Chinese culture has long been famed for its ancient traditions, but it's increasingly becoming known for a more modern one: the dinner buffet. Along with Western Sizzlin's and cafeterias, Chinese restaurants dominate the American pastime of all-you-can-eat.
At Imperial Garden, there's a menu long enough to need a bookmark, with carefully numbered selections climbing into three digits, and a whole host of subsets. But go in and actually request menu service during the dinner hour, and the staff looks surprised, because the buffet, with its silver trays and overhead lighting, is the real meal ticket here.
Given the cost the bill for two came to under $15 it's probably the better option, although there's definitely a price paid with food that often lacks freshness and a pervading sameness in taste despite a variety of names on the placards.
Like many of its ilk, Imperial Garden is appointed with paper placemats printed with the Chinese zodiac, and an array of Chinese-themed pictures and artifacts. But the furniture is standard restaurant issue, and the cultural identity is barely window dressing, hardly permeating the entire restaurant.
No, this is strictly a garden of cheap eatin'. The buffet has a multitude of choices up one side and down the other, many of them the kinds of familiar chicken variations that Americans associate with Chinese restaurants: kung pao chicken, General's chicken, honey sesame chicken, sweet and sour chicken. There's also broccoli and beef, egg rolls, fried dumplings, pork in Peking sauce, and vegetables including sauteed green beans and mushrooms in oyster sauce.
Our first pass through the buffet was better than the second. This might be attributed to the fact that I was hungrier the first time, but I think a definite factor was that I happened to hit the buffet soon after it had been restocked; by the second round, the food was 20 minutes older. Some dishes can withstand this lag between preparation and consumption. Others suffer mightily: The deep-fried vegetables, dumplings and egg rolls became quickly tough, and the rice and mein dishes dried out.
Keeping the many chicken dishes straight was taxing. In general, I found that they had acceptable if undistinguished flavors, but the chicken pieces had tough fried exteriors. A little better was the Peking sauced-pork, and the Imperial hand rolls, (a new item) featuring meat wrapped in tofu skin. The mushroom and green bean vegetable dishes were good choices if only to provide counterpoint to the glistening, richly sauced meat dishes.
Rounding out the buffet is a pale salad bar of the iceberg lettuce and Jell-O variety, and an amusing dessert selection to satisfy American sweet teeth. There are fortune cookies, of course, and also Little Debbie- and Keebler-style packaged cookies and cakes, some terrible fake soft ice cream and more palatable sugar buns and sesame balls, which are at least warm.
What's on the menu?
Ordering from the menu didn't bring much better culinary results, although we received friendly and accommodating service. The staff at Imperial Garden was universally pleasant, and we were well taken care of by two or three different people. After we'd eaten, one server took it upon herself to bring us complimentary dessert which we had not requested from the buffet, and when we had finished that and were getting ready to leave, she brought us another.
As an appetizer we tried both the egg drop and the hot and spicy soups. These were average at best: The hot and spicy had good flavor but was somewhat gelatinous; the egg drop sacrificed delicacy to a severe glut of egg. Also disappointing were stale wontons and fried rice which lacked flavor and tasted old.
Savory Chinese menus always seem to include duck, so the crispy duck sounded both appropriate and adventurous. The menu requires a day's notice for ordering duck, but as it happened, one was available. I wish it hadn't been. Although duck is more oily than chicken, this one was dry, and the skin was tough and had an unappealing gray color. What's more, it was drearily presented upon a couple of sheets of iceberg lettuce, with dangerous-looking exposed bones sticking out in several places.
We got better results with the moo shu pork and garlic chicken. Our moo-shu was hand-rolled at the table, which was entertaining, but although the taste was adequate, it was dominated by pork; the only clues to different ingredients were their textures. I found the garlic chicken tasty enough; however, the advertised ingredient of garlic was well-masked under a thick, spicy sauce. Better was the side of snow peas and water chestnuts, which were crunchy and a good complement to the other textures.
For an inexpensive meal with unlimited quantity, the Imperial Garden buffet offers an alternative to hamburgers and tacos, but for really good Chinese food in a more authentic, or at least a more convincing, environment, I'll likely look elsewhere to start a tradition.