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I see what he's talking about: It's like the arrival of the self-serve supermarket. Buffets let the customer do the walking, the plate-filling, the carrying. ""Exactly,"" he says. ""And notice how many items are spicy, salty. That encourages you to drink. The more you drink, the less space you have for food.""

Well, I'm drinking plenty of coffee ($1.00, endless refills), but I'm still eating, too. I grab some octopus and, because they're a blushing pink-on-white, two swirl-globs of Chinese bread. Their surprise is an interior of sweet red-bean paste.

Desserts don't desert me either. A butter cake has custard that bursts when you bite. It shares the plate with red grapes, self-scooped vanilla ice cream, an almond cake, a square chocolate cake, a custard, and a chopped banana that looks as if it's lying in its own brilliant red blood.

Whew. Comes to $9.90. I crack open the fortune cookie.

""You will be successful in your work.""

Great Plaza Buffet

1840 Garnet Avenue, Pacific Beach




Inside the Moon's octagonal entrance, an enormous crystal chandelier glitters the message: you've entered the people's palace. Place advertises ""the largest selection buffet: over 150 items daily."" Its table areas fan out from the central orchestra pit of the food arrays. Chairs have elegant violin-shaped backs. Booths are red and gray, carpets, floral green.

They advertise ""American, Chinese, Japanese cuisine."" I manage a plateful from all three nationalities. The American portion's surf-and-turf. I slice chunks off the prime rib, add au jus and sour cream, plus jumbo shrimp, spinach and cheese, and my old friends, the mussels -- except this time they're mayonnaise mussels. Totally dee-lish.

The Japanese plate is mostly eel and salmon sushi. The eel with sesame seeds on rice, unagi-zushi, tastes salty, yet caramelly too. That's as it should be: grilled over charcoal, steamed (to get rid of excess fat), seasoned with a sweetish sauce, and grilled a second time. Eelicious.

Then I'm back up for Chinese, a plate of baked crab meat on scallop shells, sesame balls (surprisingly addictive), salty shrimp, a lobster roll, yummy cream-cheese wonton, a couple of crab legs, and salty shrimp and rice.

Dessert's a strawberry cake, with fruit: loquats, pineapple, peach, longan (like lychee). A tapioca-type pudding, nuts, colored sprinkles.

It comes to $12.99. I'm stretched tight as a drum. Yet there was so much I didn't get to try. The fried scallops, the roast duck...

I break open my fortune cookie.

""Do not desire what you do not need.""

Super Buffet

8998 Miramar Road, Miramar




This has to be the king of the crop, and one of the grander dining halls in the county. Curly-haired stone Chinese guardian-lions greet you outside. Inside, the menu advertises ""over 200 items daily,"" to back its claim of being ""the biggest buffet of San Diego.""

East Buffet's pièce de résistance is the open kitchen with a ""Mongolian Grill"" and sushi bar. You pick out your (say) raw prawns, chicken, pork, bean sprouts, and peppers, then hand the plateload to the Iron Chef. He tosses them onto the grill, stir-cooks everything for a moment or two, adds Mongolian or teriyaki sauce, then hands it all back, piping hot.

Out in the dozen or so rows of steaming chafing dishes, they have pretty much the same selections as elsewhere -- including cheese mussels -- but there's more variety. Chicken feet, for instance. The actual ankles and claws. (The skimpy flesh tastes a bit like cow tongue, or brains.) I visit the sushi chef, and he recommends spicy tuna, a grand roll (crab meat), and tofu-enclosing rice. I see that if you want to pay individual prices, you can land some pretty spectacular sushi, like ebi (shrimp) for $1.75, flying-fish roe ($2.00), or combos such as the rainbow roll on a plank ($6.50), or ""Love Boat,"" arranged in a little sailboat ($21.95). But the standard ""free"" stuff is the best Japanese food so far. It's all fresh, and I get a thrill when the sushi chef tosses piles of salmon-slice sashimi and tuna on my plate. Boy. They turn out to be about the most delicious part of the entire meal.

I even grab some apple pie, choc-vanilla ice cream, and a red-bean bun before I hand over my $9.07 (including endless coffee).

I crack open my fortune cookie.

""You are soon going to change your present line of work.""

Sunrise Super Buffet

3860 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa




The good news is that the price here includes all drinks. As a draw, this must work, because tonight Sunrise Super Buffet is packed, mainly with families. Except for the ""heavenly"" sky (a lit recess in the ceiling, celestial blue), the place looks like a mega-McDonald's. ""Sa-a-a-a-ad Movies Always Make Me Cry"" plays on the sound system. The half-dozen chafing tables sit at the far end of the room.

A buzz goes up through the crowd. ""Oysters are here!"" It's a dinner-only thing. A harried Chinese staff-gal brings out dishes with dozens of raw oysters in their big shells. Me and a clump of other eager guys grab what we can. Also some stuffed mushrooms. I add stuffed clams, dragon roll (with cucumber, avocado, asparagus), and mochi (a sticky-rice cake). The cheese mussels? They're here. Would if I could, but I can't. After four meals, I'm finally musseled out.

I pay $12.84 and bust open the last fortune cookie.

""Don't behave with cold manners.""

The indisputable bottom line is: You can't beat these places for value. This is where you go to try foods you'd never ask for if you had to buy them separately -- or just to fill up, pig out, and enjoy guilt-free second helpings. Oliver Twist should have been so lucky.

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