I’ve recently gotten married. My wife was born and raised in Wichita, and she’s introduced me to some of the places that have played an important part in her childhood. One of those places, to my surprise, was the Shanghai buffet on East Harry. Not only was it important, it was one of the “special event” type of places her family went to when they wanted to celebrate a special occasion.
Familiar with the kind of reviews I write in my spare time, she confessed this to me with reticence. After all, the ideal of Americanized Chinese food is in and of itself such an affront to the palates of the Guangdong Province, whose traditional Cantonese cuisine was bastardized in an attempt to gain an American presence.
For some people – most people – food isn’t something that’s meant to be challenging. It’s a refuge, a safety net in dealing with whatever else is going on in their lives. They want to hit that trifecta of salt, sugar and fat in a way that makes them bliss out and forget for a moment whatever troubles them. Chinese food, in the version that most Wichitans consider it, is one of those areas of comfort. An eggroll, taken unto itself, is a treat, so why not go to a place that lets you eat as many egg rolls as you want?
Shanghai isn’t the largest Chinese buffet, nor is it the prettiest. There’s only so much you can do in this restaurant that looks like it used to be an IHOP. But it is one of the most well-maintained, featuring a small army of personnel constantly making sure the food on the buffet is replenished and your water glass is full. This doesn’t sound like much, but some of the larger buffets offer so many different items that it’s impossible for the staff to keep up.
It’s probably the most modest buffet in town, which may help explain why it’s so well-tended and so well-frequented. The cost – less than $10 for lunch – might help things, too.
And the quality of the food? It’s about what you’d expect: lo mein that’s a little greasy, breaded and fried pieces of chicken that got a little soggy sitting in their warmer tray. The hot and sour soup is a standout, offering a thick consistency and plenty of tofu and mushrooms to make it feel substantial. I doubt how freshly-prepared the egg rolls or chicken wings are, but they still produce a nice crunch.
There aren’t many vegetables offered other than from the diminutive salad bar, but they’re done well: sauteed green beans with a sharp crunch; broccoli stealing the show in its eponymous beef dish, served al dente; an excessive amount of celery in the cashew chicken. It’s not much better or worse than local strip mall Chinese takeout, but when you’re out with the family and you’re hungry and you don’t want to haggle about where you’re going to eat, a place like Shanghai is its own kind of comfort food.
Some people eat at restaurants that can provide them a window into a foreign culture. Others just want to go somewhere familiar and eat something comforting. Shanghai is one of the latter, and it fits that role for a huge cross-section of the city. Visit on a Sunday for lunch and you’ll see more diversity here than anywhere else in Wichita. The restaurant sets itself apart by focusing on a smaller amount of entrees than some of the other super buffets in town. That, combined with a lower price point, makes for a humble restaurant that has persisted in an area of town that has seen a lot of change.
My wife apologized several times throughout the meal, a little ashamed for bringing me here and thinking that the food of hers and 15 years’ worth of other Wichitans was somehow beneath this food critic. Her shame culminated at dessert, when she went to retrieve two of the fried sweet rolls from the dessert area. She looked into my eyes, watching for my judgment as she grabbed the bottle of soy sauce on the table and poured a splash onto the sweet confections. In her youth, this practice caught the ire of her family, and she was never able to persuade them to try this sweet-savory mashup.
She handed one to me. It was pretty good.
Where: 3815 E. Harry; 316-681-8020
What: Chinese buffet
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily