Imperial Buffet: Cheap, So-So Chinese & A Little Japanese

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Imperial Buffet
32 Patrick Lane, Depew, NY 14043
Phone: 716.681.5480
Rating:    [learn more]
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"Imperial Buffet calls it Hibachi, but it's really a miniature Mongolian-style barbecue in execution: you assemble your own bowl from a small collection of vegetables and meats."

Sometimes, in doing too many things at once, a place succeeds in doing few or none of them right. At Depew's Imperial Buffet, the latest Chinese buffet to appear in a plaza that has housed at least one such place before, it's very obvious that the proprietors are trying to do far more than just offering the simple trays of underwhelming General Tso's Chicken and Beef with Broccoli that typically mark such places around here. All you can eat sushi is promised, as is an all you can eat "hibachi" table. There are expansive sections of desserts and American or Italian options in addition to Chinese ones. And there's some seafood, too. All for under $10 at dinner time, or under $7 at lunch. You could just stop reading here if you want and look at the pictures: the prices and the options tell a pretty compelling story.

But it needs to be said: despite the variety, which was somewhat impressive, and the prices that some would deem a full excuse for any omissions in the quality, Imperial Buffet's food quality isn't very good by Chinese buffet standards - it's in the same ballpark as the less ambitious New Fuji Buffet (formerly Moon) in Amherst, and below the now departed Five-Star China Buffet in Williamsville. Moreover, the Japanese items hardly qualify as Japanese, though they're not bad. To keep what could be an epic-length review short and sweet, here's the story, department by department.

Chinese Entrees: Imperial Buffet's array of Chinese food was wide, but the choices were almost universally tame and the flavors were ranged from fine to bad, depending on the item. We sampled probably 15 of the Chinese items, ranging from good items such as barbecued boneless spare ribs, barbecued chicken skewers, and the beef with broccoli to okay ones like the General Tso's Chicken - really more of a honey and battered chicken - and some slightly spicy, dry chicken, to bad ones such as the flavorless spring rolls and the chewy chicken dumplings. The Hot and Sour soup was a rich, fresh-looking brown, loaded with mushrooms, and thick, but only decently flavored; the Wonton soup used overcooked, overly thick wontons that added very little to the chicken broth. Overall, the Chinese food was passable, not good.

Hibachi: Though it wasn't hugely impressive in execution, we were very surprised to see this grill in the dining area. Fairly enough, Imperial Buffet calls it a Hibachi surface, but it's really a miniature Mongolian-style barbecue in execution: you assemble your own bowl from a small collection of vegetables, beef, chicken, squid, artificial crab, and noodles, then bring it to a chef who dumps the bowl out on a hot frying surface, adds butter, oil, and sauce, and delivers it back to you assembled. We tried this with the chef's recommended "hibachi" sauce - a teriyaki/soy stir fry glaze, one of only three choices - and though the beef didn't taste great, it wasn't bad, while the noodles were good, and the mix of onions and mushrooms made this dish as Mongolian as we can currently get in this area. Though it would be a stretch to call this a great Mongolian or even Hibachi experience, our plate tasted better than Mongolian at Golden Duck; that said, out-of-town places do a hugely better job.

Sushi: Imperial Buffet's sushi selection was disappointingly limited and mediocre, with four or five unlabeled roll picks that seemed like variations on two themes: artificial crab with vegetables, or just plain vegetables. The two we sampled from very small plates next to the Hibachi grill were fine, but basically exactly what one would expect from such uninspired choices - they're mostly there to bring people in the door, not to fill them up or sate with choices. New Fuji Buffet's sushi picks, while not phenomenal, are better. We'll also note that we were shocked by the number of dishes depending in some way upon artificial crab at this place; the sushi was only one example.

Salad Bar + Seafood: There's a very decent traditional American-style salad bar on the floor, padded very significantly with bowls of multi-colored jello, and augmented by oversized bowls of fresh seafood: a massive pile of steamed mussels and a similarly large collection of small cooked octopuses. We were concerned that stomachaches might follow, so only one of us braved the mussels and squid, coming away without an issue. Both were served cold; the mussels were large, fresh, and adequate, not amazingly tasty, and the octopus was in a light spicy sauce that added little to its natural flavor. They were both fine additions to the buffet for the price, though fans of crab legs would see them as inadequate substitutes.

Italian/American Dishes: Rather than going into much detail on these items, which included things such as dumplings, slices of pizza, and pieces of fried fish, we'll just say that the one of the two of us who skipped the seafood tried these things didn't enjoy any of them, and came away with a multi-hour stomachache. If you're visiting this place, we'd recommend skipping right past most of these items and sticking with the Asian fare and desserts.

Desserts: Imperial Buffet isn't lacking for dessert options. There's a self-serve ice cream cooler with eight flavors of ice cream and frozen yogurt inside, and we sampled four: a lightly flavored green tea, a nice enough mint chocolate chip, a fine yogurt with blueberry swirls, and some fourth, indistinct flavor that tasted like it had been in the freezer for too long. Besides the previously noted jello, it also has a section of the buffet with trays of sliced, so-so cake, banana pudding, and flaky pastries including heart-shaped pieces of phyllo dough. The best of the group was the banana pudding, made with vanilla wafers, whipped cream, and fresh bananas - it was just good enough that no one would complain, nor try to steal the recipe - while the cakes were alright, their glazed tops helping them to look better than their dry cake layers tasted, and the pastries were bland. The ice cream and pudding were the best in the buffet.

Overall, what distinguishes the Imperial Buffet from China King isn't the food quality, which we'd place in the same unspectacular category, but the quantity and variety for the dollar - our two-star rating reflects our appreciation for the value and low pricing more than any admiration for the food. While only a few of the items we tried were better than decent, the disappearance of strong competitors means that you'd be hard-pressed to find another place in Buffalo's suburbs with as many types of choices as are offered here, for under $7 at lunch time. To be clear, there are better Asian buffets in the United States, but locally, Imperial Buffet doesn't have much competition in breadth, a fact that wouldn't entice us to come back but may improve its chances of survival for years to come.

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