When I crave Chinese food, I go to Chinatown.
When I crave Americanized Chinese food served out of a chafing dish, I talk to Joshua Martinez of The Modular food truck. He shares an affinity for what he calls "dirty Chinese" with the owner of the Rice Box food truck, John Peterson. They share tips and new discoveries with each other, eager to try out the greasiest of the greasy spoon Chinese buffets in town. Recently, Martinez let me in on one of his new finds.
It started with a photo he sent me of intricately painted china sitting in a buffet under heat lamps. On top of the plates, there was...
"What is that?" was the only logical response to that photo. "Is that...are those..."
His reply was swift.
"Yes, those are Hot Cheetos."
At Peking Bo, a rather spacious Chinese American restaurant with quite possibly the most unique buffet in town, you can pay an even $7 for the oddest assortment of Chinese and vending machine food around.
The main buffet is fairly standard. It's nostalgic Chinese American food--spring rolls glistening with MSG crystals, limp lo mein noodles, General Tso's chicken. It's also American food like chicken nuggets and french fries and the slightly more buffet-obscure creamed corn. There's a small salad bar with iceberg lettuce, pickles, carrot sticks and canned pineapple that tastes like the fruit cups you might remember from elementary school. It's strange and lovely.
The strangest part of all, though, is the dessert cart. Separated from the main buffet of steaming hotel pans and the ever-present aroma of deep fried dough is a small section where you find the obvious chocolate pudding and Jell-O Jigglers, the less obvious arroz con leche and the utterly bizarre plate of mini marshmallows.
Next to the mini marshmallows, piled high like a slightly stale gelatin cloud, are animal crackers. Nearby are the Hot Cheetos, and next to those, a plate of mini rice cakes. On another dessert cart in the same area, you'll find mini powdered doughnuts and rice crispy treats.
"This is what you get when Chinese buffets go completely wrong," Martinez says. "Or right. Maybe they understand their demographic better than anyone else."
I think he's on to something. At 3 p.m. on a weekday, I ventured out to Peking Bo, fearing that, like most incredible wonders of the world, it would be a chimera, a bit of culinary cryptozoology, something you hear about but never actually get to experience. Instead, I wandered into a bustling buffet in a strip center just off the East Freeway. Rarely do I see such a range of ages, races and walks of life communing in a single restaurant, but here we all were, united over a love of crab rangoons and MSG.
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The actual Americanized Chinese food portion of the buffet contained some meats I feared to touch, but other items like the garlic green beans and spicy lo mein were actually quite good. The egg rolls are crisp and wonderfully greasy, and the beef and broccoli surprisingly flavorful.
And then there's the weird stuff--the marshmallows and Cheetos and the random chafing dish filled with sliced cucumbers swimming in Ranch dressing, located confusingly close to the dessert options. Still, when I saw child after child (and even several adults) stack their plates high with doughnuts, marshmallows and animal crackers, I realized that maybe I'm what's weird here, not the seemingly random assortment of items glowing under yellow lights.
Most restaurants fall somewhat short of giving the customer what they want because they're so focused on maintaining a sense of character and uniqueness.
Peking Bo gives its customers exactly what they want, even when what they want are slightly warmed Cheetos.