I have been fortunate enough to eat at some of the finest restaurants around the world.
I've eaten chicken livers at a Georgian restaurant in Tel Aviv. Foie gras in Barcelona. Gyro in Athens. Peking duck in, well, Peking (aka Beijing). Sonoran hot dogs in Tucson.
I say all of that to establish my foodie credibility before I make this confession: I absolutely love buffets.
Buffets get a bad rap—often for good reasons. The food at most buffets tends to be middle-of-the-road fare produced for the masses, kept under moisture-destroying heat lamps for far too long. However, I grew up in Nevada, home to some of the world's best buffets, so I know that buffets can, indeed, turn out some good eats.
That's why I was intrigued by Panda Buffet, which opened last summer on Broadway Boulevard in a space that was occupied previously by Eastern Buffet and Sushi (a buffet and sushi restaurant which opened, started developing a following, and then closed for a mysterious "summer vacation," never to reopen). It seems like the folks behind Panda Buffet are aspiring for their place to go beyond the standard Chinese-buffet formula, thanks to additions such as sushi and unusual seafood offerings.
After checking out Panda Buffet, I can say that when I am hankering for a variety of Asian food, Panda will fit the bill.
About three-dozen entrée offerings are always available, along with four soups, a small but intriguing sushi selection, salad offerings and some desserts, including puddings and eight varieties of scoop-it-yourself ice cream. On Friday and Saturday nights, and all day Sunday, Panda offers an impressive seafood buffet.
The prices are quite reasonable: Lunch Monday through Saturday will cost you $7.25 ($3.95 kids age 3-10); dinner Monday through Thursday is $9.95 ($4.95 kids); and the seafood buffet is $13.95 ($5.95 kids).
If you're dragging along someone who is squeamish about buffets (Hi, Monica!), no worries: A full menu of fresh-from-the-kitchen Chinese-food offerings is always available.
The food, as you'd expect with so many options, ranges in quality. Highlights include the crab Rangoon dumplings, which were perfectly crisp and filled with a creamy crab mixture that was fantastic. The hot-and-spicy shrimp was delicious, and included a variety of nice vegetables. The beef and broccoli was excellent, largely due to the perfectly cooked broccoli. Panda's version of kung pao chicken offered ample amounts of both mushrooms and flavor. The dim sum—including shumai—hit the spot. Garrett and I are also fans of Panda's hot-and-sour soup.
As for the seafood-buffet offerings, I was quite impressed overall. The salt-and-pepper crab legs—which were also available during our weekday dinner—were fantastic, if unbelievably messy. (A word of advice: Ask your server for a crab-cracker tool.) The oyster on the half-shell that I tried was fresh enough. And the snails ... well, I have eaten escargot, but I have never endeavored to eat snails as huge as the ones offered at Panda. These are the size of a child's fist, and the meat is the size of a small chicken nugget. I found the snail meat to be a bit chewy, but not at all bad.
Other seafood offerings include mussels, oysters in a black bean sauce (which tasted great, although the sauce congeals quickly), crawfish, snow crab, clams, ceviche, fish-ball soup and a variety of shrimp preparations. That's a lot of good stuff for $13.95.
Then there's the sushi. The previous occupant of the space, Eastern Buffet and Sushi, offered a full slate of à la carte sushi offerings, but Panda goes a different route, instead offering just a handful of sushi rolls and nigiri pieces as part of the buffet. The shrimp and tuna nigiri that I tried were decent; the deep-fried spicy tuna roll was OK. However, I really enjoyed the rainbow-type roll, which included tuna, avocado, crab and a tasty sauce.
Of course, not everything was to our liking. The orange chicken was way too sweet. The egg rolls were unremarkable. On one visit, the bourbon chicken was so dry that it was almost inedible, though it was fine on the second visit, when the restaurant was near-capacity. Finally, the potstickers were some of the worst I have ever had. No, check that: They were the worst. By far. But, hey, with more than three dozen dishes available at all times, some failures are inevitable.
The décor is quite nice. You can order beer or wine at the bar and watch whatever game happens to be on. Panda images are included in both wall art and images on the glass above the steam tables. The tables and booths are comfy and new-looking. There is one fairly substantial décor problem: The carpet in the main dining area is heinous; it looks like there was some sort of flood at one point. It needs to be replaced.
The carpet and those potstickers aside, I enjoyed Panda Buffet. There are enough tasty offerings; the prices are reasonable; and the service is friendly. Considering my love of buffets, I'll be back.