People in Los Angeles may not be aware of it, but there aren’t a lot of Chinese buffets in Los Angeles when compared to other parts of the country. Yes, there are probably a few dozen Chinese buffet restaurants in Los Angeles county. But when one sees the numbers of Chinese buffet restaurants in other parts of the country and compares them on a per capita basis to Los Angeles, the differential is startling.
Recently visiting Gainesville, FL, I passed a half dozen Chinese buffets in my half hour drive around town. With a population of 120,000, that would project out to 500 Chinese buffets in Los Angeles, based on a population of 10 million in Los Angeles county. Or about 10 years ago, when in Kilgore, TX, I saw three Chinese buffet restaurants in this town of 15,000. That ratio would result in 2,000 Chinese buffets in Los Angeles, a number which likely would exceed the total number of Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles, which has a half million Chinese residents.
So why are Chinese buffets so relatively scarce in Los Angeles? Offhand I can think of a few reasons. First of all, to a large extent, a Chinese buffet is a lowest common denominator as far as Chinese food is concerned. Many of these Chinese buffets are in cities having a small Chinese population, and where the local residents are not as sophisticated as to Chinese food. As such, Chinese buffets are well suited to serve the types of dishes that unsophisticated diners are used to, like chow mein, fried rice and broccoli beef, and as such represent a higher percentage of Chinese restaurants in those communities. Indeed, if you look at other locales with larger Chinese populations and a higher level of community sophistication as to Chinese food, such as San Francisco and Manhattan, you find that Chinese buffets are also not as common. Also, buffets are part of the longstanding image that equates Chinese food with economical dining with their emphasis on low cost ingredients, which was one of the initial appeals of Chinese food to American audiences. Less obviously, geographic areas with a higher density of Chinese buffets are also within the Fujianese restaurant worker diaspora, with an extremely large supply of willing Chinese restaurant workers and restaurant owners.
Still it’s surprising not to see more Chinese buffets in Los Angeles. With a large Chinese population sporting a culture that both enjoys food and getting your money’s worth, one would expect to find a good number of Chinese buffets serving authentic Chinese food. But while such restaurants do exist, there are but a handful of them.