With the current public health crusade against chubbiness, it’s only a matter of time before that quintessential American institution – the Chinese buffet – earns the same sordid reputation as a Prohibition-era speakeasy: Imagine, um, big-boned foodies huddled in dark, anonymous basements, crouched over illicit plates of beef lo mein and sweet-and-sour chicken while nervously fearing that the bulb over the door will flash red, the warning that the nutrition gestapo is about to make another raid. “Put down the chopsticks and step away from the buffet!”
True to the worst fears of the FDA, the Chef Chen Buffet & Club in South Fort Worth has four long buffet carts groaning beneath the weight of fatty, starchy, and salty Chinese-American faves. If you’re seeking delicate, subtle flavors or surprising preparations, drive on. But if you just want self-servings of kung pao chicken or beef with broccoli that’s steaming hot and satisfying, then Chef Chen is ready to help. The restaurant even has a few unusual items on hand – unusual, at least, for your typical Chinese buffet.The sign on the side of the building declares, “Over 200 Items!” But you’ll discover upon investigation that the number includes the stuff on the dessert aisle, like Jell-O cubes, almond cookies, and chocolate pudding, as well as the salad display’s offerings of green olives, hard-boiled eggs, and croutons. And so, while the sign is not exactly false advertising, the final tally has been padded a bit.
Still, alongside standards like egg foo yong, chicken teriyaki, and spring rolls, there were a few delights, not least of which was the music being piped through the sound system, which on a recent visit included piano-and-banjo arrangements (!) of The Carpenters’ “Superstar” and Kermit the Frog’s “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” Excellent ambiance or not, the steamed tilapia was genuinely yummy. Large fillets of the popular white fish, prepared with chopped green onions and narrow wedges of white onion, broke into succulent chunks at the mere wave of a fork. The spicy mussels were true to their name. The fiery thin brown sauce in which they were covered was an effective decongestant and a tasty marinade for the plump, meaty insides that separated easily from the half-shells. The spicy pork sausage dish was full of thin, curled slices of the main ingredient, singed at the edges and juicy on the inside, everything made zesty by the slivers of jalapeño in the mix. The sautéed mushrooms were not of the limp, bottled variety but whole, large cap-and-stem fungi cooked with long bits of skin-on zucchini.
Down near the crispy spring rolls and fried chicken wings were the sesame balls: tan, jawbreaker-sized orbs studded with the titular seeds. Inside the soft breading was a savory, semi-sweet dark brown sesame paste. They were tasty, but they seemed to belong with the desserts. The sushi bar was a small board in the back that tendered seaweed-skinned rolls of spicy tuna, salmon, and tamago (yellow egg). One interesting addition was the inari, which featured a salty piece of firm tofu draped tent-like over a clump of vinegar-infused rice. These proved more addictive than they might sound.
Strictly by buffet standards, Chef Chen executes its goals with professionalism. No item was allowed to sear and stick at the bottom of its hot pan before portions were replenished. Of course, going back to the trough too often could be a problem, from the waistline point of view.
Chef Chen Buffet & Club
Lunch buffet $6.95
Dinner buffet $8.95