I discovered the little green-lipped, yellow-capped monsters in National City and ended up days later at an eatery outside MCAS Miramar, staring at them with the dread of an addict who must have his fix. His mussel-relaxant, you might say.
Yet mussels were the least of it: a single steaming chafing dish amongst hundreds, in what's starting to look like a new fashion for cornucopia eateries -- Chinese buffets on a grand scale, groaning with rows of Oriental and Occidental dishes that range from shrimp to noodles to oysters to roast beef to, well, on and on.
Not that I'm complaining. We're talking the answer to every food-loving guy's prayer. Limitless refills, cheap, no questions asked, no time limit. This past week I've been cruising the latest offerings.
Two things struck me about them all. First, this is not your typical Chinese takeout. These are eating palaces. Pastel halls with fruitcake carpet and brass-framed sneeze-guards around the avenues of serving tables. Like casinos, minus the cigarette haze. And, two, you gotta acknowledge what fantastic bargains these places are. It's not just the quantities. For families and others on a budget, the great thing is that there are no surprises: the price going in is the price coming out. But there's one other thing you can't help noticing -- all the Chinese staff are rake-thin. The customers, on the other hand (and I don't exclude myself), ain't. Here are five reasons why.
3007 Highland Avenue, National City
This neighborhood, just south of 30th, is down where the serious lowriders cruise. Cars ""hop"" all the way along Highland to Sweetwater Square -- when the cops aren't watching.
China Super Buffet is the big cream palace next to Peter Pan Pizza. I'm here at eight in the evening. Dinner's $8.25 versus $5.75 for lunch, but they say you get a wider choice. (They charge kids aged 2-11 ""40 cents per year"" at lunch, 60 cents at dinner.) Promised are ""over 100 items daily."" So much food, so little time. I walk in, get seated, order a coffee (endless-refill sodas and coffee cost $1.06), and survey the four double-sided chafing tables steaming with various dishes. Two more hold extras like sushi and desserts. Yellow-gloved girls rove the rows, checking, stirring, wiping, plowing up tired stews like gardeners tending flower beds.
So up you go, thinking you're destined for standard-issue orange chicken, beef broccoli, and egg rolls. But it doesn't have to be, as I soon discover. I start simple. A soup (they have five: clam chowder, miso, hot and sour, egg drop, and wonton). I pick hot and sour. With crispy noodles. It's good. Pork in there, dark, mushroomy, slightly vinegary.
I tong up some garlicky house chicken, add a few salt and pepper shrimp, breaded shrimp for contrast, a half-dozen marinated baby octopuses that look like large blushing spiders, one wonton, stuffed mushrooms, and -- aha. Now we're talking interesting. Rows of mussels in their shells, melted cheese bubbling golden on top. I make room for four.
I tell you, this is good chow. You could die of joy from the stuffed mushrooms alone. They have pork, ginger, soy (and maybe corn flour) in the stuffing, and I could see popping them till I popped, if it wasn't for the cheese mussels. Oh man, those mussels. You wrench 'em off the shell, squelch, crunch through the cheese-lava dome, and give in to the flavor flow racing down your gullet.
I can't believe how much I'm eating here. Earlier, I spotted roast beef, so now I'm headed thataway. I grab a couple of slices, take a pot of au jus and some sour cream, plus rice and a splot of cheesy spinach, and, oh yeah, a couple of crab legs. I head back to my table to begin course two.
The amazing thing is, I fit in two additional courses after that. A plate of salmon (delicious, moist, not too fishy), more of those stuffed mushrooms, and cheese mussels. Then, okay, need to clear the palate, dahling. Ergo: salad bar. I mix cold cooked shrimp, lettuce, a kind of coleslaw/sweet-mayo blend, baby corn, raisins, beetroot, and sweet-coated peanuts to crackle it up. Next, sushi bar. It's definitely a sideline affair, and I'm no sushi expert, but the rice and seaweed wraps are fresh and moist.
Course six: A plateful of green Jell-O, a chocolate cake square, peaches, tapioca pudding, a chocolate slurry, and a deep snowdrift of cream. Erp. I'm ready to be ballast for some tugboat. Only my wallet is lighter, by $12.06, including drink and tax.
I crack open my fortune cookie, chew the vanillery pastry, and read the slip of paper.
""Everyone around you is rooting for you. Don't give up!""
PANDA PARK BUFFET
"Ten's Totally Nude Show Club," says the sign across Ohio Street from where I'm standing outside Panda Park, gearing up for Day Two, Round Two. As Yogi Berra might've said, it's déjà chew all over again.
Panda Park is like China Super Buffet without the vast hall, but it's also new. ""Grand Opening,"" announces the lunch menu. I sally forth to take on the six buffet tables. Looks like a mirror of China Super Buffet's offerings. We talking franchise here? 'Course I have to start with a soup. They have wonton, hot and sour, egg flower, but I go for the seafood. It's rich and thick.
My next plateload is a shameless jumble of salt and pepper squid, salt and pepper shrimp, a clanking pile of cheese mussels (looking to repeat yesterday's epiphany), plus token dollops of boneless spare rib, sautéed mushrooms, string beans, and steamed rice -- plus a bowl of chili sauce. Again, the cheese mussels are wet, fresh, and addictive.
What I can't understand is how the Panda Parks of this world can lay out these massive quantities of food and still make a profit. I get to talking with a customer who's also in the food biz. ""Chuck."" (He asked that I not use his real name.) ""Ha!"" he says. ""Food expense is secondary. Your main expense is labor. So if you can cut down on that...""
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.""
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.""
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.""
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.