Northeast Chinese II, 900 Central Ave., Albany, 459-0688, northeastchineseii.com. Serving 11 AM-10 PM daily. AE, D, MC, V.
Cuisine: Chinese and other Asian
Entrée price range: $8 (BBQ chicken bone) to $16 (seaweed with nuts)
Ambiance: Chinese buffet
It was the start of the Chinese new year, and a cluster of smokers huddled outside the restaurant. Inside, the place was in full party mode, with most of the main-dining-room tables filled—we snagged the last two seats there—and people visiting from table to table, reconfiguring them by placing chairs in the narrow aisles but never impeding the foot traffic of the buffet-bound.
What formerly had been a desultory Chinese buffet transformed, three months ago, into a different kind of all-you-can-eat enterprise. The buffet now offers ingredients for you to poach in a hot pot, which is a very different kind of gustatory delight.
Szechuan hot pot is also known as steamboat or shabu-shabu, and you also can enjoy it locally at downtown Albany’s Shining Rainbow restaurant. There you’re buying the components a la carte; here, most of it is laid out for you. Meat will be brought to the table: frozen shavings of fatty slices of beef or pork (chicken had sold out, to my wife’s distress). Then it’s on to the iced buffet table for noodles and mushrooms (the tree ears are particularly tasty), shrimp, fish cakes, meat buns, bean curd, several types of green and more. Plus an array of sauces—peanut, sesame, chili pepper, soy and others—and the important but easy-to-overlook wire-mesh scoop for dredging your dinner from its simmering broth.
You pay $10 for your pot of broth, which is placed atop a portable burner on your table. If, as I am, you are wedded to a heat wimp, you can ask for a pot that’s divided into compartments for spicy and blah.
Then it’s $16 per person for the rest of the components. Compared to the by-the-item hot-pot pricing I’ve seen, this is a bargain. And unlike the buffet that preceded this restaurant, you’re not filling up with high-fat stuff. Except for the beef that I poached in my pepper hull-laden side of the pot, which was bacon-like in its fattiness and thus shrank to a bacon-like shrivel. Tasted good, though, and the spiciness of the broth was particularly effective in the porous buns and fishcakes.
Although I’m told that the buffet isn’t routinely set up until after 3 PM, I was assured that, should you wish to have it for lunch, you will be obliged. It’s competing against a menu of many unusual selections. Among the items I have yet to sample are sauerkraut casserole ($14), triple pork intestines ($11), sliced pig tripe in fresh hot pepper ($11), the unassumingly named sliced cabbage with fungus ($9), braised sea cucumber in brown sauce (market priced), duck blood cake ($14) and frog with hot sauce and chili ($20).
Lobsters frolic in a tank that adjoins the buffet table, and you can have them served in a ginger and scallion sauce, in a spicy sauce, as sashimi, and probably fairly traditionally as well: The servers seem amenable to requests.
A separate menu page lists what’s interestingly billed as “Asian Chinese Food,” which is where you find such Americanized fare as General Tso’s chicken ($11) and any number of things lo mein ($9-$10). Many of the items on that page are available for lunch (served from 11-3) for $7, including a beverage.
We revisited for a late lunch on an afternoon as slow as the previous time had been busy, and Susan chose the exceptionally unexciting chicken with broccoli after being frightened away from sautéed crispy pork ($7) because the server warned her it was spicy.
Spicy for whom? Late middle age finds her far more worried about this than ever before, and the fear was proven groundless when she sampled my appetizer of cucumber and nuts ($6) and found it delicious—even though it, too, had the hot-pepper warning. Ha! What an insufficient description. Sliced cucumber is tossed with tree ears, bean curd, carrot slices, celery and peanuts—and more, I’m sure—in a sauce flavored with ginger and soy and cilantro. BBQ lamb with cumin, a dinner item for $14, is $8 for lunch, and shows how an undistinguished cut of meat benefits from slow cooking and imaginative spicing. Pairing the lamb with cumin seeds and giving it an aggressive sauce produced an entirely satisfying result.
The folks behind this restaurant have a different place down the street, at 299 Central Ave., where CCK Restaurant used to be. It’s called Northeast Dumpling House and features handmade dumplings that you can enjoy there—you get 15 for $8-$9 steamed, $9-$10 fried—or bring home frozen for the bargain price of $10-$13 for 30 of them.
So what once seemed to be an inexorable takeover of the Asian dining scene by the buffets is being beaten back by restaurants brave enough to challenge the longstanding Cantonese-Szechuan style that defined the norm for us for too long. And with the demise of Emperor’s, the Wolf Road stalwart, we so often voted the best, we need fresh blood, even if it’s from a duck.
What will salt egg with pumpkin ($11) taste like? Sliced potato with fresh hot pepper ($9)? Seaweed with nuts ($16)? I’ll discover the answers on subsequent visits.