Get the Most from Asian Dining:
King of the Buffet


New Orleans Times-Picayune
January 16, 2009



I avoided a rookie mistake moments after entering the Panda King. The hostess kindly offered me a spot in the quieter dining room walled off from the steam tables at this West Bank buffet. But I insisted on a spot closer to the harsh glare of the heat lamps.

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I had carefully read Steven A. Shaw's "Asian Dining Rules: Essential strategies for eating out at Japanese, Chinese, Southeast Asian, Korean, and Indian restaurants" (Harper Collins, $15.95). I knew that food degrades quickly on those steam tables. And I needed a perch with a good view of the pans, so that I could leap from my seat as soon as they were refilled.

"Remember," Shaw writes, "a buffet is a system in which the participants exercise a tremendous amount of self-determination. The most facile person at the buffet is going to get the best meal. That person should be you."

Yes, I would be that person. Today, the Panda King would bow to me.

Buffets are in my blood. My parents raised me on endless eggs at Shoney's, the salad bar at the Western Sizzlin and gallons of glossy, gloppy Chinese. The only technique they taught me, though, was how to pile the plate high. I'd never gone to a buffet hoping to eat well. These days, to be honest, I never go to buffets.

Shaw, in a book that covers everything from sushi bars to nearly impossible to find Tibetan dumplings, insists that a good -- and sometimes even great -- meal can be had at even the most humble buffet. I wagered $10.95 plus tax and tip to put his theories to the test.

I paced up and down the rows of food like a bank robber casing Fort Knox. It was a global smorgasbord that could stuff a giant: eggs rolls and onion rings, sushi and sweet and sour pork, boiled crawfish and blocks of shimmering jello.

Everyone else, I noticed, viewed the offerings with the skeptical look of a bargain hunter at an estate sale. Although my buffet skills were rusty, with the help of Shaw I too was sizing up the food with the eye of an expert.

Those mussels topped with cheese looked inviting, but only three were left so they must have been sitting out for a while. I would wait for a fresh tray.
Skip the fried rice; the carbs are just there to fill you up. And look for treasures in the back corner, where the pricey items are often tucked away.

Most importantly, watch the guy running food out from the kitchen. As Shaw says, "Let the kitchen guide your meal." When the hot food hits the tray, grab it.

I kept the dishwashers busy that day, filling up plate after plate of small tastes each time the kitchen sent out something new. If it wasn't good, I put it aside after one bite and moved on. It didn't take long to discover the delicacies: whole crabs as well as beautiful jumbo shrimp, both boiled head-on and baked with salt and hot peppers. Chomping on a plate full of crispy, spicy shrimp, I thought, "I would have paid $10 just for this."

"Going into this project, I kind of looked down on buffets," Shaw said in an e-mail interview. "But as I traveled and tasted, I realized that buffets are the way that many Americans get their introduction to Asian food."

Shaw, a former lawyer who founded the culinary discussion site eGullet.org, discovered Asian food as a boy growing up in Manhattan. A Chinese restaurant opened across from his apartment, and each day after school he bought a steaming egg roll and gobbled it down before reaching his door. Shaw also almost became a member of the Taiwanese family that ran the restaurant. That's how he discovered that to get the best meals at an Asian restaurant, you have to act like an Asian diner.

"It's the classic 'when in Rome' advice," Shaw said, "which works as well in a Chinese restaurant as it does in Rome."

In "Asian Dining Rules," he teaches you how to act like a sushi restaurant insider by sitting at the bar and letting the chef guide your meal. He gives precise instructions on how to use the tabletop grills at Korean barbecues to get a good char on the beef. And he says that you should demand the "Asian menu" at Chinese restaurants, but make it clear you're willing to pay extra for food beyond the tired take-out standards.

"A lot of Asian restaurateurs assume that anybody with a non-Asian face is simply not interested in eating the real stuff," he said. "This isn't because they hate us. It's because they've learned the hard way that most of the time it's the truth."

Along the way, Shaw sprinkles his lessons on getting good chow with dashes of culture, like the history of fortune cookies (they're actually American) or why the many Bangladeshis who own Indian restaurants don't serve their own cuisine (they've adopted the Westernized Indian menu first created in the United Kingdom). He also adds a few pinches of polemic, such as a plea to consider the plight of underpaid delivery people who rush takeout to your door.

More than anything, though, Shaw wants us to adore Asian restaurants as much as he does.

"I truly believe," he writes, "that if you love Asian restaurants, they will love you back."


ADVICE FOR ANY ASIAN OCCASION

At a Japanese restaurant, sit at the sushi bar.
"There are two types of people eating sushi at a Japanese restaurant: those at the sushi bar, and the tourists."

At a Chinese restaurant, request a copy of the "Asian menu."
"If there are menus printed only in Chinese, point to random items and ask what they are, and also ask what the best items on that page are."

At Thai restaurants, focus on dishes beyond the standard repertoire.

"It may be that they're family favorites of the owners, or special dishes of the region from which the chef hails, or dishes that utilize local ingredients."

At an Indian restaurant, opt for made-to-order items instead of the popular curries.
"Those stewlike dishes are often made, entirely or partly, in advance and lack the vibrant freshness of truly great Indian cooking."

-- Source: "Asian Dining Rules" by Steven A. Shaw


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