By Helen Wu
Advertiser Restaurant Critic
It's no wonder locals love buffets. They seem to be a fitting meal for our ethnic stew of folks who themselves are a little bit of this and that.
The all-you-can-eat concept, where the individual determines the pace, portion and selection of his or her own meal to a greater extent than in any other dining format, is almost fail-safe in the independence it gives diners, but not entirely. If your meal costs around $20, but you don't eat much, you may not feel you're getting your money's worth.
Sweet Basil, Chinatown's latest "in" spot, has found a way to resolve this by offering a weekday lunch buffet of Thai-style food for a mere $8.95, including a choice of Thai iced tea or coffee in this bargain price.
Its owners, the Nguyens — husband Thui comes from Bangkok, and wife Thip is Laotian — label Sweet Basil's cuisine "neo Thai." Thip explained that although the kitchen produces dishes based on family recipes, they decided not to attempt to re-create authentic Thai food, and instead chose to adjust the cooking to accommodate local tastes.
Open since the beginning of August, the corner restaurant is already often packed between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. with business people from surrounding offices, Chinatown shoppers, HPU students and occasional tourists. The curious typically come in, take a peek and, unable to resist its lure, finally sit down.
Ten selections cover the buffet spread, starting with soup such as chicken tom yum and coconut-ginger tofu and ending with fresh fruit, usually pineapple and assorted melons, for dessert. In between, there are various offerings that change daily and include rich, saucy curries; meaty stir-fries with vegetables that aren't overcooked; sausage made in Chinatown and flavored with lemongrass, kaffir lime and red curry; smoky roast pork salad; and the ever-present crunchy, green papaya salad.
You also can choose from three kinds of rice: brown jasmine, white jasmine or mochi-like Thai sticky. Cooks keep a watchful eye over the pans, ensuring that everything is full and attractive on the line.
Weekends offer a seafood theme, where I encountered the likes of fish-chicken rice soup, mussels with basil in a yellow curry sauce, fried calamari, fish Panang, and shrimp with garlic and basil. Although the price is a few dollars more at $12.95, it's still a bargain for the variety you get.
I did try ordering off the ala carte menu a few times, but it couldn't compete with the buffet. There's nothing like immediate gratification and nothing worse than having to anticipate your food while others make second and third trips to load up their plates while you sip water.
The wait for menu items seems downright interminable in this situation and gave the impression that the kitchen was more focused on the buffet and not as prepared for actual orders. When the dishes arrived, I could practically hear my stomach scolding me for bypassing the buffet.
Oxtail "pho" noodle soup ($7.95), with a choice of look fun, rice or egg noodles, had tender chunks of oxtail in a hearty but salty broth. Spicy shrimp soup ($4.50) and seafood basil soup ($5) both had shrimp heads floating in their lightly flavored broths and were similar tasting except for the addition of fish and a few shellfish in the seafood choice. Golden shrimp medallions ($7.95) and Bangkok-style crab cakes ($9.95) were large but heavy on the panko breading and filler.
Braised short ribs ala Mussamun ($10.95) were prepared southern Thai-style with an aromatic cinnamon and cardamom brown gravy-like sauce around soft, boneless chunks of beef. My brain, however, did the math and rationalized that its price was in no way comparable to the buffet deal, in spite of the house salad and rice that accompanied it. In other words, stick with the buffet, especially during the weekday, and you probably won't be disappointed.
The Nguyens understand a lot of what customers want. They have provided a small, quaint and clean, dusty pink haven from Chinatown's bustle, filled with a woman's touch — flower bouquets here and a small, wooden Buddha sculpture there. They know their customers need variety. As Thip told me about the buffet's popular red, green and yellow curries: "Every day you will find a different type. Today could be vegetarian, next day could be fish and the next day could be beef. Even if they come every day, they won't be eating the same food."
I'm not one of those people who gets excited about buffets. They are usually too much food for too much money or lots of low-quality food. But Sweet Basil makes the concept worthwhile.
Reach Helen Wu at email@example.com.