Are You Having the Buffet?

after John Cheever                     

It was late morning on one of those spring Saturdays when all the old Chinese men were gathered at their usual round tables saying, as if it were a miracle, “They have fresh crab legs.” Latecomers would be saying the same thing, reaching the end of the buffet line and spotting the piles of steamed blue crabs—calinectes sapidus, otherwise known as beautiful swimmers—before finding a seat and then returning to fill another plate with blue crab alone, while smiling triumphantly.

This was at the Golden Dragon restaurant in Houston’s old Chinatown. It was a typical late May in Texas, the temperature outside approaching ninety degrees, the air as humid as the top of a bamboo steamer. The skies were deceptively clear; native Houstonians knew that at any hour heavyweight clouds might rapidly drift in and deliver thunderstorms. Jack Mah sat at one of the round tables with some of the old men, cracking a crab claw open then poking at some of the sweet meat with the tine of a fork. He was thirty-nine, still thriving, vigorous, with ruddy skin, strong arms and thick short black hair, his sideburns not even gray at the tips. He wore black Nieman Marcus slacks, a chocolate brown pointed-collared shirt from Banana Republic, gray socks with a diamond weave pattern, and black Kenneth Cole patent leather oxford shoes. Earlier in the morning he’d awoken at his ranch house in Bellaire, feeling young and determined, believing America was still a land of golden opportunity, the future as inviting as ever. One of the first to arrive at the Golden Dragon, he’d enjoyed seeing friends and business acquaintances, and now as more customers poured in, he wanted to replicate the restaurant’s success, as if prosperity were a liquid that could be bottled and sold. His own restaurant was located in the city’s new Chinatown some twelve miles southeast, on the seemingly endless thriving strip called Bellaire Boulevard, and suddenly without provocation, as if the knowledge were inspired by genius alone, he realized that by driving a somewhat logical course and stopping at as many buffets as possible he could journey there by eating.

Yes, he had all the time in the world because this was his day off, so the thought of eating seemed pleasurable, luxurious. The more he contemplated the idea the more he saw several restaurants guiding the way like signs or pointing fingers, steering him ahead to excitement. He’d stopped at a lot of the places before—to check out the competition, so to speak—but he’d never chosen to commence one fell swoop. Yes, to boldly dine at several restaurants within the span of a day would be a grand achievement, something he should have aspired to years ago. Feasting for the sake of learning, an act of smartly pacing his appetite, that was what the trip would be about, and what was feasting but joyous, celebratory?

He managed to remove the thin tendril of crab from the claw he was holding, lifted the meat and chewed slowly, letting the sweet flavor spread through his mouth, tasting for the longest moment, while some of the old men were gorging, as if memories of starvation from the Cultural Revolution still governed their hunger. His next impulse was to slow himself down even more to an almost Buddhist meditative state, to be able to further appreciate each mouthful. But considering the scope of his prospective tour, he began to eat faster and finished the serving of crabs before him. He had put six of the blue crabs on his plate, and judging that this buffet was certainly one worthy of respect he wiped his mouth with a napkin and pushed his chair back. When one of the old men asked if he was leaving, Jack revealed he was going on a grand buffet eating trip.

Another of the old men asked if they could accompany him, but Jack said he needed to go alone. He thought that a solo trip would be proper since no one else’s opinion should bias his judgment, and hastening outside he found his cerulean Ford Econoline van in the parking lot. All at once a myriad of restaurant names streamed through his mind. Could he stop at all of them? Each and every one? He had to try for as many as possible. Now the grid of Houston’s cross streets and freeways materialized in his mind, and he started the van and felt glad that he lived in such a Texan oil and gas mecca where fuel was cheaper than everywhere, where the hot weather kept everyone indoors nearly year round, furthering sedentary eating. Indeed, “Fat City” was Houston’s nickname, and so he set out full of hope and anticipation. He considered himself on a mission, seeking the freshest most authentic Chinese and Asian cuisine, to help raise his own restaurant’s standards.

Jack drove a van to be able to pick up live seafood deliveries at Hobby or Intercontinental Airport; the planes would arrive at any hour, and one saved money by meeting shipments instead of hiring a trucking service. Traffic was light now because of the weekend, so after heading west for only five minutes he pulled up to the curb by Pho Saigon in midtown. Most of the restaurants there were entirely Vietnamese, but Pho Saigon was a Chinese and Vietnamese hybrid. “Jack Mah, is that you?” the owner, Bao Long Chu inquired. “I just heard about your place. Come on in. Do you want to talk or eat? Let me get you a table. Are you having the buffet?”

Jack realized that if he was to navigate a road of buffets then he would have to negotiate his way smoothly, accepting all of the salutations and acknowledgments; he had to be smart like a trader venturing down the legendary Silk Road amidst merchants, pilgrims, monks, soldiers, nomads, and thieves. He didn’t want to offend Long Chu or become caught in a long conversation because of his goal to eat at so many places, so he quickly answered, “Just the buffet, and don’t worry about me. I’m only here to eat.”

Long Chu nodded sympathetically and left him alone, as if understanding the need for quiet and privacy. There weren’t many customers, and Jack walked over to the buffet and eyed the summer rice paper rolls filled with fresh vermicelli and shrimp and herbs. Next came beef noodle pho and then soups called pot au feu or pots in fire, with limes, mint leaves, bean sprouts and chili pepper garnishes. He checked out the bun thit nuon, thin rice vermicelli with grilled pork, and in the adjacent tray flavored egg noodles awaited. The buffet also offered Chinese fried rice, a Vietnamese mint chicken rice, banh bao or steamed bun dumplings stuffed with vegetables, and lastly Vietnamese sandwiches made with French bread, ham, head cheese, pickled daikon, carrots, and cucumber slices.

Jack admired the smart setup; the buffet was short, but Long Chu knew how to prepare and serve fresh food, keeping the amount of dishes small to maintain quality. My customers might like the mint chicken rice, Jack thought, and backtracking he ladled a small bowl of beef pho, took some of the chicken rice, and unable to resist the sandwiches, set one on the edge of his plate. Then he ate with gusto but not too quickly, adhering to moderation for the road ahead, and it felt good to eat, to replace some of the weight he’d lost recently. He thought the seven fifty for the buffet was a bargain and left a generous twenty dollar bill on the table. Long Chu came over and asked, “Are you sure you don’t want to talk? My son, Min still tells everyone about when you took us fishing on the San Luis Pass Pier. Please, come by the house.”

“I will,” Jack said, but before there could be anymore questions he stood and hurried off, breathing deeply, and glancing back he saw Chu standing at the table, shaking his head, appearing worried.

But Jack moved on, climbed into the van and drove south to the Bangkok Palace on Montrose Boulevard. He went inside—the place was empty—and the owner, Lun Sang stood behind the counter and squinted as if not recognizing him. Jack strode by to the buffet and confronted the hot and sour tam yan soup, the tureen marred by a grease slick at the top. The rest of the buffet languished under orange heat lamps; he frowned and thought it was a shame seeing that the tofu fried rice was drying out, and that the khao pad thai, pan fried rice noodles, steamed jasmine rice, and panaeng curry with beef were also baking, being slow cooked to death without any oversight. This is a crime, he thought with disdain, concluding there was nothing palatial about the Bangkok Palace. To offer a buffet without regularly bringing out freshly prepared dishes was simply a disgrace; noticing the $8.00 price on a small square sign he railed: for this? He couldn’t bear to sit down, and now Lun Sang beckoned to him. “Hey, Jack. How about going with me to Richmond Avenue to one of the clubs. I haven’t seen strippers for weeks. My marriage isn’t what it used to be. What do you say?”

Marriage? Strip clubs? Jack couldn’t. Was Lun Sang’s invitation a sign of the future? Was that all there was?

“No,” Jack said, and retreated to the front door.

“What’s the matter?” Lun Sang asked. “Don’t you like girls?”

Jack scowled and didn’t want to listen and was already leaving. Lun Sang’s complaining voice called after him, but Jack sought the safety of the van.

He drove to Rice Village, and parking at the New Bombay he felt renewed seeing several Indian and white customers who were entering. He’d heard of the place over a year before, the restaurant advertising in the Houston Chronicle that it drew its cuisine from all over India, so for the longest time he’d wanted to eat there. He was intrigued now by the ten shaded tables outside where several parties were relaxing, everyone appearing comfortable and unhurried beneath a huge white canvas canopy. Large motorized fans hummed and swung back and forth automatically, sending soft breezes through the air at regular intervals. The idea of increasing the outdoor dining space with the canopy was ingenious, and more importantly as Jack sauntered inside and walked up to the buffet table, his adventure felt distinctly global; he tinkered with the idea and possibility of creating a buffet of the world. It might not only be feasible, but hugely successful, given Houston’s cosmopolitan clientele. Now the New Bombay’s owner, Eric Ribiero, a forty-something man with dark skin and neatly-combed black hair, wearing a sharp pressed navy blue suit and light blue silk tie, stood greeting everyone with the broadest smile and an energetic face. He looked directly over at Jack, so Jack nodded to him before proceeding down the buffet line with everyone else.

A hostess dressed in a royal blue and gold brocaded saree who could have been straight out of a Bollywood film asked if he was there for the buffet, saying the price was ten dollars. Jack gladly assented.

First there were dosas, South Indian crepes made from black lentils and rice. He served himself one of the masala dosas, stuffed with potatoes, fried onions, and spices, and he was tempted by the mysore dosas which were filled with coconut and onion chutneys. Both dosas were served with sambar, a vegetable stew or chowder, so he took a small bowl. He moved along to find some idli, steamed rice and lentil cakes with crushed dry spices. Then came the main dishes: fried whitefish, tandoori chicken, and chelaw kababs from Iran—skewered beef and lamb served with saffron basmati rice and grilled tomatoes—and he used a spatula to set a fish fillet on his plate. Further along he helped himself to aloo gobi, potatoes and cauliflowers, and stuffed bhindi, okra with cumin, onion, and chilis. The New Bombay served an Indo-Chinese vegetable fried rice, and for dessert rasagollas, sweets from Eastern India boiled in light sugar syrup. Jack served himself some of the dessert with stainless steel tongs then walked all the way to the back, spotting an empty table. The lighting was dimmer than he was used to, but he felt calmer and perceived that the same type of mood, or the air of romance, was lacking from his own place. He made a mental note to inquire about the lighting. Digging into his food he felt a little full but wasn’t deterred; yes, he’d made decent progress so far, and glad for his time alone, he polished off all the food on his plate.

The day was still young so he felt up for the rest of his personal challenge, and leaving another twenty dollar bill he started to exit. But a voice shrieked out, “Jack, is that you? I haven’t seen you since Kim Ling’s party.” It was Sandra Wong, a woman he’d almost slept with long ago, and she sidled past some other customers, drew him close and hugged him, then kissed him directly on the mouth. He smelled alcohol on her breath—was it gin, this early in the day?—and she laced the fingers of her right hand through the fingers of his left hand and pulled him closer like she was still trying to seduce him.

Didn’t she have any sense of respect? Of decency?

“You’re not right for me! You never were, and you never will be!” he cried out.

She looked stunned, as if he’d been the one who was rude.

But Jack dashed off, staying on course. Climbing into the van, he thought his stomach felt good but wasn’t nearly full yet. He supposed gluttony wasn’t what he was after, but a certain joie de vivre. Yes, that’s what the day was, a tribute, an acknowledge-ment of one of life’s individual marvels, an homage to the pleasure of food, so he headed north and made his way over to Richmond Avenue.

Jack pulled up to The Panda Bandito which was a bit risky, maybe too far flung, but he was determined to keep an open mind, to fully explore and run the gamut of all the dining choices. Still he almost couldn’t believe his eyes as he walked in because a giant statue of a Buddha-like sitting panda loomed dead center in the entranceway. The bear wore a huge sombrero and sported a huge Pancho Villa mustache. The slogan “To Eat Is Human, To Panda Is Divine,” curved across the top of the front archway so Jack burst out laughing. What had he been thinking? What was he doing here? He couldn’t shirk responsibility though; no, he owed it to himself to go in and rate the fusion cuisine at what had to be the city’s only Mexican-Chinese restaurant.

Jack recognized the owner, George “Jorge” Chong who leaned forward from the entrance table; he’d met him once at a lunar New Year’s festival. “If it isn’t my favorite Chino!” Jorge exclaimed. “Jack, how are you? Where have you been?”

“I came to eat. I’m here for the buffet,” Jack said and gave a brief smile, adhering to the challenge, trying to avoid any possible distractions.

“Oh, sure,” Jorge said. “Come on in! Help yourself! I’ll have my daughter, Maria wait on your table. Who else is with you?”

Jack’s skin prickled up and down the back of his neck for a moment, but then he managed to explain, “It’s just me today,” and he felt a cold breeze streaming down from a vent somewhere high above the doorway.

“Every man needs some time off,” Jorge said, “especially men of the world like you and me. Go on! Walk right in!”

Jack felt like saluting him but moved forward and saw the buffet waited directly ahead, the food beneath plexi-glass shields that hung at chin level to help prevent each dish from being breathed upon. The spicy aromas in the air enlivened his senses; he smelled peppers, chilis, and ginger. Many of the clientele were smartly-dressed Mexican couples, and there were a lot of clean-cut color coordinated Asians. Several young white couples appeared fashionably-dressed in light striped cotton suits or smooth linen dresses. Everyone here can obviously afford to eat wherever they want, Jack observed, so the food must be good. He also noticed the line never seemed to let up.

Once the line finally moved forward, Jack saw shrimp chips and Szechwan guacamole, and black bean and corn wontons. The house special soup was swimming with calamari, shrimp, clams, cabbage and bamboo shoots. A waiter stood overseeing chile-citrus scallop cerviche, making sure the lime juice was sufficient, and the waiter pointed to oysters with chile-ginger salsa and grinned benevolently. Jack felt unsure about the supposed allure between the exotic and the familiar, wondering if the blending of Mexican and Asian ingredients was a good thing, but further down he smelled a huitlacoche refried rice dish, marveled at the carnitas egg foo young, and who could have dreamed up the moo shu burritos with a mole sauce? He slid a little of everything onto his plate and made note of tilapia served over a bed of sautéed bok choy with a foamy lemon sauce. Szechwan chicken fajitas and the hoisin-braised duck carnitas impressed him too, and he added two of the carnitas to his plate. The dessert was vanilla caramel flan or arroz con leche. He laughed, supposing the mixture of two cuisines meant you could have twice the appetite. After finding a booth in a corner, he sat and Maria came over and wrote down his drink order for unsweetened ice tea. At first he ate a little more slowly than at the New Bombay, but after a few minutes he toughened up and ate with a renewed gusto, finishing everything. The duck carnitas stuck out the most for his own restaurant, and sitting there digesting the lovely food he called Maria over and, in the spirit of the meal, said, “Please, bring me a shot of tequila.”

Casa Noble?”

Jack nodded.

When Maria brought the glass to him she smiled sadly and affectionately. “You poor man,” she said. “My father told me about what happened. Your tequila is on the house.”

Jack trembled but then kept face by ignoring how he was drinking alone; he stared at the small glass as if Maria weren’t there, as if she hadn’t said anything, and she sighed and left him. He felt the liquor’s cool smooth burn and blinked tiredly but also felt glad to be continuing the eating tour. He left two twenty dollar bills on the table, pulled himself up, patted his stomach and tottered out to the van and was soon on his way again, the alcohol buzz spurring him on, like he was an unstoppable consuming force.

The sky was gray; with any luck, Houston’s daily torrents of rain would hold off. He thought of P.F. Chang’s but a buffet probably wasn’t upscale enough in their minds. No, where was the profit margin for an all-you-can-eat pretentious be-seen and make-the-scene nationally popular chain like that? So Jack continued down Richmond Avenue and took the left onto Kirby Drive, remembering a place called Canton Seafood.

When Jack opened the door the owner, Sam Siew asked, “Hey, where have you been?”

“I’ve been busy lately. Way too busy,” Jack said.

Sam wore thick-framed black glasses and always had a gleeful mischievous expression. He was short, heavyset and wore long-sleeved collared dress shirts, sometimes a tie, and his most impressive quality was the ability to recite any customer’s name and recall their favorite dish, even if they hadn’t eaten there for months. His girlfriend Susan worked the front counter; she was taller, trim and svelte, with an oval shaped face and glistening black hair. She had the smoothest most beautiful pale skin and could have been a Breck shampoo girl. Jack had joked frequently about whether Sam had been decent enough to propose to her yet.

After exchanging smiles with Susan, Jack asked Sam, “Well, have you asked Susan yet?”

“Asked what?” Sam asked, feigning ignorance.

“You let him get away with too much,” Jack said to Susan and continued into the dining room.

“Would you like the buffet?” Sam asked.

“The buffet it is,” Jack said.

Nearing the buffet line and inhaling the fragrant aromas, he felt like he’d been transported to culinary Heaven. There was an untypical pungent fish fat soup. He ladled a full bowl. Black cod, prepared in a light soy sauce, and the whitest fillets of Chilean sea bass in a clear sauce, garnished with scallions and ginger, were the next offerings. Jack’s eyebrows lifted as he discovered a sweet and sour fish made from red snapper. He moved on to discover black pepper fried squid, sea cucumbers, and pan fried scallops with peapods and baby corn. The food was at another level, and so was the jumbo walnut shrimp in a creamy sweet white sauce. He couldn’t believe the two final entrees, steamed Dungeness crabs, the most delicious garlic aroma wafting upwards, and lobster Cantonese, the thick gray sauce rife with bits of pork, scallion, and ginger. The timing and preparation had to be exquisite to prepare all of the dishes and serve them fresh, without any overcooking on the buffet table. He noticed how there were no heat lamps, but an electric warming system, probably set to the gentlest temperature. As a cook appeared and scrutinized the fish dishes, Jack likened the watchfulness to the careful attention needed for warming a baby’s bottle. This was certainly an eating triumph.

He sat at a small round table with a white tablecloth. Susan brought him tea. She gazed at him with mournful pity, as if he was homeless or indigent, but he focused on the food. He spooned the soup up greedily, chewed on the fish fat pieces with unabashed pleasure, and the sea bass tasted wonderful while the Dungeness crab—it struck him like something life-changing—and he remembered the first time he’d stood in an ocean surf and felt a wave breaking over his head, feeling lucky to be alive. The pink crab meat was sweet, succulent, only making him more ravenous, eradicating all of the mundane food he’d ever eaten. He filed the impression in the small niche of his memory reserved for the best eating. Usually Susan brought the check by now, with a fortune cookie or a complimentary bowl of sweet red bean pudding, but Sam approached the table and said, “You know, I did it.”

“Did what?” Jack asked.

“Proposed to Susan. Just now. She said yes. What do you think? Where do you recommend for a honeymoon?”

Jack tried to reply, but his mind wouldn’t let him remember, wouldn’t allow him to think that far back. “Be good to her,” he said, and now he needed to hurry, to finish all the eating that was left—was there ever enough time for everything?—so he rose, set thirty dollars on the table, and in spite of Sam’s perplexed expression he retreated from Canton Seafood before Sam or Susan could say another word.

Now Jack’s eyes discerned the changing slant of the mid-afternoon light. the thickest banks of clouds as dark as coal were massing in the western sky. Still he needed to focus on the dining ahead; he’d been to six restaurants, and countless options existed, but he started the van engine and narrowed his choices, and basing his decisions upon location, there was one more place. Big drops of rain splattered down on the windshield; since the arriving storm would soon be fully upon him, he needed to act fast. Storms in Houston always meant potential flooding, the loss of lives, highway dips that suddenly became rivers, the nasty currents from overflowing bayous threatening to sweep trapped motorists away. But he wouldn’t be caught. Not him.

Jack pulled onto Kirby Drive and drove straight into the oncoming deluge. He floored the accelerator as the increasing rain pelted the van’s roof, every drop a reminder of how crucial time was. Water began to cover the asphalt, and he realized that aside from his capacity the buffet challenge was about to pose other difficulties. But for now he sped onward, drove back to Highway 59 and traveled southwest to the Bellaire Boulevard exit. There Houston’s New Chinatown began, all of the restaurants and shops arranged in strip mall after strip mall on both sides of the road. He covered several miles until out of the flatness of the landscape a large square building, the My Kahn restaurant, towered over everything, prominent, officious, dominating the skyline.

Jack circled around and wove through the huge lot for five minutes until someone happened to be leaving. He parked, and inside the My Kahn the escalators ferried customers to the second floor. Most of the customers were Asian, the presence of someone white rare; to be within the My Kahn was to experience an inverted America where to be Asian meant feeling safe, in the majority, the fear of racism barely existing. Female servers wheeled dim sum carts throughout the huge cavernous dining room; there were fifteen rows by fifteen rows of tables. Hundreds of patrons were enthusiastically talking and eating, their voices as loud and intense as the roar of an ocean. But as one of the hostesses led Jack to the rear of the dining room, he realized she was seating him at an empty chair at a table already occupied by a family; he noticed grandparents, parents, children—young and old alike—making him feel like a lone bachelor.

Suddenly he was trembling. Wasn’t he in the final stretch, about to conquer his buffet challenge? Shouldn’t he have been happy? He muttered something as the family’s father waved for him to sit down, and then, feeling his presence was too intrusive Jack claimed he needed to check out the buffet. It was set up along the back wall, and once there he started to examine tripe, chicken feet, juk or rice porridge, Chinese broccoli, and other essential dishes that were like Chinese soul food. He wanted to try several of the items but felt too full, as if he’d had enough, as if the buffet challenge couldn’t lead to everything he’d hoped for. “Hey, Jack!” someone shouted so he turned, and now he felt trapped or caught in a glaring spotlight because there stood Edward Lai who he’d once cooked with at another restaurant. What had the place been called? “Jack!” Edward shouted. “It’s great to see you! What are you doing by yourself? Where’s Lily? Where’s your wife?”

Jack’s heart tightened; his breath caught, like an arrow had been shot through his chest. And then he felt like he was on the outside looking in, as if all of the customers, all of the happy families, could have been fish swimming in an aquarium within their own beautiful majestic world while he stood terribly alone, watching them through unbreakable glass. He backed away quickly from Edward, turned and started running; heading for the escalators he barely hearing Edward saying, “Jack, please. Jack, are you alright?”

No, he wasn’t. And suddenly one more restaurant materialized in his mind, another place he needed to stop for the buffet challenge; he’d forgotten that the My Kahn wasn’t the last place, after all.

Jack jumped into the van, cranked the engine, backed up and peeled out recklessly, tires screeching, burning rubber, as if he were no more than a high school kid in a street race. He sped down Bellaire Boulevard for another few miles and turned into the parking lot for a desolate run-down strip mall. He stopped the van, hopped out, stood there as the engine idled, and he was crying now. It was the first time he’d let himself, and as he gasped and stared at his own restaurant he was thinking about everything there was that still had to be done, that waited to be finished. Yes, he needed to inventory the freezer, make sure about the cooks, the stoves, the produce deliveries, and he had to see Lily, to talk with her and report about what was being served elsewhere, because the competition had so many new gimmicks.

He stepped forward as he had thousands of times, his hand reaching for the door knob, but his wife wasn’t waiting for him anymore, not in this life. And he still wouldn’t admit that she’d been pregnant with their first child, or that she’d been trapped there in a kitchen grease fire several weeks earlier—asphyxiated, caught behind a wall of flames, working although he’d told her not to—nor would he acknowledge that there was no building now, only yellow tape, the charred remnants of the framing protruding into the sky like stalactites, while what was left of the roof slanted downward in two collapsed slabs, every beam splintered, almost everything blackened and caved in. As the lingering smell of smoke pervaded his nostrils, he remembered that his wife had been taken to the hospital. Maybe he could find her there? Or had he seen her already? He couldn’t recall what had happened to the cooks, the waiters, or the customers, so all at once he quivered and as if falling back into a never-ending dream he sobbed like a frightened child, backed away, then ran to the van and started driving again.  

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