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Despite variety, buffet fails to impress

Nov. 19, 2010

By Jenna DeWitt
Arts and Entertainment Editor

For a city in Central Texas, Waco's Asian food comes in a wide range of forms, from hibachi grills to family-friendly buffets. One such buffet, Summer Palace, 1520 North Valley Mills Dr., sacrifices quality for quantity. The buffet has a surprising amount of variety, but none of it done exceptionally well.

In addition to an array of Chinese dishes, the buffet includes small pizzas, pasta, fruit and ice cream. The diversity contributes to the comfortable, family-friendly atmosphere.

A round, smiling Buddha sits on the front counter in front of a very large, back-lit photo of a Chinese waterfront. Asian classical music plays overhead throughout the impressively spacious dining room area. The comfortable booths and quiet volume level made conversation easy.

The key to a successful meal at Summer Palace is to not overeat with so many different dishes, which are mostly meat, shrimp, fruit or dessert. The best of these was probably the black pepper beef, which had enough spices to make it interesting, without over-spicing. The dish, along with the sliced potatoes, was a welcome break from the other greasy, fried meat dishes.

A notable meat dish was General Tsu's chicken. The bright red sauce was very spicy, but also sweet enough to balance out the hotness. The poor-quality meat kept this one from being a favorite, however.

One sweet dish that was worth the health risk was the "biscuits." This dessert item was fried, sugared bread formed into perfect balls. A few of these made the trip down Valley Mills worth the drive in my book.

Other desserts included chocolate pudding, bananas drizzled in strawberry sauce, several cakes and an ice cream machine with toppings nearby. The bananas provided a welcome break from the grease of the meat and fried food items. The peach cobbler was also decent, though not as sweet as might be desired.

On the more healthy side, the fruit was surprisingly good for late in the season, especially the watermelon. Vegetables and mushrooms were included in many of the dishes as well. One side dish, the sautéed green beans, was chewy and lacked the juicy flavor expected of the vegetable.

The noodles and rice were all unremarkable, even the mei fun, tiny rice noodles that appeared interesting from their texture, name and appearance.

The wait staff was prompt to refill drinks and replace empty buffet dishes. The waitresses on two occasions offered to split the check and asked my friends and I if we would like to pay at the table instead of waiting to pay out at the front counter.

As far as the price goes, the restaurant has a Monday through Friday lunch (11 a.m. to 4:20 p.m) buffet price of $6.65 for adults. The children's weekday lunch buffet price is $3.95 for ages 4 to 11. Children age 3 and under eat free. Dinner and weekend buffet prices are $8.95 for adults and $5.35 for children. Soda, coffee and tea cost $1.35.

If the over-fried dumplings, greasy, chewy meat and stale fortune cookies are avoided, I would recommend Summer Palace for a cheap lunch or dinner for friends with diverse tastes. This is definitely not a place to take a date or anyone else you would like to impress, but for a family or friend group hoping to save some money while eating out, it's not a bad place.