Back in the 1970s, my wife and I were Peace Corps volunteers, teaching in a dirt-poor West African village. One of our students was really special, a gifted, hardworking kid who loved learning English. We promised him that if we ever had enough money, we'd bring him to America for a visit. At the time it seemed like an empty promise. By the end of our three-year Peace Corps stint, we had a five-figure bank account. Unfortunately, two of the numbers were to the right of the decimal point.
A few years later, however, we found ourselves running a temporary budget surplus. So we flew Moulaye over, borrowed my in-laws' car and set off on a six-week tour of America.
As you might imagine, our guest maintained a state of almost perpetual astonishment. Once he ran screaming into the house, warning us about a deadly green mamba snake coiled in the backyard. It turned out he'd spotted the garden hose. He was fascinated by straws--your lips never touched the glass, he marveled. We took him to the Voice of America studio in Washington, D.C., where a friendly announcer gave him the chance to broadcast greetings to friends and family listening half a world away, on the edge of the Sahara Desert.
America was teeming with wonders--he admired Manhattan's skyscrapers, Niagara Falls, paved roads, the absence of flies. But nothing, absolutely nothing, inspired more stupefied, open-mouthed wonder in our visitor than the all-you-can-eat restaurant.
Moulaye could scarcely grasp the concept. Back home, most of the villagers spent each day plotting where their next meal might come from. "You mean everyone can eat as much as they want?" he asked, scanning the dozens of dishes set out at one buffet stop. That's it exactly, we told him. He stared at the tables of plenty, thinking the idea through. Finally, he said: "You couldn't have this restaurant in Senegal. It wouldn't make money. People would eat until they burst and died."
It's not only hungry Africans who, tempted by unlimited bounty, might eat until they burst and died. During my recent foray into all-you-can-eat land, I saw plenty of otherwise well-fed Americans who also found it hard to resist temptation.
Why do people flock to all-you-can-eat restaurants? Price and quantity are the two essential components of the formula. Where else can you get such a low-cost fill-up? But, I wondered, where does quality factor in the equation?
At Mr. Tokyo, a new Chandler buffet, the quality factors in a lot higher than I had dared to anticipate. Now, no one will confuse the self-service, Americanized Japanese dishes here with the fare you'd find at most full-service Valley Asian restaurants. But for the most part, the food is fresh and tasty. And the $10.99 dinner tag--the price includes unlimited sushi and soft drinks--does nothing to diminish Mr. Tokyo's charms.
The proprietor changed concepts from fast-food parlor to all-you-can-eat buffet a few months ago. The move seems to have paid off--on a recent visit, I had plenty of dining company.
This shopping-center storefront isn't going to wow anyone with its looks, but the place is clean, tidy and brightly lit. The principal decor motif is a long mirror on the side wall. If you like to read while you eat, check out the stack of Japanese newspapers. If you prefer to listen to music, piped-in light rock furnishes aural diversion. You'll have to make do with plastic plates, forks, knives and chopsticks. But, let's face it, no one here is expecting fine china or sterling silver cutlery.
And with Mr. Tokyo's sushi, who needs them? If professional duty hadn't obliged me to eat my way through the rest of the lineup, I'd have rooted myself in the sushi section. There's quite a variety, and something fresh was always on its way out of the kitchen. Over the course of an hour, I snagged salmon, mackerel, snapper, roe, California rolls, tofu pouches, and yummy tuna and sea urchin hand rolls.
Normally, there's enough grease in buffet fried foods to lubricate the entire field of the Indianapolis 500. Mr. Tokyo keeps the oil levels low, so the munchies stay crisp, not soggy. Battered veggies--calling them tempura might be a bit of a stretch--are a good option. Dip onion, zucchini, red pepper and sweet potato in soy sauce, and crunch away. Pan-fried gyoza, doughy meat dumplings, don't have the stale, sitting-under-the-tanning-lamp-forever taste that afflicts inferior models. And while the chicken nuggets and egg rolls had little going for them, the crab puffs tasted like they'd just jumped out of the fryer.