By Frank Sabatini Jr.
I partake in buffets approximately once every 20 blue moons. And I always approach them with a buyer-beware attitude.
It’s a law of the universe that the bigger the buffet, the less hits and more misses you’ll encounter. As for the uncivil discourse we’ve all witnessed in such food lines, one only hopes to come away unscathed by aggressive elbows and protruding arms — or at least avoid accusations of such rampant behavior.
China Super Buffet in the La Mesa Springs shopping plaza is very big. Its threshold is marked by life-size cement lions, which lead into an area encompassing about seven food stations and two expansive dining rooms. The place seemingly seats a zillion people amid Chinese décor, dull carpeting, and a gaudy chandelier or two.
Yet the ratio of decent dishes to unsavory ones tilts in favor of the customer, but only when choosing wisely from the buffet’s myriad options.
My biggest disappointment was the difficulty I experienced scoring snow crab legs, which are included in the $13.99 “dinner” buffet (available from 3 to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday, until 9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and all day on Sundays and holidays). The thought of eating them lawlessly, along with standard Chinese favorites such as orange chicken, sweet and sour shrimp, etc., is what led me into taking the plunge.
But in my 90-minute stay, I snagged only one crab leg. And it took some work.
First time up, the tray was empty except for a few shards of shell indicating a merry crab fest had indeed occurred. I checked back 10 minutes later. Same thing.
A food runner assured me a fresh batch was “soon” coming out. But she failed to say that dozens of customers lie in wait from booths and tables that are in eye shot of the station. So when the crabs make their landing, they go poof faster than you can shove down a crispy egg roll.
After jumping into the game with less strategy than most, I got my frigging leg. Yet by the time I wiggled back through the crowd to my booth, and then struggled to penetrate the thing without a shell cracker (bring your own), the wisp of meat I extracted was nearly cold.
Partial redemption came in the form of several items I enjoyed before and after.
From an extensive display of appetizers, the chicken dumplings featured reasonably delicate casings enveloping ground poultry accented with ginger and scallions. No soy sauce needed.
Small pieces of chicken breast coated in light batter were parked near a bowl of syrupy sweet-and-sour sauce. A predictable, pleasant pairing was struck. The vegetable egg rolls were also enjoyable — crispy on the outside and with a warm filling of semi-crunchy carrots and cabbage inside.
Conversely, the nearby “lobster rolls” with their fried wonton shells were flavorless. They contained a mulch of what I think was shredded lobster, cabbage and rice.
From stations flaunting heartier fare, my favorites were the butter shrimp and poached salmon.
The former verged on shrimp scampi — and with an unexpected spicy kick. I give it a higher rating than shrimp you’d get at Red Lobster.
The salmon was as good as any served at a nice, full-service restaurant. Flaky and perfectly seasoned, it was cut into small fillets and sat prettily in a pool of butter.
Both the orange and kung pao chicken were satisfying, each draped in their respective sauces that adhere to old-school Chinese-American cooking. More exciting were two other poultry dishes — jalapeno chicken cloaked in a near-invisible glaze that was delightfully fiery, and “peanut butter chicken” encrusted with finely minced peanuts. That chicken was brushed also with some type of admixture resembling Thai peanut sauce, but sans the coconut milk.
Bravo to the saute cook who flash-fried the green beans. They featured that coveted snap and fresh flavor; crisp but not under-cooked, lightly salted and not too oily.
How pizza and roast beef ended up on this Asian buffet is a mystery. Oddly, the pizza kept disappearing as quickly as the crab legs. Just as well because I wasn’t interested anyhow. The roast beef, however, which you carve yourself before applying dark, rich gravy to it, was tender and tasty in its well-done form, albeit a mismatch to whatever else I had on my plate at the time.
Desserts were mediocre. They ranged from fluffy mocha-mousse cake and mini cream puffs to flan, Jello cubes and fresh fruit.
As I drove away recounting in my head the handful of buffets I’ve willingly patronized in my adult years — the good, bad and horrible — I put China Super Buffet near the middle in terms of quality. Though had I been able to sate my appetite with a pound of steaming hot crab legs in lieu of the off-target dishes I tried, a rosier ranking could have been given.
China Super Buffet
7984 La Mesa Blvd.
Prices: Lunch buffet, $9.99; dinner buffet, $13.99
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.