Taste of China
Buffets offer a chance to sample a variety of dishes with one danger
-- you may eat too much

BY POLLY CAMPBELL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

With all the Chinese buffets opening around town, fortune cookie writers need to come up with some new proverbs.

''Abundance soon will be yours'' might be appropriate. Or, ''Small riches, spent wisely, bring great pleasure.''

Dragon City Restaurant, 320 Northland Blvd., Springdale, 771-5888.

Lunch: $4.95, $2.50 children 6-12, $1.50 under 6.

Dinner: $7.45, $4.25 children 6-12, $2.50 under 6.

Dragon Wok, 1790-J S. Erie Blvd., Hamilton, 844-6526.

Lunch: $4.75, $2.99 children 5-11, $1.90 children 2-4.

Dinner: $5.79, $2.99 children 5-11, $1.90 children 2-4.

Lotus Buffet, 11580 Chester Road, Sharonville, 771-6612.

Lunch: $5.25, $2.35 children 7-12, $2.15, children 3-6.

Dinner: $6.95, $3.95 children 7-12, $2.95 children 3-6.

Main Moon Chinese Buffet, 8550 Beechmont Ave., Anderson Township, 474-6688, and 1785 Monmouth St., Newport, 431-6666.

Lunch: $4.95, $2.50 children under 10.

Dinner: $6.99, $4 children under 10 .

MasonLin Chinese Buffet, 1061 Reading Road (U.S. 42), Mason, 573-0303.

Lunch: $4.95, $2.95 children 12 and under, under 3 free.

Dinner: $6.95, $3.95 children Monday-Thursday; $8.45, $4.95 children Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday.

Ming Garden, 4953 Houston Road, Florence, 282-9888.

Lunch: $4.99, $2.99 children 4-8.

Dinner: $7.99, $3.99 children 4-8.

Szechuan House, 11762 Lebanon Road, Sharonville, 563-4211, and 606 Ohio Pike, Anderson Township, 752-1907.

Lunch: $4.95, $2.99 children 2-10.

Dinner: $7.95, $4.95 2-10.

Sunday: $6.95, $3.99 2-10.

Chinese buffets are popular for good reason: They are a deal. For the same price as an entree at other restaurants, you can sample appetizers and have hot-sour soup, eat all the seafood delight and orange beef you want (or choose only dishes without bamboo shoots). Plus, you get ice cream for dessert.

In a crowded Chinese restaurant market, buffets offer something a little different. Hiep Vo of Lotus Buffet in Sharonville decided on a buffet five years ago.

''There were so many regular Chinese restaurants here,'' he says, ''but we'd been to Texas and seen a buffet attracting a lot of customers and thought we'd try something different.''

Some sacrifice of quality

I count at least six Chinese dinner buffets in the Tristate, plus another dozen or more Chinese restaurants serving a lunch or Sunday buffet. Lotus Buffet is among the largest, with 190 seats.

There is some sacrifice of quality in choosing a buffet bargain over a regular restaurant: Not everything works as well on a steam table or under lights as it does fresh from the kitchen. And you're not likely to find a truly special dish.

On the other hand, you get to see the food before you try it, and you can try just a little before committing yourself. This is one reason buffets are popular in the Midwest and South, says Johnson Mei, manager of Ming Garden in Florence.

''(Buffets) are not so popular on the East and West Coasts, where there are more Asian people,'' he says. ''Here, people aren't so familiar with Chinese food.''

After trying Ming Garden, Main Moon in Anderson Township and Dragon City in Springdale, I concluded that as long as you're doing a Chinese buffet, you should try for the largest, most popular and most convenient one. This is a case where big and crowded is better than small and intimate because you want a restaurant where the food is replaced frequently and the choice is large.

Format similar

These three buffets follow a similar format: lots of fried appetizers, a salad bar that seems a little out of place, steam tables full of standard sauced dishes and a soft-serve ice cream machine.

Ming Garden seats 250, but on Saturday night you might have to wait in line before you get to the buffet ($7.99 for adults at dinner).There's plenty of choice, starting with the salad bar. I skipped the lettuce and dressings, as well as a cabbage and crab salad, in favor of a bowl of excellent hot and sour soup chunky with pork, bamboo shoots and mushrooms. The appetizers are mostly fried, and by far the best are the pot-sticker dumplings -- crispy on one side, filled with juicy pork.

The most impressive thing on the steam table is the five-flavor scallops. Here's your chance to get your money's worth. The fried scallops are as big as Susan B. Anthony dollars, and a lot fatter, and they're sweet and tender.

Even the Oriental mussels move fast enough to stay good -- a little firm, maybe, but clean-tasting and enhanced with lots of scallions, in a lightly sweet, winey sauce. A surprising dish, probably not at all Chinese, is stir-fried potatoes, like cubed home fries, salty and crisp. I also was taken by the Taiwanese roast chicken and the charred, smoky teriyaki chicken. There's even mu shu shrimp to put together with folded pancakes and hoisin sauce.

Dessert is ice cream with a variety of toppings, and some not-so-wonderful frozen chocolate cream pie and small squares of cake. Fruit on the salad bar, including huge fresh strawberries and kiwi slices, is another dessert choice.

Drinks are not included in the price, but refills are free, and the service is as good as if this were a standard restaurant.

Main Moon is the second location of a Newport-based buffet, opened in January.

On a Tuesday night, the pot-stickers are soggy and mussels in oyster sauce are too tough to eat. But there are cooked shrimp in the shell on the salad bar, the sesame chicken is crunchy and spicy and the chicken with broccoli in a light brown sauce is bright-green fresh. I enjoyed the lo mein, with little shrimps among the noodles.

Overall, the quality of the food is as good as most Chinese take-out. Plus, drinks are included in the $6.99 adult dinner price.

Dragon's roar

Dragon City Restaurant, near Tri-County Mall, is the smallest buffet I tried ($7.45). Like the other two, it's decorated in brightly lit Formica, neon and brass. Two big murals of Peking and Chinese horses at least give it more Chinese flavor.

The people next to me were a reminder that Chinese food still is exotic to some: ''See, it's like an onion omelette,'' someone was saying, urging egg fu yung on her elderly mother.

Maybe buffets, with their dishes out for inspection, help expand the tastes of those who infrequently eat Chinese. My kids, who have heretofore eaten nothing in a Chinese restaurant but cashew chicken and rice, saw that moo goo gai pan had innocuous enough pieces of white chicken to risk. They liked the nutty-brown cashew chicken, too. Here, the seafood delight would not win anyone over, with its tough little scallops, but there is a tasty-though-messy dish of shrimp in their shells in a garlic and ginger sauce.

The main problem with buffets is that you tend to eat too much. The best policy is to think of all the food as possible choices, not as a challenge to see how much you can eat.

''Only fools, or pigs, eat everything on a buffet,'' it should say on one of the fortune cookies. And, ''Big eyes and small stomach make dangerous combination.''

On the other hand, buffets answer the notion that Chinese food is good, but you're hungry an hour later. Just stay for an hour -- and start again.

Reviews are done anonymously at Enquirer expense. Ratings take into consideration quality of food, service, presentation and atmosphere, balanced against price.

Click here for CINCINNATI.COM