ORIENTAL SUPER BUFFET | Dining Reviews | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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ORIENTAL SUPER BUFFET

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Buffets are about quantity before quality, and the simplest of equations: How many dishes and how much can I eat? For the committed diner, buffets provide what is unimaginable in any other type of restaurant: the chance to eat every item on the menu.

No easy feat at the Super Buffet, where I counted over 152 dishes by my somewhat confused criteria (are fried wonton skins merely a garnish, as I decided, or a single item?). Such gargantuan spreads lend themselves to childlike tabulations -- four kinds of soup, five variations of sushi, six dim sum selections, 17 entrees traditionally served over rice and over 20 dessert items. The warming tables were re-stocked as needed, so even the popular "top-shelf" selections like shellfish, salmon, sushi and crab legs remained available.

I scooped one forkful of several savory meat-and-vegetable toppings -- Gen. Tso's chicken, beef with peppers, sesame chicken -- around a pile of rice so that I might sample as many dishes as possible, in the shortest amount of time. Most proved palatable but the downside of buffets was also apparent: The food is not piping hot; it's seasoned for the most timid palate; and some dishes are no match for the warming tray. (The sauceless roast duck was virtually mummified.) In one corner you could have a grill chef wok up raw meat and veggies you picked yourself, but I was too transfixed by the volume and variety of the immediately available food to venture there.

I'd idly debated tasting absolutely everything, but after noting the scope of the selections, I opted instead to sample every dessert. Buffets will bring out the worst eating habits in a diner. For me it's the sweets. A young man from a nearby table appeared to eat nothing but steamed crab legs, returning time and again from the buffet with a tangled heap of red appendages balanced precariously on his plate. Good for him.

A serving table labeled "desserts" held 12 offerings, but while cruising the full buffet I was delighted to find another dozen treats tucked away in spare spaces. There were puddings at the salad bar, and an apple cobbler in the "alternative" serving pod (presumably aimed at kiddie diners and those who can't conceive of dining out without sampling wings, pizza, fish fingers, French fries or chicken nuggets). A selection of sweet buns and jellies was above one warming table that offered intriguing entrees with jellyfish and whole finger-length white octopi.

I opted out of the Western Jell-Os and soft-serve, and loaded up on the exotics. The sweet mango jelly was a sublime pinkish orange, with the smoothness of pudding but the cohesion of gelatin. The square slab of coconut gelatin -- two tones of white like a bride -- tasted the way Hawaiian Tropic suntan oil smells. That's a good thing as it invoked a sensuous, tropical warmth despite its orderly shape and chilly color.

Other desserts spoke of foreign influences: the French-style elephant ears -- a soft sponge cake squishy and filled with cream would have been at home on any English table -- and the chocolate-and-white layer cake with cherry frosting (having been cut into small squares early in the evening, its edges had dried out).

My companion looked on in mild disgust as I diligently chewed up every dessert. Now the buns: The "long bun" is a sweet coffee-cake type roll filled with sugary toasted coconut; the "pineapple bun" is covered in sugar and shredded coconut and filled with cream but no indication of pineapple; and another bun is covered in sweetened sesame seeds.

Still more. A dense rice cake jellyroll was pretty like a bisected seashell with red and green swirls, but not sweet enough for me. The slightly salty Chinese donut was unrepentantly greasy, rolled in granulated sugar dough, a deep-fried delicious no-no (I had two). And the batter-dipped peanuts coated in powdered sugar tasted like Boston baked beans, which aren't beans at all, but similar candy-covered peanuts. A final unlabeled mysterious dense gelatin proved my undoing: chewy, tasteless and covered in vegetable oil. I'd eaten one too many desserts but the numbers had added up satisfactorily. **

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