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China Bistro I
8027 Kingston Pike

by Ally Carte

Of all the pseudo-profound things I have never been fully able to wrap my mind around, the Chinese buffet ranks among the top 10, closely followed by dinner theater, which is neither, in my opinion, and the BCS. Why do diners flock to rows upon rows of chafing dishes full of warmed-over, bland piles of goo? How could Chinese buffets be so darned popular, springing up as they do like scalpers before a football game?

My theory is that if I can ever figure out this mystery, solving the problems of cold fusion should not be far behind. And, I think after my visit to China Bistro I, a pretty good entry into the Chinese buffet genre, I may be just one step closer.

My predecessor Les DuLunch once claimed that the Chinese buffet is the perfect place to drown one's heartbreak or, at least, stuff yourself so full of fried dumplings and crab legs that you can't move enough to care that the world is cruel. While Knoxville may be full of spurned lovers, that can't be the only driving force. Even on a weeknight, China Bistro I was packed with patrons. Tempting as it was to take a poll on the state of their most important relationships, I forwent that in favor of another round of potstickers.

Regardless, China Bistro I, which is located in the same shopping center as the much beloved Barnes and Noble, has transformed the space that once housed a series of seafood restaurants. Instead of a nautical theme, the place is now decked out with some eye-catching, mass-produced artwork—I'm particularly taken with the fiber-optic landscape complete with pagodas—comfy tables and booths, an airy pastel paint job, and five rows of buffet-friendly steam tables. Dinner prices for all-you-can-eat are $8.25 Sunday through Thursday; $8.95 Friday and Saturday. It's $5.49 for lunch, regardless of day.

While the decor is certainly striking, what's more remarkable are the offerings, which aren't just confined to your more conventional items. In addition to the old standards like sweet and sour chicken, stir-fried garlicky green beans, fried rice and egg foo young, traditional American eats like mashed potatoes, gravy, prime rib and barbecue dot the buffet. It's a little incongruous to see a stainless steel dish heaped with an Italian-inspired macaroni casserole right next to the beef with broccoli and, in the long run, the quality of the Chinese dishes far outweigh those of the more familiar-to-Westerners faves.

In all honestly, China Bistro I's won ton soup is among the best I've ever had. The light and somehow simultaneously rich broth would be lovely on its own with a light sprinkling of green onions; however, with the addition of their tender wontons, this soup could easily ward off any winter's chill. The sautéed bok choy has just enough spice to keep it interesting and the vegetable itself is cooked to a perfect crisp-tenderness, despite the time it had spent over the steam. All of the wok-based dishes were above average, with the possible exception of the steak with A-1 sauce, which was really just odd on a number of levels. And I kept finding myself making return trips for those aforementioned potstickers and their delightful, soy-filled sauce.

What makes this buffet even more notable is the sushi/sashimi selection. Never a huge fan of either, I had the sense to bring with me one Mr. R., professed seafood snob who seems to be able to tell a mound of scallop from a chunk of stingray from 40 paces. The creatures-from-the-sea offerings take up the better part of one wall and, artfully laid out on this table, are everything from raw oysters on the half-shell to jewel-like rice and salmon bites to a big bowl of wasabi. Mr. R. was most taken with the crabmeat and egg rolls, the melt-in-your-mouth salmon, and the veggie roll with asparagus and seaweed. In fact, he returned to this bar so frequently I'm almost certain that I saw the restaurant's owner recalculating her profit margins.

Desserts range from the oh-so-delish deep fried and sugar-coated donut things that are all the rage at buffets to jello and fruit and pudding and cake. The service is quite good—every time a glass was emptied, it was quickly refilled. Discarded plates were whisked away and descriptions of dishes were cheerfully provided. It is possible to order off of a standard menu—but why, when such bounty is spread before you?

While I still don't fully understand the overwhelming appeal of these places—some would consider this a character flaw—I think I may be one step closer now. Or that could just be the deep fried cheese treats talking.

January 3, 2002 * Vol. 12, No. 1
© 2002 Metro Pulse