When digging in at an all-you-can-eat buffet, whether it be for breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner, you need to come up with a game plan. The food may be unlimited, but the space in your stomach definitely isn’t. And as the saying goes, the eyes can be bigger than the stomach. So consider how you might eat enough yet still save room for the certain food items you might be craving. The Chinese and Indian buffets provide illustrative examples.
At a Chinese buffet, the best place to start is at the sushi bar. (Yes, we know that sushi is Japanese; we didn’t invent the Chinese buffet.) Most Chinese buffets have the same few kinds – California rolls, Philadelphia rolls, spicy crab rolls – but they are usually made fresh throughout the day. If it’s not, avoid the sushi like the plague. Otherwise your stomach may revolt before you can even pay the check.
The same goes for the raw bar, your next stop. You may find clams or oysters on the half shell and also steamed cold mussels and steamed peel-and-eat shrimp. If seafood is what you’re craving, go back for more. Raw seafood, or seafood untouched by heavy sauces, isn’t terribly filling. There will still be plenty of room for the next course.
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The next stop should be steamed crab legs, if available. Many Chinese buffets will offer steamed crab legs on Friday nights and they go quickly. If the servers do not replenish the crab legs often enough, speak with a manager. An all-you-can-eat buffet shouldn’t be about waiting.
The food should get heavier as the meal progresses. So now you’ve arrived at the prepared foods, the fried dishes, often prepared with heavy sauces. This includes the hibachi or Korean barbeque station. (Likewise, we know that Korea isn’t China either.) Choose the protein, vegetables, sauce, noodles or rice you want and watch the hibachi chef whip up your creation right in front of your eyes. Pay attention to what you’re including, to get the foods and flavors you want without all the extra stuff.
When dining at an Indian buffet, start with a walk around to make note of any dishes that look especially tasty. Ask your server for an explanation if you’re curious. Indian buffets tend to follow a general progression, starting with dal, an Indian soup made with red lentils, appetizers like samosa, pakora and Indian breads such as naan or papadam. Off to the side will be a separate table with Indian condiments including raita, picked vegetables and sauces like tamarind chutney and cilantro dipping sauce.
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Once you have sampled the soup, appetizers and breads, try a little of each entrée dish, including chana masala, kafta and tandoori chicken. Go back with a new plate to get additional servings of whatever you particularly like. You may not find many dessert offerings at an Indian buffet, but some will offer rice pudding, ladoo, chum chum or peda. Other restaurants may bring around Indian pastries for the table. These will be very sweet and very heavy, but worth trying if your stomach permits. But definitely save these for the end of the meal.
Of course there are many kinds of all-you-can-eat restaurants to try. Whatever your cuisine of choice, keep in mind a few important guidelines. Some are illustrated above, but it’s worth making them explicit.
1. Arrive early. The food will be fresher and the crowds sparser.
2. Come with an appetite.
3. Scope out what’s available.
4. Start with small portions to get a better feel for what you like.
5. Avoid too much bread, fried foods and heavy sauces at the start of the meal. (Known to some frequenters of all-you-can-eat seafood restaurants as the “hush puppy rule.”)
6. Take reasonably sized portions. You can always go back for more.