Pros: much nicer atmosphere, the food is a notch above most
Cons: very crowded most nights
"Variety is the spice of life." - American proverb
" Our minds are like our stomachs; they are whetted by the change of their food, and variety supplies both with fresh appetites." - Marcus Fabius Quintilian (35- 90 AD)
"Man with one chopstick go hungry" - Confucius (not really)
Are you one of those people who has trouble with the same old, same old at dinner? Do you see the word "sampler" and go into a salivary fit? Do you think that 'family style' should be an option at every restaurant? If so, you and I are more alike than you'd probably care to admit. I'm a sucker for places with wide-open menus that offer a wide variety of choices and a chance to try new things - or at least a big enough variety of "old" things to interest me. Hence, I enjoy good buffets - not because I eat that much, but because I would prefer to have a little of this and a bit of that instead of selecting one item, if possible.
It was this habit (and a need for a quick dinner when my wife was exhausted from work) that started my family hitting some of the local places. We had an old standby until it closed, sending us reeling to find a new place with decent food and variety. Most either had good prices but mediocre food, or good food but little selection. We finally found a place near the Cherry Hill Mall (Empire Buffet) that gave us Chinese, Mongolian, Japanese and a host of other cuisines (which we almost always avoided - I mean pizza and meatloaf at a Chinese Buffet?). I particularly liked the Mongolian barbecue which was cooked before my eyes. Alas, as time went on, the quality started to drop significantly and we were going less and less.
Then I spied an ad for a new place opening nearby. A "better brand of buffet", it promised. And since it had a 20% off coupon, we decided to give Mandarin Buffet a try.
[ first IMPRESSIONS ]
Located just across the street from the Ellisburg Shopping Center at the corner of Route 70 and Brace Rd, Mandarin Buffet has a great location. They occupy most of what used to be the I. Goldberg - not that you would know it now. A waterfall greets you as you enter the restaurant, a nice touch as you wait for the helpful hostesses to seat you.
The decór is probably the nicest of any Chinese buffet that I have ever been to - no cheesy backlit posters or gold lamé dragons on the walls. Instead, dark wood tables sit in the two main dining areas, separated by a lattice work that houses pottery, figurines and other Asian art. Tables are fairly close together but still nice and large enough to give the feeling of privacy. The food area is very impressive, too. Unlike some buffets, the tables themselves are nicely arranged, feature engraved glass 'sneeze guards' and are adequately spaced. In fact, I would figure that they spent a premium on the decor alone.
There are also two back rooms for large parties, reservations and the occasional overflow, as well as a "kid's room" that is set up much like a day care - toys, tables to play at and amusements such as gaming tables and arcade games for the older kids. The bathrooms are nicely decorated and clean.
[ a little of this, A LOT OF THAT ]
But you probably want to know about the food. The selection here isn't as large as some others, but the quality is far superior than most. There are 4 main tables of food, plus a grill and desert bar - all for $13.49 for dinner ($14.49 on weekends).
Sushi, Grill and Mongolian Barbecue »
This is where we always start our evening of merriment, because it's healthy and pretty good. It isn't Morimoto's but they do a decent job at making a variety of good sushi maki, and will even take requests. But it seems to be a popular area, and often the sushi pickings are somewhat scarce, so you might have to wait for the sushi chef to make more.
The hibachi right next to the sushi is also very good. The best item - hands down - are the beef teriyaki slices on a stick, although the pork chops and garlic shrimp are also very good. In addition, they actually do duck right there, and will slice it and put it on a piece of bread with veggies and sauce while you wait. I'm not a duck expert, but I was pretty impressed with this. They also usually have one or two Thai clay pot dishes available, as well, although these have been a mixed bag.
Lastly, the barbecue section is pretty good, although this is one place where our older standard was a bit better. Select what items you want to include (veggies, noodles and meat) and pick a sauce, and they will barbecue it in front of you to give a tasty Mongolian barbecue bowl.
Soups, Dim Sum and 'American' items »
I don't get much off of this particular table usually, although I occasionally do get a bowl of Won Ton soup which is great because I can add as many won tons and noodles as I want to the broth. They also have hot and sour and egg drop soups, although I haven't tried them. They used to have miso, but they seem to have removed it.
Next to the soups are a bit of a motley assortment of items. There are usually one or two seafood dishes, plus pizza, macaroni and cheese and other odd 'standards'. I haven't delved into any of these because I can't imagine that the pizza is particularly good.
But the dim sum is another matter. There are usually six different varieties like Roast Pork Buns, Sweet Red Bean Buns, Shrimp dumpling and Steamed Shrimp w/ Leek dumplings. They were all pretty good except for the roast pork buns which were too sweet for my taste. They may be very good, just not my style. Otherwise, a delicious aside!
Salads and Treats »
As with any buffet, there is a healthy salad section to Mandarin Buffet, split almost evenly between veggie items and treats like Jell-O and pudding. The veggies on the salad side seem fresh and well kept, although I'll admit that I have never actually eaten anything from that side. There is also an abundance of fruit, which my wife has tried and said was decent if not spectacular.
The treat side has a variety of puddings and more types of Jell-o than I have ever seen, including coconut and 'blue' - not sure what the flavor is. The pudding is standard out-of-the-can fare, and I'm sure that the Jell-o isn't anything special. But that's okay with me - it's not what I'm here for.
Main Food Tables »
After a couple plates of sushi and occasional other appetizers, we head to the main tables to delve into what they have. Though the variety changes slightly from night-to-night, it's mostly consistent almost every time we visit. They have most of the Chinese standards: pork fried rice, boneless spare ribs, chicken with broccoli, beef with mixed vegetables, etc. All are as good as you'll usually get at a normal Chinese place, if a tad cooler because of being on the buffet table.
But you'll also find some things that are a bit out of the ordinary. Some of my personal favorites are the Hong Kong Beef, a peppery, spicy dish with vegetables and small cuts of beer; Pepper Chicken, a peppery chicken dish also served with mixed vegetables; and teriyaki string beans which have just the right amount of sauce and are usually cooked to perfection. Even an old stand-by like General Tso's Chicken is usually very good - I can't pass it up as much as I would like to. Be sure to check out the Thai Chicken, Squid with Black Beans, Chicken with Lotus Roots and Sesame Chicken with Peanut Sauce to name a few more of the items.
As for the quality, we've found that most of the items are very fresh and delicious. There is a big enough variety to handle those who want to stick to staples and those who want to try some new things. They also supply a good amount of vegetarian dishes to keep non-carnivores with a full belly.
The staff keep the dishes constantly rotated so it's rare to see anything empty for long - and it also keeps it fresh, for the most part. Occasionally, something will be lukewarm, but I've never had anything actually get cold like I have at other buffets.
Dessert Bar »
The dessert bar is probably the one place that they've gone farthest beyond your typical Chinese buffet. In addition to the display case full of cakes, cupcakes and pies, there is the prerequisite soft ice cream machine. Unlike Empire Buffet, however, the owners of Mandarin Buffet remembered one of the key elements of soft ice cream - jimmies; and they added whipped cream and some Chinese desserts to boot. I haven't tried any of the others, although my wife said that the chocolate cake was delicious. The ice cream is your standard soft serve, but still great.
[ and they are HAPPY TO SEE YOU ]
The staff here has been nothing but helpful and pleasant any of the times that we have been here. Whether our server, the hostesses or any of the cooks, they have all taken care of all of our needs with a smile and a quick response. Tables are cleared almost before you can get up, and if you need something they are right on top of it.
[ final THOUGHTS ]
Of all of the times that we have been here, we've only had minor problems with a few dishes - never with the food as a whole. That in itself is an accomplishment, but the fact that they provide food that is a notch above the standard AND keep it good day in and day out is what makes this a great place. They went the extra mile on the decor, on the menu and obviously on the staff, and it shows.
The dinner buffet is $13.49 during the week, and $14.49 on Friday through Sunday nights. Lunches are $7.99 and $8.99. Kids 12 and under eat at a discount ($3.99/$4.99 for lunch, $5.99 all the time for dinner). The buffet is a little more pricey than your run-of-the-mill place, but it's worth every penny.
[ related INFORMATION ]
1631A North Kings Highway
Cherry Hill, NJ 08034
Hours » Monday - Thursday: 11:00 am to 9:30 pm, Friday - Saturday: 11:00 am to 10:30pm, Sunday: 11:00 am to 9:30 pm
Reservations » Only for large parties
Parking » Ample onsite parking
Alcohol » BYOB
Payments » Visa, MasterCard, Discover