From Super Great to Super Soggy

A plate from Tin Tin Buffet. photos/Chris Busby, Bollard staff

From Super Great to Super Soggy
Touring Chinese buffets

By Seth Eli Goldstein

My passion for crappy Chinese food began during childhood. Growing up on Cape Cod in the 1980s, there were two types of ethnic food available: a couple Tex-Mex places and a half-dozen Americanized Chinese restaurants. I have fond memories of eating take-out chicken fingers and unnaturally red-colored barbeque pork. We would go to The Double Dragon Inn on weekend nights and order such classics as meat on a stick.

My mother is a fierce fan of bad Chinese food. This affinity was passed down to her by her parents. According to the dietary dictates of New York Judaism, pork could only be eaten on Friday nights at a Chinese restaurant.   I recently picked up a Jewish cookbook from 1958 and was not too surprised to find several recipes for Chinese-American dishes alongside those for brisket and kugel. Perhaps I’m making too broad a generalization here, but Jews love Chinese food!

Before embarking on this tour of local Chinese buffets, a note about Americanized Chinese fare. Most of the Chinese cuisine available around here is neither authentic nor traditional. Rather, dishes have been tempered to appeal to American tastes.

Take my favorite entrée, General Tso’s chicken, for example. General Tso Tsung-t’ang put down numerous rebellions in 19th century China, but there’s no evidence he ever put this sweet and spicy battered chicken in his mouth. Research indicates the dish first appeared nearly a century after Tso’s death and half a world away, in New York City during the 1970s.

Likewise, crab rangoon is no more Chinese than I am, yet it’s ubiquitous in American-Chinese (and Thai) restaurants. The appetizer first surfaced in this country during the Tiki craze of the 1950s at places like Trader Vic’s.

Given the melding of American and Chinese cuisines, it’s fitting to start our tour at Super Great Wall Buffet (198 Maine Mall Rd., South Portland), a place that recognizes no culinary borders whatsoever. I had driven past Super Great Wall many times before I tried it. The name always puzzled me — something seems to have been lost in translation. Then one day, when the wife was safely at work, I made my move.

Walking into an all-you-can-eat Chinese place is like walking into an adult bookstore. You feel the same sort of self-conscious shame, particularly if you are dining alone. You don’t make eye contact with the hostess as you say, “Yes, one for the buffet, please.” She knows why you’re there, you know why you’re there: to stuff yourself to the point of immobility.

Super Great Wall is freaking huge! The dining room was full during this particular lunch rush. (I noted that you can also pay by weight and get the buffet to go, in case you’re too ashamed to eat all that stuff in public.) A lot of my fellow customers were … well, let’s just call them “super great.” I saw many sitting by themselves, reading material in hand, ready for a protracted occupation — The Long Haul.

The expansive selection of food here goes well beyond American-Chinese dishes. There’s pizza, a meat-carving station, a soft-serve ice cream machine, cocktail shrimp, etc. But I didn’t come to mess around with that stuff. I wanted to get my Chinese on!

On my first pass through any buffet, I check everything out but resist the temptation to take a lot of any one item, in case that item sucks. On the second pass, I go for what I’ve determined to be good (e.g., four more crab rangoon).

The General Tso’s chicken at SGW was passable. It earned a spot on my second plate. The Red Dye #5 pork was mostly inedible due to some nasty, gristly fat. The dumplings were pretty good because they were small, which gave them a decent dough-to-meat ratio — an important measurement when judging dumplings. The spring rolls were also tasty.

I took a pass on some buffet items in accordance with a general principle you may also do well to observe: steer clear of seafood. Steam trays and fish just don’t work well together. (Full disclosure: I did try one of the mussels. Though I didn’t get food poisoning, I was concerned.) Overall, I’d say Super Great Wall satisfied my craving for crappy Americanized Chinese food.

Next up was Lang’s Express (325 St. John St., Portland). As the name suggests, the modus operandi at Lang’s is to kick out a lot of food, fast. As I pulled into the parking lot, I could smell a greasy breeze wafting my way from the kitchen.

Lang’s is like the McDonald’s of Chinese food. It’s not a chain restaurant, but is located among a cluster of fast-food franchises, including a Mickey D’s across the street. Its spartan interior invokes that fast-food feeling, as does the long list of menu items displayed above the counter. But I was here for one reason only: to get my greasy feed bag on.

I was more than a little disappointed to see the smallish buffet selection at Lang’s (about a dozen items), especially after having recently stood in the shadow of the Super Great Wall. It was also disconcerting that nothing was labeled — not the food, not even the condiments. So there was some guess work to do (beef in broccoli, or …).

Another plate from Tin Tin Buffet.

The potstickers were not great. The dough-to-filling ratio was off (too much dough), the filling was tasteless, and I couldn’t find the sauce for them. But the Red Dye #5 pork was pretty good. This item is often dry and chewy in a buffet setting, but I think Lang’s is turning the stuff over so quickly that it doesn’t have time to dry out. Likewise, the (I’m assuming) orange chicken was crispy and well flavored. It was the closest thing I could find to the General’s chicken, which is listed on the menu above the counter but was not part of the buffet that day.

The buffalo chicken wings at Lang’s were pretty damn good. Hell, I’ll even go out on a limb here and say that these were the best spicy wings I’ve ever had at a low-end, fast-food-style, Americanized Chinese restaurant. The crab rangoon, on the other hand, was nothing to crow about.

If you have a hearty constitution and/or a wicked bad hangover, Lang’s could be for you. The buffet is a good value at between six and seven bucks, and that includes soup and a beverage. But a word of warning. You’ve heard people say you can judge an eating establishment by the cleanliness of its restrooms? Well, I actually felt more soiled after having washed my hands in that crap hole of a crap hole. Next time I’ll just bring some moist towelettes.

Jan Mee Chinese Restaurant is located a stone’s throw from Lang’s, in Union Station Plaza (280 St. John St.). The staff is very friendly — my water glass was nearly always full. On a recent Friday afternoon, the dining room was packed with a mix of workin’ Joes and suits from Maine Med.

Jan Mee’s buffet offers a decent selection of items, all of them labeled. I started out with the hot and sour soup, and was disappointed on two fronts. First, no crispy wontons. Second, the soup had an overwhelming flavor of olives. (I’ll eat pretty much anything, but I hate olives.) The alternative, egg drop soup, couldn’t have been blander.

On my first plate, I tried the spring rolls (OK), crab rangoon (standard), #5 pork (too tough), and dumplings. If I hit you in the head with one of those dumplings, I’m pretty sure I could be charged with assault with a deadly weapon — they were that tough. The General’s chicken was good, but like the other buffet items, it should have been warmer.

I put some green beans on my plate, but just for color. The fake scallops were intriguing, but not enough to convince me to try one. By the time I was finishing up my first plate a line had developed at the steam table, and when I went up for plate number two, they were — gasp! — out of the General’s chicken. I had three more crab rangoon and hit the road. My tab was around nine bucks, including soda, so the value at Jan Mee was decent.

A few days after Jan Mee, it was back across the bridge to South Portland, to Asia Restaurant in Mill Creek Plaza (51 Market St.). Asia looks a little rough on the outside, but inside you discover a well-lit, if somewhat gaudy, dining room with crimson booths and bejeweled light fixtures. In other words, classic Chinese restaurant decor. You get a complimentary pot of hot tea, which is nice. My water was refilled promptly, and the bathroom was very clean.

I started out with the hot and sour soup. It was pretty good, but again — Yo, dog, where my crispy fried wonton at? The egg drop soup was rather bland, but I’d had worse (namely, at Jan Mee a few days before).

On the first pass, I noticed Asia had some items I hadn’t seen at the other buffets. The shrimp in lobster sauce was a cool change of pace, and was pretty tasty on some fried rice. Asia’s buffet also had onion rings and Jell-O cubes. Everything was labeled with a sticky note.

The pan-fried dumplings were smaller than usual, which made for an excellent meat-to-dough ratio, and the filling was delicious. On this day, Asia was not serving General’s Tso’s chicken, but the buffet did have his not-so-distant cousin, sesame chicken. Sadly, it was soggy and not very flavorful. The crab rangoon didn’t have enough filling for the size of the wrapper, and upon closer inspection, I found no evidence of crab, or even its imitation (“krab”) among the cream cheese.

The fried chicken wings at Asia were pretty good, but the cashew chicken was too bland (though the celery in it was heroically crispy). I dropped about 10 bucks at Asia, including a good tip. Not a bad deal.

The last stop on this tour was Tin Tin Buffet in the 5 Points Shopping Center in Biddeford (420 Alfred St. on your Google map). Being part of a typical strip mall, Tin Tin isn’t much to look at from the outside, but inside my wife and I found a very welcoming and surprisingly large space that was not overly kitschified.

Inside Tin Tin Buffet.

Frankly, I was a bit stunned to see the rows and rows of steam trays at Tin Tin. This buffet appears to be even bigger than Super Great Wall’s, and like SGW, there’s a carving station, soft-serve ice cream machine, salad bar, and so on. The steam trays were immaculate and were being constantly attended. The food looked great. Our waiter was super friendly. This, I thought, is the promised land!

As before, I focused on the Chinese stuff, and there was a lot to focus on. For example, there were three different types of spring rolls. And they didn’t have just one type of breaded, fried chicken, they had three varieties: the General’s chicken, honey chicken, and Japanese chicken. Of these, the honey chicken was the best. It had a nice flavor and good crunch to the breading. The General’s was too soggy and too sweet.

That was a bit disappointing, but I soon found several other items to enjoy, like the slightly sweet coconut chicken and the chicken potstickers. There’s also sushi at Tin Tin, both rolls and nigiri style, and although it all kinda tasted the same, it was better quality sushi than you usually encounter at a buffet.

Lo and behold, over by the soups there was a giant container of crispy wontons! There was also a container of chopped scallions — a nice touch. That said, the hot and sour soup was merely average; it lacked spice.

The dumplings at Tin Tin were of the smaller variety, and the filling had a nice flavor to it, but there was more dough than is necessary or desirable. Knowing the popularity of crab rangoon, the good people at Tin Tin Buffet put out a huge, heaping mound of them. The wrapper was very crispy and the filling had evidence of krab, though not as much evidence of crab flavor. I also tried the “beef stick” — beef wrapped in a giant wonton wrapper and fried. There wasn’t much to it. I felt like I was just dipping an empty spring roll in sweet-and-sour sauce.

The best item in the buffet was probably the Kung Pao chicken. It was well seasoned and came with crisp veggies. And speaking of veggies, Tin Tin had some exceptional garlic-flavored green beans. Having any stand-alone vegetables at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet is unusual. These green beans were fresh and snappy.

For quality, variety, cleanliness, service and value ($7 for lunch), Tin Tin Buffet is a cut above the competition. Crappy American-Chinese food has seldom tasted so good.

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