‘Iowa’s largest buffet’ at China One4/16/2014
During the reign of Louis XIV, buffets reached decadent heights of conspicuous consumption. Alexandre-François Desportes painted a few of the Sun King’s more lavish party spreads before Louis’ gold and silver serving dishes had to be melted down to pay off his debts, which accelerated the French Revolution and the guillotining of most people eligible to have attended such feasts. America democratized the buffet. The all-you-can-eat buffet (AYCE) was reportedly invented in 1956 in Las Vegas. Finally, average guys could eat like 17th century French dandies but without dress codes or noble birth.
Technically central Iowa’s first AYCE preceded the Vegas rage. The Fjord began a 35-year run in Huxley in 1953. In its early years, it only presented a buffet (called a smorgasbord because the place was Norwegian) on Saturdays. Salad bars (called “cold buffets” in Europe and “Viking buffets” in Japan) became popular here in the 1970s, after Spaghetti Works made them part of its AYCE pasta concept. Full buffets remained a hit-and-miss proposition in Des Moines until the new millennium, when it took a distinctively new direction. In 2000, China One International Buffet opened on Ingersoll in a facility that had been transformed over a few years from a bus barn to a cafeteria, an AYCE and a cheap steakhouse with a large salad bar. Nothing lasted long.
When China One opened, I thought they had far too many workers to support a business with such slight margins over food costs. Its model spread, though, with several other Chinese buffets opening and some small Chinese cafés adding buffets. In 2012, Eastern Sushi Hibachi Buffet opened a lavish 500-seat venue in West Des Moines with scratch-made kim chi, fresh meats and seafood for Mongolian BBQ, halibut, frog legs and a full score of shellfish dishes. After a few months, that place left town in the dead of night — employees had been implicated in an identity theft scandal.
Today China One claims to be the largest buffet in Iowa with more than 100 items daily. The spread I saw was primarily Chinese. Other dishes included macaroni and cheese, soft shell tacos, pizza, Jello and unappealing sushi. Overstaffing seemed to be a thing of the past. Waiters appeared to take drink orders, but the buffet was not replenished quickly and fewer than half the dishes were labeled.
The buffet featured several dishes not seen on smaller buffets: two kinds of crawfish in the shell, stuffed giant mussels, snow crab legs, salt-and-pepper calamari and pepper shrimp, four kinds of Shanghai dumplings and pork buns. Fried chicken wings, shrimp and tempura style vegetables were well executed. Chinese-American cuisine was well represented with egg foo youngs, sweet-and-sour dishes, chow meins, egg rolls, spare ribs and crab Rangoon. Stir-fry dishes were excellent, as were multiple kinds of noodles. Soups were basic — egg drop and hot-and-sour. A Mongolian barbecue disappointed with mostly frozen items. In fact, on one visit with the place half full, no one used it at all.
China One’s prices are attractive. Lunch specials still deliver a choice of 18 entrees with fried rice, soup and crab Rangoon for less than $5. About 80 dishes are available for carryout at prices ranging from $1.25 (pint of soup) to $10 (chef specials such as triple crown). Buffet prices range from $7.25-$11 with large reductions for children under 12.
Side Dishes Soybean geneticist Harry Stine of Adel hit the Forbes billionaire list for the first time… Cargill declared it will begin labeling all “textured beef product included” burger as such. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.