaki chicken, fire-engine-red boneless spare ribs, more fried and steamed dumplings than you can shake a stick at: It’s all here, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re ravenously hungry and flat broke, borrow 10 bucks and go to China Buffet at lunch; you should be able to stave off starvation for three or four days. It’s also a good place to practice for that eating contest you’ve been longing to enter.

If, however, your eyes have a tendency to be bigger than your stomach, I’m not sure this is the best spot for you. It is extremely easy to eat yourself into a bloated stupor, despite the near-universal fair to middling quality of the food. A great spring roll is, well, great, but even a mediocre spring roll—such as those found in a warming tray at China Buffet—is still pretty edible, as long as you steer clear of the candy-apple-coating-like sweet-and-sour sauce.

Candy-like qualities are something of a common theme at China Buffet. Sweetness is, of course, the universal palate-pleaser. Much of the food here is enticingly sugary, right down to the irresistible dessert station of serve-yourself ice-cream cones. That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions to the sweetness rule. My favorite items were those that weren’t trying to play to jaded American palates, but were more spicy or salty: those spicy-salt frogs’ legs, for instance, had a nice sprinkling of jalapenos to enliven their tastes-like-chicken flesh. Eggplant with garlic sauce was tender and deeply flavored, and a spicy chicken stir-fry had plenty of firepower. Bright-green fried string beans also were good.

It helped that we were there on a high-turnover Friday night, when fresh batches of most things were brought out regularly. If you want any sort of quality at China Buffet, go when it’s busy. Less-popular items, or those that have been hanging around, are apt to suffer. When we first got there, and the crowd was less lively, I took a couple of pot stickers that had a good flavor but had become gummy and greasy with age.

My favorite item was a stir-fry of clams in a mild black-bean sauce, which was not only beautiful, with the brown-and-cream patterned shells of the tiny clams, but also fresh, savory and tasty. Too bad this subtle approach to shellfish wasn’t applied to the cheesy (in both senses) broiled mussels, which had been dosed heavily with mayonnaise before heating and were, to my palate, inedible. I can only imagine that they, sadly, were part of the offerings deemed “Italian” by the sign outside.

After all of the savory foods, dessert would seem supererogatory, but the lure of the soft-serve ice-cream machine sucked us in. It turned out to be harder than I expected to make a neat, tidy spiral of ice cream atop the cone, but a chocolate soft-serve cone is just as yummy as it ever was. I also liked tiny, crescent-shaped, sugarcoated “Chinese doughnuts,” which tasted like beignets and, surprisingly, were offered on a table next to the fried shrimp. The chocolate pudding was just OK, but it was better than the pallid tapioca (the Kozy Shack brand from the grocery store is way better). There is also a range of cookies and pastries—all of which looked better avoided—and, of course, with your check, fortune cookies. They should come with a fortune about the perils of overeating, for that is what one does at China Buffet, even though the food seldom warrants the indulgence.