Angelinos may not be aware of it, but there aren’t a lot of Chinese buffets in Los Angeles compared to other parts of the country. Yes, there are probably a few dozen Chinese buffet restaurants in Los Angeles County. But when one compares numbers of Chinese buffet restaurants to other parts of the country, the difference is striking, especially on a per capita basis. Indeed, if you look at the contiguous westside and San Fernando Valley sections of the city of Los Angeles, which encompass over two million residents, there are but a half dozen Chinese buffets covering the vast expanse.
In contrast, in my half-hour drive around Gainesville, FL, I recently passed at least six Chinese buffets. With a population of 120,000, that might project out to 500 Chinese buffets in Los Angeles, based on L.A. County’s population of 10 million. Or about 10 years ago, I saw three Chinese buffet restaurants in Kilgore, Texas, a town of 15,000. That ratio would result in 2,000 Chinese buffets in Los Angeles, a number which likely would exceed the number of all the Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles, which has more than a half million Chinese residents.
So why are Chinese buffets so relatively scarce in Los Angeles? Offhand, I can think of a few reasons. First of all, to a large extent, a Chinese buffet is often considered lowest common denominator as far as Chinese food is concerned. Many Chinese buffets are in cities with a small Chinese population, and where the local residents might not be as sophisticated about authentic Chinese food. As such, Chinese buffets are well suited to serve the types of dishes that less discerning diners are used to, like chow mein, fried rice, egg rolls, General Tso’s chicken, egg drop soup, and broccoli beef. In locales with larger Chinese populations and a higher level of community sophistication when it comes to Chinese food, such as San Francisco and Manhattan, you find that Chinese buffets are also not as common (though Manhattan has the additional factor of pre-emption of the genre by bodegas with their hot food to go). Also, buffets are part of the longstanding image that equates Chinese food with economical dining. With an emphasis on low-cost ingredients, a cheap meal was one of the initial appeals of Chinese food to American audiences. Less obviously, geographic areas with a higher density of Chinese buffets are also within the Fujianese restaurant worker diaspora, with an extremely large supply of willing Chinese restaurant workers and restaurant owners, and for which a buffet is an attractive operating model.
In actuality, Chinese buffets in Los Angeles are not as rare as they seem at first glance. Unlike many other parts of the country, the majority of Chinese buffets in Los Angeles have Japanese names, like Hokkaido, Minato, Ichiban, Hibachi, Osaka, and Kyoto. In fact, with the demise of the Todai chain, I know of only one buffet in Los Angeles — Kuma — that has both a Japanese name and serves primarily Japanese food. While it is not entirely clear why so many Chinese buffets in Los Angeles adopt Japanese names, I suspect it’s to emphasize the available selection of sushi, which might well be the item that brings the most buffet diners into the restaurant. However, aside from the sushi, and perhaps vegetable tempura or chicken teriyaki, these buffets are largely stocked with Chinese and American food items and are Chinese-owned.
Even still, it’s surprising to me not to see more Chinese buffets in Los Angeles, particularly with a large Chinese culture that both enjoys food and getting your money’s worth. Being one of these Chinese who loves food as well as a deal, I have found some Chinese buffets around Los Angeles worthy of recognition.
18061 E. Gale Ave., City of Industry
Not only is Kome a Chinese buffet with a Japanese-sounding name, its main branch near San Francisco describes itself as a Japanese Seafood & Grill buffet. But the San Gabriel Valley location in one of the country’s largest Chinese population centers makes no pretense of being a Japanese eatery, aside from the name and its wide sushi selection. This recently opened buffet immediately became the top authentic Chinese buffet in Los Angeles (not counting the high-end weekend-only buffets at the Chinese-owned hotels noted below). Besides a large selection of dim sum, there is a noodle bar, a hotpot bar, and a cooked-to-order seafood station. What makes these cooked-to-order choices even more enticing is that you don’t have to stand around and wait for your noodle soup or other selection to be prepared. Each table is stocked with a supply of tiles with the table number on it. When you place your order, just give the server a table tile, and the dish will be brought to you when it is ready.
Westfield Santa Anita Mall, Arcadia
Before Kome Buffet opened late in 2014, Kirin Buffet was the newest, biggest and shiniest of the Chinese buffets in the Los Angeles area. And while it doesn’t match Kome as far as variety and amenities are concerned, it still is a crowd pleaser. Mini dim sum items are especially top-notch, there’s a nice teppan grill, and where else can you get all the Hong Kong-style waffles you want?
2223 W. Commonwealth Ave., Alhambra
While this location has hosted Chinese buffets for nearly 15 years, a total makeover of the premises in the past few months (including a new, Japanese sounding name) has rocketed the popularity of this buffet, now full even on weekdays. Leading the list of improvements is the addition of a teppan grill. A second grill is even pressed into service when the lines get crazy, and you have the option of adding a fried egg to your selection. Items not seen at other buffets, including spicy imitation crab, Korean-style glass noodles, and Shanghai-style rice cakes further distinguish Gold Hibachi from other Chinese buffets.
225 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel
Located in the San Gabriel Hilton, the Trinity Restaurant buffet is now available only at lunch. When it opened 10 years ago, it featured a fabulous and high-priced weekend dinner buffet, but Trinity subsequently abandoned that niche, leaving it to Café Sierra in the Universal City Hilton, and Cima in the Pacific Palms Resort in the nearby City of Industry. Trinity’s lunch buffet pales compared to its former dinner buffet, but what it does offer is a limited number of high-quality entrees that rotate on a daily basis. Consequently, this is one buffet where you might first want to take a peek at what’s on the menu that day before indulging.
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.