Stars sparkle and dance across the winter sky as you stroll down South Robert Street, past the scenic Booze Mart and Palace Bingo. Romance electrifies the night.
The tingling air suggests an evening in Venice. Or perhaps Madrid, if it were loaded with O'Reilly Auto Parts stores.
But you're someplace way better. You are in West St. Paul.
It is home to the Great Moon Buffet. Word on the street is it's the greatest Chinese buffet ever invented, the joint that has single-handedly elevated peasant dining to otherworldly heights. You are here to bear witness.
You fling open the doors to find a packed room. Black, brown, white — all the finest pigmentations are represented. Extended families conquer multiple tables alongside immigrants hailing from lands near and far. There is nary a beard farmer in sight. But be forewarned, dearest Tea Party devotee: This crowd will not be cranking Florida Georgia Line upon departure.
The price of entry is steep: $11.49 to $15.49, depending on time and day. On the People's Monetary Scale, that's equivalent to two packs of delicious American-made cigarettes. But you risk it. This glorious tapestry of humanity cannot be all wrong.
As a waitress leads you to your table, you scan the room for the signatures of quality. Giant photo of the Great Wall of China? Check. Wall-sized renditions of mystical waterfalls tumbling into crystalline lakes? Check.
Your feast begins with a massive salad bar. There's a full regiment of mayonnaise-based salads, constructed with everything from pasta to seafood. It's as if a truck hauling the world's foremost picnic food has crashed into a strip mall in West St. Paul, spilling its cargo into feeding troughs within. Patriots hover and gorge themselves on plates heaped high and creamy white. Someone should have brought fireworks.
A few steps away is the Mongolian barbecue. You can select meat, fish, vegetables, and assorted stuff of unknown origin, to be cooked by a pleasant man before your very eyes.
But you know that watching someone cook has all the entertainment value of televised poker. And you will not be diverted in your hunt for that Holy Grail of volume cuisine: seafood.
The very fact that you are here, fretting over the $15.49 that just bolted your wallet, speaks to another undeniable fact: You can't afford real seafood. That is the preserve of guys who tie sweaters around their necks.
Go to a fancy joint, and a lobster dinner might run $50. You will have to iron your best sweatpants. Quick mental check: Do you even have an iron? And you will endure the waiter's smirk when you order his finest bottle of Boone's Farm. He's only 64 credits short of his Renaissance poetry degree from Metro State so, yeah, he's sooo much better than you.
Yet Great Moon allows a piker to be prince.
There's coconut shrimp, shrimp with noodles, oysters, and crab legs. The best is simply called "salty shrimp," delicious crustaceans blasted with enough salt to warrant litigation from the American Heart Association. It's a delightful dish, perfect for the high blood pressure enthusiast, or the explorer lost at sea without the benefit of refrigeration.
The fried fish is where Great Moon truly exposes its superiority. At your neighborhood buffet, you suspect the fish to be locally sourced from a hijacked truck abandoned in the railroad yard. It's then baked under heat lamps to the consistency of roofing materials.
Yet Great Moon's fish is tender, flaky, so fresh you're certain they breaded themselves before being caught, just to speed their route to your gullet.
Alas, the same cannot be said of the crab legs.
You don't blame the restaurant. You know the laws of cost-benefit analysis dictate that decent crab can't be served for $15.49. Which means Great Moon has no choice but to ply the weaker end of the species, the crabs that never date and spend all day playing World of Warcraft in the basement. The kind that get tricked by their friends into getting caught first. "No, really, it's like a roller coaster. Just go into the cage and you'll get a ride all the way to the surface!"
You find them rubbery and out of shape, with all the meat of a Grammys acceptance speech. Eating them is like wrestling a teething toddler into a new diaper.
Supper should not include a high-intensity workout. Of this you are certain.
The seafood is accompanied by all the usual suspects: lo mein, egg rolls, General Tso's. Where your neighborhood joint is strictly transactional — nominal fee for nominal food — Great Moon executes them with ambition and flair. It's as if someone woke up one morning with an idea never before entertained in the Chinese buffet industry: "Hey, maybe we should try to be, you know, really good." Except they probably said it in Mandarin.
Unfortunately, aspiration has its downsides. A packed house means that navigating the troughs becomes a game of human bumper cars. The place has all the elbow room of an 1840s schooner hauling the Irish to America.
You find the waitstaff large but taxed. They hurl themselves about the room with zeal, fetching pops and sweeping crumbs from the industrial-grade floral carpet. But they can't keep up.
You give them a pass. Were it not for immigrants, America's work ethic would be like Moscow's on Free Vodka Night.
But you find yourself missing your neighborhood joint. The piles of fake crab and deliciously oiled green beans. The young Hmong families for whom an $8.95 dinner is a once-in-a-moon treasure. And truth be told, that roofing-materials fish is really tasty. Even if it leaves permanent scarring on the roof of your mouth.
Yet these thoughts are fleeting, for the upside to aspiration is far too great. Namely: The chow is way better.
You are pleased to see someone presenting superior food to the general peasantry, without trying to sell you a $17 rack of toast served with crumbs of artisanal bird food. For this much is true: Great Moon is a rare triumph of the 99 percent.
You fling open the doors and step into the night, enveloped by the enchantment of Robert Street. You momentarily consider another stroll down this most regal of boulevards.
But Great Moon has defeated your hunger with honor and volume. You're walking a bit like the SpongeBob balloon in the Macy's Parade.
So you wedge yourself behind the wheel of your minivan. It starts. Thank god, it starts. And for this brief moment, you are king.
Great Moon Buffet
1200 S. Robert St., West St. Paul