Why I Took My European Boyfriend to a New Jersey Chinese Buffet
The last time I visited my boyfriend Kåre in Norway, we took a trip to Tysnes, a picturesque, sparsely populated island about an hour's drive south of Bergen, Norway's second-largest city. Where I see a peaceful vacation spot spitting natural beauty from every angle, Kåre mostly sees a slice of his childhood. His mother grew up on Tysnes and his family spent many summers there in a cabin his dad built. During our visit, we attended a blues festival on his cousin's farm with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. The next morning we hiked a sun-dappled mountain lush with lichen-spotted trees and moss-covered rocks like something out of a Miyazaki movie. You know, just Norway bein' Norway.
I wanted to return the favor by treating Kåre to a slice of my childhood. So when he visited me last fall, I brought him to a Chinese buffet in Northern New Jersey. Yeah, take that, Norway!
During my pre-teen years, I'd occasionally crave mashed potatoes, spaghetti and tomato sauce, fried mozzarella sticks, General Tso's Chicken, beef and broccoli, and crab rangoon all on the same plate, followed by unlimited soft serve and rice pudding. And because America is a beautiful land of excess, this meal of dreams was easily and frequently attained by a 20-minute drive to Bon Buffet, one of my family's favorite restaurants in the '90s. I haven't eaten at buffets with any regularity in over a decade, but they still hold a special place here [presses right palm over heart, Pledge of Allegiance-style] as a warm reminder of my comfortably boring childhood in suburban New Jersey, when the freedom to sample over 50 kinds of foods in one meal without any restrictions from my usually health-conscious mom could brighten my day like nothing else.
And that's why I brought Kåre to Dynasty Buffet, his first Chinese buffet experience in the US. I wanted to show him my childhood—my America.
Why Dynasty Buffet? Because the negative Yelp reviews for Bon Buffet kind of broke my heart. I wasn't ready to tarnish my childhood memories.
But tarnished, they got. Dynasty Buffet was pretty good—surely a step up from the buffets I went to as a kid—but the meal and experience wasn't as enjoyable as it used to be. Something deep within me had changed. Not my taste—I still enjoy gross amounts of fried/carb-heavy foods in combinations that the human body shouldn't subjected to. Not my level of maturity—that's been stagnant for a long time, hoo boy. Something else deep within me...and full of enzymes. I'm talking about my digestive system.
I've noticed the downward spiral of my digestive system—let's name her Rumbly—over the last few years. Back in college, Rumbly used to plow through a loaf of challah bread in one day. Or a few sweet buns from a Chinese bakery for dessert (they were half-off, ok?). Or a full pastrami sandwich from Katz's (actually, no, that hurt, but I did it without throwing up). Now my 28-year-old-self gets tired after eating a couple of digestives as a snack. Last year I bought Tums for the first time ever. Rumbly, what happened to you?
I don't think I overdid it at Dynasty. I got two plates of regular food plus a meager dessert plate and a tiny bowl of soft serve—probably about as much as my pre-teen self would eat at a buffet. Except my younger self would make it to the end with no problem. This time around, bursting through the soft serve finish line required summoning every dribble of nostalgia-powered mental strength while blocking out any inkling of good judgement.
Your tummy isn't feeling so hot, Robyn.
NO, IT IS FINE, SORT OF.
I think you are beyond full, Robyn.
NO, I PUNCH THE FULLNESS WITH THIS SOFT SERVE.
And I had to cross that finish line because when I was a kid, soft serve was the most exciting part of the meal. I wanted to recapture that excitement, that victory. And artificially-flavored, gum-stabilized, milk-based extrusion was going to get me there.
As I gingerly ate my dessert, Rumbly was all like, "Eh, bye," and by the time I finished dessert (of course I finished), my innards felt like a stack of bricks laced with sleeping pills.
Now that I've given Kåre his Chinese buffet experience (he enjoyed it ok), I don't have any reason to return to a buffet anytime soon. I know I'm better off this way, but it still makes me a little sad.
What's next up on my "Making Kåre Experience Robyn's Childhood" agenda? Bringing Kåre to Friendly's. What can I say; I love the guy.
Q&A With Kåre
Update: Due to popular-ish demand, I virtually prodded Kåre with some buffet-related questions and I fashioned his answers into this Q&A-type thing. Enjoy!
What kind of buffets are there in Norway?
The only buffets I've been to in Norway are breakfast buffets at hotels and pizza buffets. Pizza buffets are usually a lunch thing and aren't available in the evenings. At Egon (local restaurant chain) they have it the whole Sunday and Monday, too. I went to one at Peppes (local pizza chain) a few times when I was younger, but I couldn't find it on their website. I think I heard some years ago that they stopped doing it, but I saw in a comment somewhere that it might be different for each location.
Could you imagine Chinese buffets ever being a thing in Norway?
No, not because we wouldn't like it, but because it would probably be expensive. Also, we don't have that many Chinese people here.
What stood out to you about Dynasty Buffet?
The weird mix. Some Asian stuff, some western, and some things in between. Since I ate small servings of each thing, none of the actual items stick out in my mind. Not this long after, anyway.
Would you return to a Chinese buffet? Or treat it like a one-time experience?
Sure, I don't see why not. It's a lot of food for not that much money.
What did you get out of the Chinese buffet experience?
It was both a fun food thing and a new angle on food culture. But it probably feels more special to you since you grew up with it.
Serious Eats reader question: "Did your boyfriend feel he was indeed sharing a slice of your childhood, and what kind of impression did it give him of your childhood?"
I've mostly spent time with you in the city, so it's fun to see what places you would go to if you still lived in NJ. It's interesting to hear what you did growing up, and I also like to know whats available now. I know little about the details of suburban life. Like where you would go to eat. All the small things they never show on TV. Going out to eat when you're growing up is also different to me—we hardly ever did that. I don't think my parents see the point to be honest. The biggest change for me in that respect is that you would go out to eat at all. (Norway changed a lot as I grew up, so it might be different for kids now. Norway is seen as wealthy now, but it wasn't always like that.)
About the author: Robyn Lee is the editor of A Hamburger Today and takes many of the photos for Serious Eats. She'll also doodle cute stuff when necessary. Read more from Robyn at her personal food blog, The Girl Who Ate Everything.