Published in February 2008
Photos by Angelo Alaimo
It's not easy being a buffet expert. Not only is sacrificing your physical health a must; it takes dedication and an undying love for the buffet. It started when I was 10. My introduction to Pizza Hut’s kids-eat-for-free deal turned out to be an all-out, lifelong love affair with buffet.
In comparison to other cities, Victoria fares poorly when it comes to buffets. For example, in Ontario there’s an award-winning all-you-can-eat buffet called The Mandarin offering Chinese cuisine and other items, such as Maui ribs and cold prawns. In Victoria, you have to pay top dollar to get those kinds of quality items in an all-you-can-eat buffet. The Victoria buffet scene has gone through its share of ups and downs over the last 15 years. By far the biggest devastation for the local all-you-can-eat buffet community was the loss of Pizza Hut. Whether I was a 10-year-old boy with the lingering taste of dessert pizza in my mouth or a belligerent, hung over 16-year-old punk seeing if I could be the one who breaks the 30-slice record during a 45-minute lunch break, the Pizza Hut on Shelbourne was too amazing too be true. This was a buffet that could keep your senses sharp. It was a tool for tuning up the hunter/gatherer instincts. One must be quick and cunning to load up a plate with enough pizza to feed 15 people for a table of three. With 10-minute breaks between fresh pizzas, only the strongest and fastest could suckle upon the sweet breast of the Hut. It was $6.99 for all-you-can-eat pizza and all-you-can-eat dreams. Sadly, the Pizza Hut passed away in 2005 to make way for a Tim Horton’s. The late Wonder Wok restaurant, also on Shelbourne, offered a tasty little buffet for $5.99. In 2003 it sadly shut down, but re-opened for a brief stint in 2006. Eventually it was turned into a Starbucks. In memory of the Wonder Wok and Pizza Hut, two buffet gems taken away from Victoria way too early by major coffee/donut chains, I have spent the past two weeks venturing all over greater Victoria with one goal in mind—to find the best Chinese buffet in the city.
(801 Vernon Street)
Crystal Jade is located in the old Uncle Willy’s building. It was a treat. Highlights included salt and pepper fried fish and squid, tender barbequed pork glistening with flavour, and textbook spring rolls that crunched with freshness every time you took a bite. There were different types of chow mein with Singapore and Shanghai-style noodles and staples like sweet and sour pork, ginger beef, and, um, scrambled eggs. Yes, scrambled eggs. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Further down the buffet line required some pickiness. I don’t eat vegetables unless they’re deep-fried. If it isn’t brown, give it a frown. But the mixed vegetables with tofu drizzled in black bean sauce looked and smelled incredible.
Near the top of the buffet line was an assortment of deep-fried items that all had fantastic consistency--prawns, chicken wings and balls, squid, all of which are lightly crunchy on the outside while warm and soft on the inside.
Once I was finished loading my plate, a self-serve fountain pop kiosk caught my eye. Around the corner from that was a soft-serve ice cream machine, of which many customers took advantage. Chocolate and caramel syrup were available for customization purposes. The service was fantastic and comparable to the service you would receive at a classy Sunday brunch buffet in a nice hotel. Tea was graciously served the second we sat down and the manager of the buffet was working hard and smiling at the same time. This was truly an experience, and I will be visiting this buffet many times before I die.
Price: $14.95 for dinner, $11.95 for lunch
(138-1551 Cedar Hill X Rd.)
A gem is resting behind a McDonalds in an underground parking lot. Its name—Purple Garden. Located only a few minutes from the Lansdowne campus, Purple Garden delivered quality food that was clean and fresh. When an item was old or the container empty, a fresh batch would be in its place fairly quickly. Other than dry chow mein, the items were excellent. The spring rolls were fried well, offering a nice, crunchy exterior and filled with cabbage and other assorted vegetables. Other items included ginger beef, mandarin-style fish, and green beans with barbequed pork. Or was it barbequed pork with green beans? This place does not cheap out on the meat. The beverages were on a self-serve system, similar to Crystal Jade, and there was a freezer with four kinds of ice cream to choose from. The customer service was polite and diligent. Used plates were quickly removed from the table and tea was offered. The general atmosphere was nice and the other customers seemed to be enjoying themselves while light classical music permeated the dining areas. Easily the best value in the city, Purple Garden is great place to go for lunch if you’re at school and want to get away from the boring food served at Chartwells.
Price: $12.95 for dinner, $8.95 for lunch.
(110 Burnside Rd. E.)
The Szechuan City experience has been a tumultuous ride. As a teenager, I frequently visited this restaurant with my friends and have many memories of the poor way that my friends and I were treated.This was back when Szechuan City was still a one-store pony across from Tillicum Mall.
I distinctly remember an incident when I was 17, and a waitress poured me a glass of water only half full. Before she walked away I asked her kindly if I could receive a full glass of water, since the plate of food I was about to devour was surely going to parch my taste buds. She politely agreed and poured the rest of the glass. Later on during our meal, a disgruntled waiter approached our table and made eye contact with me.
He then started pouring me a glass of water until the water started overflowing and spilling over the table, and onto the floor. Then he uttered words that will stick with me for the rest of my life. “Is that enough water for you, sir? You make so much mess!” But the food easily made up for the rudeness of the waiter. Now it’s a different story. The quality of the food has taken a dive and, as a result, the customer service has greatly improved. Again, the drinks were on a self-serve system, and ice cream was offered on tap. Nanaimo bars summed up the beauty of their dessert options and their main dishes were pretty good, but not as good as they used to be.
Some unique items they offered were teriyaki meatballs and cold prawns—the good kind you have to peel.
Price: $9.50 for lunch
(212-815 Cloverdale Ave.)
Raymond’s has been referred to as the best buffet in Victoria. Well, they’re not the best, but they have some nice qualities.
A large number of Chinese people were dining at the Cloverdale Raymond’s, which made me feel pretty good while I was sampling the items. I was also hung over, so the sight of all-you-can-eat dim sum was a nice surprise. The dim sum itself was okay, but the only item I enjoyed from it was the pork wrapped in a small sticky bun.
Classic items were readily available though--sweet and sour pork, ginger beef, fried rice, and chow mein, to list a few. The best items were the salt and pepper squid, which possessed a spicy bite, and the spring rolls were amazing. The staff generously poured water and the atmosphere was great. Drinks weren’t included in the cost, however. Excellent elevator music was in the background and this was firmly established by the muzak rendition of “I Want to Live in America” which was subtly playing as I drowned my sorrows in sweet and sour sauce.
Price: $12.75 for dinner, $9.75 for lunch
(4-100C Aldersmith Place)
Raymond’s near Admirals offers a unique style no other Chinese buffet in Victoria has—a Western buffet containing over 20 items with a salad bar. We knowingly ignored the salad bar and started piling up our plates with Western cuisine. Some of the standout items were stuffed mushrooms, garlic sautéed mushrooms, and maple BBQ side ribs. The BBQ ribs were delicious, but the majority of the food was lukewarm and old. We were shocked to see this common phenomenon happen at such an early time in the dinner rush. It would be better if they replaced the items in the Western buffet more often. Our second trip to the buffet led us to the Chinese items. We filled our plates with all the regulars, like fried rice, ginger beef, and sweet and sour pork. The spring rolls were crunchy and fresh, a sure sign of a passing grade. Many Chinese items were also not being replaced, despite their age. The kung pao chicken with diced vegetables was cooking in its own juice and developed a saucy film. The salt and pepper pork was cooked well and had a nice, spicy bite, but it was cold. The few items that got replaced included the garlic pepper deep-fried squid and the pork dumplings. Both were tasty and provided us eating enjoyment on our third and final plate. Raymond’s buffet has the potential to be the best buffet in the city, but for whatever reason they don’t replace the items as much as they should.
This isn’t a new problem. I’ve visited this buffet many times over the past five years and I’m always disappointed in the lack of fresh items. Buffet items should be replaced because of their age, regardless if they are consumed or not. If they provided fresh food throughout the duration of the buffet, Raymond’s on Admirals would be one of the front-running buffets in the city.
Price: $12.75 for dinner, $9.75 for lunch
(90 Gorge Rd. W.)
WTF? I’ve never left a buffet hungry in my life.
There was no way I was going to continue dining on wonton soup that had an epidermis and almond chicken reminiscent of the days when I was curious about the taste of play-dough.
Three types of chow mein equaled three different possible patterns of vomit. Dry and soggy at the same time, I had to give them credit. It’s very difficult to make food that has polar traits like that. The fried rice was hard enough to chip teeth. The spring rolls were old. Correction. Everything was old. I was confused by how bad everything was. I was even more confused when I realized the place was full of people. The waitress who greeted me was more depressing than the cuisine. Also, drinks weren’t included with the cost of the buffet.
Price: $7.50 for dinner, $7.25 for lunch