Buffet, Brooklyn Center, Wow
5927 John Martin Dr., Brooklyn Center;
Hours: daily 11:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m.; lunch Monday-Saturday 11:00 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
The mail brings me plenty of interesting stuff, but one spidery, handwritten letter I got last fall from a 71-year-old reader stuck out. "Nice things are not supposed to be found in places named Brooklyn," it began, intriguingly. "This begs the question, what is the New King's Buffet doing in Brooklyn Center?
"The creators of this restaurant seem to have a thorough understanding of the American culinary psyche," it continued. "Perkins is next door, Leeann Chin is across the street geographically, but in all else they are in furthest outer darkness when contrasting their offerings....This buffet might be best described as WOW!" Yeah right, I thought. Buffet. Brooklyn Center. Wow. Which of these words just doesn't belong?
But I didn't throw the letter away, I just put it aside, and that wow nagged at me like a sticky doorknob squeaking for oil, until I finally called up the writer, Jack Dols, and made a date to check out the place. We went on a Friday night, at 7:00 p.m., and as we and three other friends pulled into the parking lot across from Bagel O'Donut (not kidding) I remained skeptical, wondering mostly why the neon outside said "New Buffet." Where's the King's?
But once we passed into the brightly lit, steamy restaurant, the wows began: The place was thronged. Packed. Swarming. People were excited, kids were bobbing all over the room, and generally it was less like entering a restaurant and more like finding yourself transported to the State Fair. (Prices, too, have a certain Midway ring: Dinner after 3:30 p.m. and all day Sunday is $9.95, beverage included. Lunch is $6.45. Children under four pay $2.13, four-year-olds $3.20, five-year-olds $4.26, six- to ten-year-olds $5.86, 11 and older count as adults.)
Because we had Jack Dols with us (he eats there weekly), we were seated instantly, and I soon learned the drill. Visit your table, throw down your coat, place a drink order (soda, lemonade, tea, or--for an extra 80 cents--milk), and immediately cruise the four buffet stations: One cold (featuring all the traditional salad fixings, plus desserts like Jell-O and tiny Danishes), one raw for cooking on the spot, and two hot, all stocked on both sides with an incredible array of dishes.
And I mean incredible. It doesn't take long for the dazzling array to induce a kind of vertigo: Where to start? Perhaps with the fried dumplings, spicy pork in chewy, obviously handmade wrappers, the thick dough perfect for absorbing potent quantities of the traditional soy-vinegar-chile-sesame-oil-scallion sauce? Or with the bite-sized deep-fried balls of yam or sesame-seed-coated dough, which I'm used to seeing on street carts in other cities' Chinatowns? How about the hot and sour soup, egg-drop soup, won-ton soup?
Perhaps you'd prefer the bafflingly named "Chicken Boy," barbecued morsels of meat in a sweet, caramelized sauce? Crispy duck, the meat moist and savory, the skin brittle as the coating on a candy apple? Or baby octopus (known here as cuttlefish) in a delicate anise-scented, five-spice-powder sauce, the little bodies light and resilient as rosebuds?
Buffet regulars don't seem to suffer from such indecision: They beeline for the snow crab. I've personally never been too wild about once-frozen crab, but lots of people seem to come here just for the opportunity to feast on crustaceans. They pile their plates as high as they can and sit down for a cracking, dunking, and sucking extravaganza--good thing the servers are ever ready to drop a pile of napkins. I did find a crab preparation I liked, even in a steam tray: Small snow crabs hacked and deep-fried in silky batter, tossed with chunks of fresh ginger and lots of scallion tops. The dish had so many textures and tastes it was positively absorbing.
But what about the delectable salt-and-pepper prawns--head-on, shell-on shrimp tossed in a Szechuan seasoning mix, flash-cooked in a scalding pan so the shrimp are plump as berries, their shells as crisp as potato chips? Salt-and-pepper prawns have always been one of my favorite dishes, and before this I thought I had to go to New York to get them done right. Now I know better.
Granted, there are a few uninspired dishes--fried fish, fried surimi rolls, fried shrimp, fried chicken nuggets, etc.--but then, what some call uninspired is often what four-year-olds call manna, and the New King's Buffet is the rare restaurant that can accommodate every taste, from the very young to the very interested in eating shrimp heads. In fact, on that first Friday night, I was amazed at the multicultural environment: Patrons were black, white, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani. I can't think of another restaurant in town that is so thoroughly diverse in both clientele and variety of dishes.
So just how many dishes are there? Jack Dols counted 57, and that seems about right--until you start figuring in the mathematical possibilities of the Mongolian buffet, where you go through a raw-or-parboiled line assembling ingredients like beef, pork, chicken, squid, onions, snow-pea pods, noodles, and such, and season them with any of nearly a dozen sauces. You bring your plate to the barbecue chef, who combines your selections on a sizzling, round iron griddle-table, sweeping them around the surface with a pair of utensils that look like enormous chopsticks. When everything is cooked he slides your dish onto a fresh plate-- voilà, dinner.
I met a man in line one night who explained that a teriyaki-ginger-chile-sesame-oil combination makes a perfect beef lo mein, and that you should always add more of everything than you might think prudent. That seemed to work pretty well. I saw others take their plates back toward the salad-bar buffet to add peanuts, and I'm thinking that the only thing that really prevents you from sitting down, shelling a bunch of crabs, and putting those in your noodles is personal style.
There's a lot of personal style involved in buffet eating--it's fertile ground, really, for any amateur field anthropologist looking to analyze human behavior. My friends came up with one mantra--"in order to best fulfill your appetites you must first restrain them"--that summed up our method of sampling a tablespoon of this and a tablespoon of that on the path to figuring out what's best. But clearly there are myriad other strategies: One popular approach is for each member of a party to fill up one or two plates with a couple of dishes for everyone to share. Another is to appoint one unlucky family member (usually Mom) as the designated runner for the entire table. Many groups seem to feel that everyone should fill his or her own plate, but that the party should sit and rise as one, recognizing different courses.
While you're considering these group dynamics, please note that at the New King's Buffet there is a definite correlation between the more and the merrier: Once I got to the restaurant when it was only half full, and without the constant restocking required by a crowd some of the items started to get cold and flat, fulfilling my buffet fears. So the best thing to do--and you'll probably never hear me say this again--is to go when you think the place will be crowded. And don't worry about the lines: Even on that jam-packed Friday I never saw anyone wait longer than 15 minutes for one of the many tables.
Of course, once I discovered how fabulous the New King's Buffet is--really, I'd rank it among the top three Chinese restaurants in town, up there with Rainbow Chinese and My Le Hoa--I had to know: Why? The chances of getting a real chef in the kitchen at a Chinese restaurant in the Twin Cities are incredibly slim, but clearly there's well-trained talent behind the scenes here.
It turns out that the restaurant is actually the brainchild of a bona-fide upscale Hong Kong restaurateur, Oi Kwok. Kwok grew up in a Hong Kong food family (he has brothers who run establishments in Rochester, Minnesota, and in New Jersey) and ran a successful restaurant on the island until quite recently. But the prospect of Chinese rule unnerved him and so, right before the British ceded control, he cashed out and came here. Not sure what kind of dining Americans would really go for, Kwok decided to make us an offer we couldn't possibly refuse: Incredible Chinese dishes, lots and lots of boiled crab, desserts, a beverage, and as many trips through the choose-your-own-ingredients Mongolian-barbecue buffet as we want, all for $9.95 per person.
And success was found. And Jack Dols wrote a letter. And you know that deal about how a butterfly flapping its wings in Java can create a thunderstorm in Kansas? Well, the return of Hong Kong to China has resulted in all-you-can-eat five-spice baby octopus in the land of the Snow Emergency. Now, I know many of you have one question left: Why Brooklyn Center? Manager Wes Chen says the New King folks basically looked at a map and tried to find a location that was near a lot of people and a lot of highways. This spot is just off I-94, I-694, Highway 100, and Highway 152; if it's not rush hour, it's basically no more than 15 minutes from anywhere in the west or north metro.
From the Highway 100 exit at 57th Avenue North/John Martin Drive, go north, following John Martin Drive as it curves into a commercial area. The New King's Buffet sign will be to your right, though for the moment it says only 'New Buffet': According to Chen, the sign guy never delivered the crucial word.
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