What Dining at a Chinese Buffet Was Like in the ’90s

In the 1990s, while the world was buzzing with the sounds of dial-up internet and the latest hits on MTV, Chinese buffets emerged as the go-to dining adventure for many Americans. These establishments offered an exciting foray into what was uncharted culinary territory for many folks—all for one wallet-friendly price. From atmospheric decor to mouthwatering entrees, here’s what made the 1990s Chinese Buffet experience so uniquely memorable, with shoutouts to some of the era’s most iconic restaurants.

General Tso’s Chicken at Dragon City, Chicago

This dish was more than just chicken; it was an adventure in each bite. Dragon City’s version featured juicy, deep-fried chunks of chicken coated in a glossy sauce that was the perfect balance of sweet and spicy, with a hint of garlic and ginger. This meticulous balance of flavors made their General Tso’s unforgettable.

The Endless Soft Serve at Ice Cream Palace, Orlando

Here, the dream of unlimited soft serve became a reality until, of course, the machine decided to act up. But when it worked, it was pure joy in a cone.

Sweet and Sour Pork at Golden Wok, Los Angeles

At Golden Wok, the sweet and sour pork was a riot of color and taste. Tender pieces of pork were enveloped in a crispy batter and then drenched in a vibrant sauce made with vinegar, sugar, and ketchup, creating a symphony of sweet and tangy flavors. Pineapple chunks and bell peppers added freshness and a crunchy texture, making each mouthful a complex delight.

The “Pile High” Mentality at Empire Buffet, Miami

Empire Buffet was where you could embrace the buffet’s most enduring appeal—the freedom to sample everything. It was about quantity just as much as it was about quality.

Pepper Steak at Jade Garden, New York City

Jade Garden’s pepper steak was a masterclass in simplicity and flavor. Strips of marinated beef seared to perfection, were tossed with sliced bell peppers and onions in a savory and slightly sweet sauce of soy, garlic, and a hint of black pepper. This dish was all about the quality of ingredients and the precision of the stir-fry technique, delivering tender beef and vegetables that retained their bite.

The “Mystery Meat” Challenge at Mystery Delight, Las Vegas

With a name like Mystery Delight, diners expected surprises, and the restaurant did not disappoint. It was the place for those who dared to explore the unknown corners of the buffet.

Lo Mein at Happy Garden, San Francisco

The lo mein at Happy Garden was a harmonious blend of soft, chewy noodles stir-fried with a medley of vegetables like cabbage, carrots, and mushrooms, often accompanied by pork, chicken, or shrimp slices. The secret to its success was in the wok hei—the breath of the wok—which imparted a smoky undertone to the dish, elevating it from a simple noodle dish to a memorable buffet highlight.

Peking Duck at Golden Palace, San Francisco

Golden Palace’s Peking Duck was an exquisite presentation of succulent duck with crispy skin, served with thin pancakes, scallions, and hoisin sauce. First air-dried and then roasted to achieve that perfect texture, this luxurious treat captivated many a diner’s heart.

The Jello Mold Menagerie at Rainbow Buffet, Seattle

Rainbow Buffet became synonymous with its colorful array of jello molds. It was a whimsical touch that added to the buffet’s charm.

Dim Sum at New York Noodle Town, NYC

The dim sum selection at New York Noodle Town offered bite-sized treasures like shrimp dumplings (har gow), pork siu mai, and steamed buns (bao), each meticulously prepared. The wrappers were delicate, the fillings generous, and the sweet or savory flavors were always spot-on. This variety and attention to detail made their dim sum spread a standout.

The Fortune Cookie Frenzy at Fortune Feast, Boston

At Fortune Feast, the meal was never truly over until you cracked open a fortune cookie. Whether the fortune was insightful, humorous, or downright confusing, it was always the perfect end to a buffet adventure.

Crab Rangoon at Ming’s Palace, Houston

Ming’s Palace in Houston was renowned for its Crab Rangoon, a fusion of Asian and American tastes. These crispy, golden pouches were filled with a creamy mixture of crab meat (or imitation crab), cream cheese, scallions, and garlic, creating a delightful contrast of crunchy exterior and lush, savory interior. Served with a sweet and sour dipping sauce, they were the perfect starter to tantalize the palate.

Sesame Chicken at Lotus Buffet, Atlanta

Lotus Buffet’s Sesame Chicken offered diners a delectable combination of sweet and savory. Tender pieces of chicken were battered, fried, and then coated in a sticky sauce of honey, soy sauce, and sesame oil, garnished with sesame seeds. This dish stood out for its luscious texture and the depth of its flavors, making it a much-loved option for those who preferred their chicken with a hint of sweetness.

Egg Foo Young at Bamboo Garden, Seattle

Bamboo Garden in Seattle made a name for itself with its Egg Foo Young, an omelette-like dish with Chinese origins. It featured eggs mixed with cabbage, onions, mushrooms, and often shrimp or pork, pan-fried to achieve a fluffy texture and served with a rich gravy. This dish showcased the versatility of simple ingredients when combined with skill and knowledge, offering a comforting and satisfying meal.

Szechuan Beef at Dragon Dynasty, Chicago

Dragon Dynasty’s Szechuan Beef was a fiery delight for those who dared to embrace the heat with its bold, spicy flavor, achieved by stir-frying thin slices of beef with dried chili peppers, Szechuan peppercorns, garlic, and vegetables like carrots and celery. The result was a mouth-numbing yet addictive dish that captured the essence of Szechuan cuisine’s love for all things spicy.

Posted in: Food and Grocery

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