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The King and I

King Buffet exemplifies the American melting pot in more ways than one.

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ENRIQUE LIMÓN
  • Enrique Limón

The American buffet, bright and fragrant with the scent of endless opportunity, is one of our country's most significant contributions to food culture. It doesn't matter where you stand on the foodie spectrum, an all-you-can-eat buffet is a guilty pleasure at worst or an exercise in pure gastronomic freedom at best. When Chinese American restaurateurs started to merge their menus with the buffet business model, they not only added more nuance and healthy competition, but also bridged a gap between American ideology and immigrant culture. Even today, restaurants such as King Buffet (multiple locations), capture all the opportunity, diversity and old-fashioned consumerism America is known for. Plus, they have a goddamn chocolate fountain.

My most recent visit was on a Sunday night. The restaurant was packed—it's one of the most frequently visited Chinese buffets in the state. Initially, I thought this would have an impact on my wait time, but it only took about five minutes for my friend and me to get a table. King Buffet runs their operation a bit like bars do—they seat you, take your drink order and then let you run wild until you'd like to close out. Pricing is a flat rate of $8.95 for lunch and $12.95 for dinner, both of which are reasonable rates for the ability to eat as much food as you want.

The basic layout includes an obligatory station of universally accessible buffet staples like pizza, onion rings and chicken wings as well as a fully decked-out salad bar. It's not long, however, before all of this familiarity starts to dovetail with a strange wonderland of baked mussels topped with melted cheddar cheese and crawfish boiled to angry red perfection. It's a culinary landscape that shouldn't work by traditional standards. According to the unwritten rules of dining out, you shouldn't be able to toss your lo mein with pieces of nigiri and scoop it up with a slice of pizza. Let me tell you, when you chase that particular dragon, it's not long before you start to question whatever social structure is currently trying to shoehorn you into its paradigm—but do so at your own risk.

Since King Buffet has two other sections dedicated to a Mongolian grill and sushi in addition to its buffet proper, a bit of individual menu planning can go a long way. I'd suggest picking one of these three sections and sticking to it for the duration of your visit. The Mongolian grill consists of a sizable raw bar where you assemble your favorite meats, veggies and noodles and hand them off to one of the grill masters for finishing. It's tasty but time consuming—if you're going for variety, I'd suggest leaving this behind so you can focus on the less time-intensive areas. On the other hand, it's perfectly valid to make this place your one and only stop.

Then there's the sushi bar. I'd argue that it's just as good as any all-you-can-eat sushi joint in town for about half the price, with the exception being any sushi roll that is battered in tempura. The non-fried rolls are fine, but this is the one area that I would suggest avoiding anything fried. Unless you snag a few pieces when they bring out a fresh roll, the exterior can become a bit chewy and unpleasant. It's easy to hop back and forth between the sushi bar and the buffet, and if you happen to be making your inaugural visit, this is what I suggest.

King's biggest draw might be their seafood selection. In addition to the aforementioned crawfish and mussels, you can find garlicky crab legs, boiled prawns and shrimp with cocktail sauce.

ENRIQUE LIMÓN
  • Enrique Limón

The item that weirded me out so much that it was on my plate before I had time to think it over was a cheesy casserole baked with chunks of imitation crab meat. A quick Google search led me to pages of recipes that attempt to recreate this—it's appropriately called Chinese Buffet Crab Casserole, which leads me to believe that it's a dish originally conceived by some unrecognized talent within the annals of Chinese buffet history. As deep in casserole country as Utah is, this is the dish that best exemplifies the cultural blender on display at King Buffet. The melty cheese with a little crunch from toasted bread crumbs collides with the imitation crab meat in an unexpectedly complementary way. Make no mistake—it's weird as hell. But it comes with a subtextual understanding that something warm and gooey can melt your heart regardless of what you grew up eating.

Perhaps this is why seeing such seemingly discordant food work together for a unique shared experience is so memorable. We often get told that certain people, ideas, philosophies or backgrounds just don't work together. It's a recipe for the neat, orderly perspectives that don't have any patience for the cacophonous reality of inclusion because it's much easier to demand to be accommodated than it is to be accommodating.

If this constant push and pull is eating at you, then may I suggest eating at a place like King Buffet? The feeling of liberation that comes from assembling a plate of mozzarella sticks, chicken yakitori and octopus seafood salad makes it much easier to visualize a world where all of us weirdos can coexist on the same plate together.

AT A GLANCE
Open: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.;
Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m
Best bet: Bring your stretchy pants and get ready to chow down
Can't miss: The Utah wonder otherwise known as Chinese Buffet Crab Casserole

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