With a few high-end exceptions, no self-respecting foodie would be caught dead at an all-you-can-eat buffet, particularly not a Chinese buffet. Buffets are associated with quantity over quality, and with Chinese buffets in the United States largely associated with cheap Chinese food, culinary interest in these establishments is even lower.
Even though I don’t classify myself as a foodie, I, too, used to disdain Chinese buffets, but for a different reason. Stuffing yourself at a Chinese buffet means a lost opportunity to eat at two more deserving venues, something I’ve made common practice on my journey of eating at over 7,000 Chinese restaurants. My thinking changed in the early 2000s, when some outstanding Chinese buffets opened near L.A., such as the pricey weekend buffets at the Hilton Los Angeles/Universal City and the Hilton Los Angeles/San Gabriel, followed by the freestanding West Coast Seafood buffet in Hacienda Heights. Suddenly, you could eat great Chinese food and stuff yourself at the same time. While venues like these eventually closed, leaving the field to lower-quality restaurateurs, I became hooked on the concept. Over the years, I became associated with Chinese buffets as a discussion topic. When the late Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold was asked on Twitter about Chinese buffets, he deferred and specifically told the questioner to contact me.
I have never found a Chinese buffet I like, but @chandavkl is a connoisseur of the genre. Maybe he knows.
— jonathan gold (@thejgold) October 19, 2017
About three years ago, I wrote my first Menuism article on Chinese buffets. I focused in part on how Chinese buffets in the Los Angeles area often give themselves Japanese names like Kyoto and Hokkaido. I also pondered why, on a per-capita basis, Chinese buffets were dozens, if not hundreds of times more common east of the Mississippi River than they were in Los Angeles and throughout California. I listed some potential reasons buffets were comparatively scarce but could offer nothing close to a definitive conclusion.
Around the same time, writer Greg Lacour published “An Ode to the Chinese Buffet” in Charlotte Magazine. He could not find any solid information on how many Chinese buffets there were in the United States (subsequent estimates put the number in the thousands), why they seemed most prevalent in the South, and why they appeared to be more common in 2015 than twenty years previously. When he contacted me for help on the article, I was of little assistance. I was able to tell him that my first encounter at a Chinese buffet was around 1980, at The Golden Shark in Monterey Park, east of Los Angeles. I also mentioned that during a visit to Atlanta in 2000, I picked up a hotel tourist magazine and was stunned to find it peppered with Chinese buffet ads. This observation at least formed a rough timeline for the proliferation of Chinese buffets across the South.
Lacour’s article quoted Smithsonian Institution curator Cedric Yeh, whom I worked with for “Sweet and Sour,” an exhibition on Chinese food in America. Yeh observed that Chinese buffets are a good business model for immigrant restaurant owners because of lower labor costs. Buffets do not require as many servers, and the servers they do employ do not need significant English language skills. The lower labor costs more than offset the cost associated with a higher rate of food consumption and waste by the customers. Lacour also interviewed the owners of a local Chinese buffet, a husband and wife team who immigrated from Fujian province in the mid-1990s. The wife, Linda Shi, first settled in New York City, while her husband Jimmy Lam first settled in Philadelphia.
By happenstance, I recently re-read the Charlotte Magazine article. Suddenly, all the blanks from both Chinese buffet articles started filling themselves in:
So now the picture looks complete: As the Fujianese migrated to Manhattan and radiated out to all of the communities in the East, Midwest, and South that connects by bus into the Fujianese section of Manhattan Chinatown, they came to dominate the Chinese restaurant industry in cities and towns east of the Mississippi River. In so doing, they discovered that the Chinese buffet was an excellent business model, leading to an explosion of this restaurant genre, particularly in the South. The Charlotte buffet owners who were interviewed fit this profile exactly.
Like other mysteries I’ve explored about Monday night wedding banquets, Hillary Clinton’s Chinatown connection, and the many restaurants named “Fuleen” in the eastern United States, the ending is the same. We can explain these phenomena and now, too, the proliferation of Chinese buffets by recognizing the impact of Fujianese immigrants.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.