All-U-Can-Eat Hell. World Buffet is a Weird Buffet. West Covina, CA.
There are basically two types of people who go to all-you-can-eat buffets. One is the individual who enjoys a lot of variety. She nibbles on a little bit of garden salad, snacks on some mac n’ cheese, samples small servings of shrimp scampi and Salisbury steak until satisfied, then she wipes the corners of her mouth and is off.
The other kind views the all-you-can-eat buffet as a challenge, a dare, a double-dog dare with free refills. This diner enjoys pushing the limits of his stomach and esophagus to the point of risking serious injury to gut and gullet such as internal hemorrhaging from overloading on ambrosia fruit salad. This diner (and we all know someone like this or maybe you are this person) views any establishment offering an all-you-can-eat buffet as a sort of mountain that must be summitted or, for the more belligerent eaters, an enemy that must be disemboweled. Eating the buffet out of business is a common joke with these types, but the way and amount they eat wouldn’t make a single buffet owner chuckle. On the contrary, some owners get so angry that they kick out these buffet bingers. Getting ejected from an all-you-can-eat buffet, however, is the ultimate badge of honor for these beasties. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s a story for their future grandkids around a warm hearth.
I hail from the second camp of buffet eaters. Dining at all-you-can-eat buffets was like a competitive sport to me. I hit all genres of buffets from the ubiquitous Chinese buffet to the down home American buffet to the Mexican happy hours to the specialty places that offered a specific item as the all-you-can-eat selection. I’d approach each of these buffets with a different tactic like a pro tennis player going from a grass court to clay. And, yes, I’ve been “kicked out” of all-you-can-eat places: a hot wing joint and a hot pot restaurant. There was no physical grabbing of my collar and tossing me to the curb by some dome-headed buffet bouncer. In both cases the technique was much subtler, like taking more time to bring to the table the next round of hot wings, each time with fewer wings on the plate until none was brought out altogether. But encounters like that only fueled me to do more damage the next time I visited. Must. Eat. More. That was my mantra.
At least it was when I was younger, angrier, hungrier. Then, the wear and tear on my belly caught up with me. So gradually and gently, I’ve switched sides and am appreciating the benefits of variety sans gluttony. I’ve learned to graze instead of gorge. Now I taste rather than choke down. Most importantly, I know when to walk away so I can buffet another day. In all honesty, other than the semi-regular trips to the semi-healthy Soup Plantation, I rarely go to buffets anymore.
Cutting back on buffets wasn’t just for the sake of my physical health. It was for my mental soundness too. Buffets, especially the Chinese mom and pop ones, depress me. My parents used to own one. It was called the Hong Kong Café. It offered generic, albeit very well made, Americanized Chinese food. It doesn’t exist anymore. It went out of business in two years, and two years of pure hell it was. I was supposed to manage the place but instead I became a glorified busboy. I was also supposed to use my freshly imbibed marketing education from Cal State Fullerton to attract new customers. None of this happened. What did happen were: 14-hour workdays, a steady decrease in our core customer (the fickle business luncher), daily shouting matches between my parents, mounting debts and losses, fat cat investors opening up a bigger buffet across the street, health code violations that ended up on the local television news, deterioration of my mother’s health, and my unraveling sanity. But, boy, somehow we still managed to serve up the best hot and sour soup this side of the Yangtze River with the most tender strips of pork. Eventually, this traumatic family venture would help me lose my taste for the Chinese all-you-can-eat buffet forever.
But forever can be a terribly long time.
Not long ago my parents came back to the U.S. from another trip to China. I always make sure to pick them up at the airport.
“Have you eaten yet?” asks Mama.
“Nope,” I reply. I also make sure not to eat before picking my parents up at the airport because they usually want a bite before I bring them back home.
“Where do you want to eat?” I ask, knowing already the answer.
“Daddy wants Chinese,” Mama answers.
Weirdly, whenever they come back from one of their China trips, the first thing they crave is Chinese food — which I suppose is a huge endorsement for authentic Chinese cuisine in Southern California.
“Buffet,” my father elaborates.
As he made this request, flashbacks of our restaurant failure came at me fast and hard and played in my head with vicious vividity. I couldn’t believe my ears.
The particular all-you-can-eat Chinese feed trough my parents decided on was World Buffet in the city of West Covina. This buffet is self-proclaimed as “West Covina’s Best”. This rather modest claim earned instant respect from me and I was curious to see whether it could live up to the boast. Though still reeling from my parents’ lunch choice, I entered the buffet with them anyway.
Bright, clean, well staffed and overflowing with food, World Buffet is not a mom n’ pop buffet. World Buffet is big in the Las Vegas buffet tradition. With several generously stocked and enormous, stainless-steel buffet stations from which you can get your glut on, it is very easy to abandon restraint and over do it. My aversion to Chinese buffet was alleviated a bit since there was very little of this place to remind me of the Hong Kong Café.
Piles of Kung Pao this n’ that, Korean beef short ribs, barbeque beef ribs, cashew chicken, broccoli beef, shrimp cooked various ways, colorful sushi rolls resembling a candy display, assorted pork dumplings, roast duck and many, many other savory selections, eager to escape the heat lamps, beckoned to me.
The little angel on my right shoulder suddenly appeared. “Don’t do it.” Soon followed a small puff of smoke and the distinct smell of rotten eggs. My bite-sized, personal devil just grinned and submitted, “Hey, it’s Wednesday. Live a little.”
He’s right. It was in fact Wednesday. I should celebrate or something. So I began heaping the various items on to my plate. Laying sushi rolls over oyster-sauced Chinese broccoli which in turn topped a mound of greasy chow mein. There was no rhyme or reason, just quantity. I kept piling it on until it resembled an orgy of food — the film Caligula if directed by Kaga Takeshi.
I returned to the table wild-eyed, drooling and ravenous. None of the food on my plate tasted like how it was supposed to. It wasn’t the restaurant’s fault. Everything was so intermingled, marinating in one another’s juices and sauces and seasonings that I may as well dumped the complete contents of my plate into a Cuisinart and turned the entirety into a smoothie. What was wrong with me?
I decided to begin fresh. I left my plate on an unoccupied table and grabbed a clean one from the buffet. This time I cruised all of the steam tables first before putting a single thing onto my plate. When I really looked at the buffet, I realized how very bizarre it truly was. In fact, I had never seen so many exotic choices at a single Chinese buffet in my life. This really was a Deep End Dining buffet.
So me and my lil’ devil made a pact: I’d consume a themed buffet lunch allowing just the wild side of the steamy food isles to get on the plate but only in sensible portions. What I came back to the table with was bizarre and beautiful. It was a culinary composition of little sea monsters, amputated parts, stomach salad and Russian roulette on a half-shell. Welcome to my buffet.
To start off I took a crack at the sautéed whole shrimp. The way you eat this is by going in head first — meaning bite off the head first and then suck out the briny-sweet, creamy-wetness that is the shrimp’s command and control, its brain and head miscellany. The actual shrimp meat is tossed aside.
The next items - the dismembered frog legs and baby octopus tentacles - have a leg or two up on most of the dishes found on this vast buffet. They are special items that seem to be cooked more lovingly than the common dishes, maybe because the cooks enjoy eating these things themselves. The frog legs are coated with a fried chicken-esque batter and deep fried. The meat is tender and sweet with a nice crispy intro, no taste of pond scum in the slightest. The baby octopus tentacles were a bit rubbery though not overly. Its spicy seasoning appeared to be an afterthought as the actual tentacle flesh was unpenetrated and therefore somewhat bland.
The boiled whole baby octopus, however, was delightful mainly because it was cooked just right so the wee thing was tender and toothsome. But what really complements and enhances the flavor of this cephalopod is the vinegar/ginger/sugar dipping sauce (which you have to make yourself). Sweet, sour and zingy, the boiled octopus really comes back to life in this sauce. I can’t imagine eating it with anything else.
Hitting the other parts of the tongue are the planks of spicy and salty gelatinous pig ears. It would’ve been nice to pair these slick yet crunchy bits with a Chinese beer.
Unless they are freshly shucked before my eyes, I call raw oysters on any buffet line “Russian roulette on a half-shell”. I think most sensible people would agree that eating raw shellfish which has been sitting out on a buffet for an undeterminable period of time is not sensible. That’s why it’s on my plate. I am the guy who voluntarily places live squirming creatures into his mouth after all. Thank Fortuna, no messy aftermath involving the toilet with this oyster, just a fresh, salty and delicious nibble. I survived this round of “Russian roulette on a half-shell”.
Finally for dessert, a sweet and spicy, tripe salad tossed with green and red chili peppers served cold to refresh the taste buds. I hope you’re not ticklish because the omasum tripe is one of the chambers of the bovine’s stomach that is chock-full of villi — tiny, bristly nubs riddling the surface of this offal and a key texture component to the dish, also aids in the absorption of nutrients (not your nutrients, the cow’s when it was still alive).
So it appears my return to the all-you-can-eat buffet can be a civilized affair. At the end of the meal, I didn’t have to loosen notches on the belt. I didn’t need assistance getting up from my seat. There was no waddling to the car. I didn’t moan the words, “Why did I eat so much?” Most importantly, I didn’t hurt myself.
The healing begins now. I can’t do anything about my family’s failed restaurant venture. That’s in the past and we have moved on. Well, most of us. I still need to shout at something once in a while, especially when I catch an episode of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. I scream at full volume, “Where were you, Gordon, you twat?!!! Where was your craggly, abusive ass when I needed you to save my family’s restaurant??”
In time, I will be fine. Time heals all wounds, so they promise. Me, Mom and Pops all began our healing with this meal at the World Buffet in charming West Covina. The best part was there was room left in us for a vanilla soft-serve frozen yogurt with sprinkles.
1003 S. Glendora Ave.
West Covina, CA 91790
Sun-Thurs: 11am – 9pm
Fri & Sat: 11am – 10pm