So many choices at Chen's

The Front Burner

The Front Burner

May 26, 2011|By Donna Ellis

There's probably a reason why you don't see many commentaries on restaurants that specialize in buffets. Sheer numbers of dishes prevent a truly thorough tasting of all that some buffets provide. Multiple visits and multiple meal expenses and multiple pages of copy still might not do the job.

On the other hand, certain buffet eateries deserve their 15 minutes of fame. Among them is Chen Hibachi Buffet in the Golden Triangle Center, Ellicott City. This pleasantly appointed restaurant where Panda Buffet used to be is actually a second edition of that restaurant. The original owner, Peter Chen, turned it over to younger brother Liang Chen, who was managing the family's original Chinese restaurant — Chen's Szechuan Express — in Baltimore County (still open). Liang, a Howard County resident, renovated the Panda, and added his own touches to the place about five months ago.

Chen Hibachi Buffet is sandwiched between two Korean eateries: a barbecue place and a noodle joint. And there's a Thai restaurant in the same center. But those are about the only Far Eastern cuisines not represented here. Examples of Chinese and Japanese cooking styles abound at the five huge buffet stations. And for those dyed-in-the-wool Americans, there's plenty of "home" cooking as well.

The 204-seat dining room is nicely divided into several eating areas. Tables are faux green marble with a few condiments, including soy sauce, of course, on top.

The buffet stations feature ample room between them, with clean plates and various condiments — to complement the various dishes at the stations — placed at one end of each station.

Nine full- and part-time employees, including a full-time and a part-time sushi chef, make sure that everything you're about to eat is freshly cooked, looks appetizing and that each of the virtually hundreds of items are replenished regularly in their serving containers.

What's your mood?

At $12.95 for adults ($6.50 for kids 7-10; $4.50 for kids 3-6), even if the food weren't so good, you'd still be getting a bargain. And with beer and wine costing no more than $3.25 a glass, it seems even more so. Of course, there are soft drinks and hot tea available, too.

You can start (and end) your culinary foray at Station One, on the left as you face the back of the room. It features green salad makings, as well as seaweed salad, broccoli salad, squid salad, crisp green bean salad, amply sized steamed shrimp and more.

Dessert is also at this station, should you care to start your meal that way. You'll find ambrosia, two kinds of Jell-o, fresh fruit, plus cupcakes, cookies, creamy pastries. There's even a soft-serve ice cream machine where you can get vanilla, chocolate or swirl.

When my team of four checks out a regular restaurant, the stricture is that we all have to get something different. In this case, that was no problem because of sheer numbers of different dishes.

Two of us (the "girls") started with a few items from the salad station — just little bits of several goodies — and moved to Station Two for hot and sour soup and won ton soup. The former was quite satisfactory with tofu, greens and good balance of hot and sour.

The latter was nicely served, the broth in a separate container from the wontons, assuring that the dumplings retained a nicely chewy texture when it was time to combine the two. A spoonful of chopped scallion greens and some chow mein noodles made the soup a comforting first course.

Plenty of other appetizer-type offerings are also at Station Two, including egg rolls and vegetarian spring rolls, crisp outside, and with plenty of cabbage and other veggies, crisp inside as well. There's fried whitefish at this station. Plus (Chinese) barbecued chicken, on skewers, satay-style. Plus plump, steamed pork dumplings (shumai). Plus crispy, meaty, moist, tender fried chicken wings, as good as any you can get at a fried chicken chain and without as much breading. And even some good-looking pizza (we passed this one by).

Stations Three and Four comprise myriad main and side dishes, designed to tempt meat lovers (not much in the way of beef, put plenty of pork and chicken), seafood lovers and vegetarians as well. From "seafood biscuits" (sea leg "crab" mixture atop a crispy, buttery biscuit half) to crab Rangoon (crisp, crab-filled wontons) to stuffed crab in their shells to steamed blue crab in small pieces to broiled salmon and steamed flounder and fried flounder to salt and pepper shrimp to shrimp and scallops in spicy sauce. And even batter-fried frog legs (is this a seafood?).

From sweet and sour chicken (sauce and chicken offered separately) to sesame chicken to General Tso's chicken to Buffalo wings to tender, fall-off-the-bone barbecue spareribs (American style) to grilled (tender, moist, mild) pork chops to grilled flank steak (deemed satisfactory by our other tasters).

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