My friend Bobbi King has lived in South Philly for more than 25 years and sometimes serves as a culinary scout, telling me of any new restaurants that have opened in the neighborhood. She recently told me about a new Asian buffet in Whitman Plaza on the site of the Old Country Buffet.
It's called Empire Buffet, and it is much more than just an Asian restaurant.
The young couple that owns the restaurant greeted Mom, Edward and me warmly at the door. The husband, dressed in a coat and tie, showed us to a roomy table right near the buffet. There were open tables throughout the large dining room, but this thoughtful gentleman placed us just steps away from the buffet tables so that my mom Berthe, who is 89, did not have to walk too far to fill her plate.
I used to dislike buffets because I would get big eyes and place too much on my plate. Then years ago Edward suggested I make several trips, enjoying each course one by one.
The shiny, colorful paper placemat states that Empire Buffet serves seafood, Chinese, American and Japanese cuisine. Pizza shares a place with spring rolls; fried chicken with fried rice. I particularly liked the separate sushi buffet.
Dinner is $8.99 for adults, $4.99 for ages 3-9. Lunch is $5.99 for adults, $3.99 for children. All-day Sunday buffet is $8.99 for adults.
Since it was a hot night, I asked our server for iced tea. It was freshly brewed; I know after one sip if it's instant or pre-made. Edward ordered a pot of hot tea. The dining room was refreshingly air-conditioned, but not so cold that Mom had to don her sweater.
The hot and sour soup contained too much cornstarch and lacked the expected spicy flavor. Also, it was much too sour. I liked the broth in the wonton soup, but the wrappers were too doughy. The spring rolls, plump and filled with shredded vegetables, were hot, crispy and free of grease. The steamed shu mei were nicely done as well.
Peel-and-eat shrimp are found on all Asian buffets. Empire Buffet offers small shrimp, but they were steamed just right and placed on a bed of cracked ice. The raw cherrystone clams looked as if they had seen better days. So did the mussels. The steamed flounder was seasoned just right and not a bit overcooked. I searched for a shrimp stir-fry but did not find one.
The steamed crabs, however, were downright delicious, albeit a bit messy. I stepped to the buffet just as a chef was filling the steam table with fresh ones. I took two jumbo beauties and dug in. The meat was sweet, enhanced by the rich garlic sauce that made a mess of my hands. Who cares? A thoughtful server brought me a nutcracker and I had fun.
"I think I need about 50 napkins," I joked to our server. She brought me a pile of paper napkins. I finished my crabs and headed for the ladies' room to wash up. I am still dreaming of those well-prepared crustaceans.
Stir-fry chicken with broccoli was a simple dish but very good. The broccoli was bright green and not a bit overcooked. The pepper steak was nice and tender. Mom particularly enjoyed it. Stir-fried fresh green beans were another winner -- a bit crisp, but not on the raw side. The garlic sauce enhanced them perfectly. Vegetable fried rice was a suspicious bright yellow color but tasty nonetheless, with some frozen carrots and beans thrown in.
I love spare ribs, and the ones I sampled at Empire Buffet were meaty and a treat to eat. The salad bar was brimming with fresh ingredients, but I wanted to save room for a few more dishes and dessert.
I trotted back to the sushi bar and watched a young man who was busy making cucumber rolls, avocado rolls and tuna rolls. I placed a few on my plate and went back to my seat. The rolls were prepared with fresh ingredients. I particularly liked the sticky rice, which was cooked just right -- and that's not always the case.
Mom enjoyed some chocolate soft-serve ice cream. I wanted to be good. I headed back to the salad bar and helped myself to several slices of ripe, sweet watermelon. The fruit was a delightful light way to end dinner.
Service was impeccable. The staff cleared with ease and a smile. They watched the tables. Each time we returned from the buffet, our table was clear and ready for the next course.
Empire Buffet was doing a brisk business. We noticed couples young and old, and families with children of all ages. This is another fine example of a fun family restaurant.