Inside this temple of steam-table worship, you first encounter an aquarium in which madly colorful fish dart between pastel sea anemones, their tentacles ebbing and flowing with the mock tides. The forceful yet peaceful sound of water crashing over rocks gushes from covert speakers. Relish this simulated tropical-island-day-spa moment. The business of super buffets was not built upon the principle of serenity.
As if to prove it, a host materializes to jog you through the labyrinth to a table. Perhaps you'll dine in the all-purpose, banquet-size back room, in the secluded side room with the fireplace or in the cluster of booths near the food. Stress, rather than convenience, is the dominant feature of this last seating area, owing to its maddening view of buffet vultures descending upon fresh batches of lobster tails before you can get to them.
Asian Super is impressive, for a buffet restaurant. From proper Chinese rice porridge (congee) to alright sweet-and-sour fish to pretty dim sum dumplings, roughly 200 dishes are available for perusing, poking and, if you can commit, eating (serial food wasters are charged an extra $2.50 per plate). The rhinestone chandeliers, the etched glass partitions and the baby pool-size Mongolian griddle must have been chosen from the most elite of Asian restaurant furnishing catalogs.
Like other buffet houses, Asian Super legitimizes itself as a restaurant by employing servers to deliver beverages and eating implements. Why ration the disposable chopsticks when there's looting at the snow crab station? Beverage service turns the buffet concept on its heel: take all the boneless pork ribs and sushi rolls you can manage, but you will not be trusted with a fountain soda.
This is nevertheless the Caesar's Palace of buffet houses, close kin to the super-casino. The constant stimulation and the virtual absence of daylight create the casino-like sensation of entering a time warp. Suddenly gelatin flavors warrant deliberation; queuing for bacon-wrapped imitation crab seems relevant. You begin to talk to yourself: I can take one more trip to the buffet, if I just sit here and digest for another minute ... .
It doesn't matter in the end whether you pile eight courses onto one plate or extend the buffet exposure over several small trips. Either way you'll finish eating when your tablemates do, give or take a bite. And you'll exit with the same strangers who pulled into the parking lot behind you. Just like I did, twice.
As at the poker table, tension is the universal expression; everyone is hoping to hit the jackpot with the next plate. Moderate eaters worry about filling up on unworthy objects (rubbery teriyaki chicken; mystery meat egg rolls). Everyone shares a paranoia of being shortchanged.
One hyper-tense woman, scrutinizing employees as they replenished bins of orange-fleshed mussels and moisture-less boiled crawfish, turned to me and demanded, "You mean to say they're out of crab legs?!?" All around us people who hold jobs and raise children wielded metal service spoons like sabers to protect the last chewy spare rib in black bean sauce, the final overcooked squid. No one is immune to these impulses -- I, too, fought with tooth and tong when a fresh batch of Chinese five-spice seasoned frog legs emerged from what must be Kenner's most productive kitchen. I won.
Opened in May, this franchise may be bigger than any local predecessor. As a competitor, it may even contribute to the bettering of buffets in general. But only incrementally; quantity is still the jackpot.
Not that I would dissuade anyone from the experience, once. No sociology course could better teach the phenomenon of regressive group behavior -- the abandonment of self-control here makes Bourbon Street look like Sunday school. And Asian food neophytes would need to visit dozens of traditional restaurants for face time with all the dishes one Asian Super walk-through affords.
Begin then at the Mongolian barbecue griddle, where a cook brandishes broomstick-length paddles to stir-fry raw vegetables, meats and squiggly lo mein noodles until just cooked-through. Sticky fried rice with preserved pork, sticky rice baked into hollowed-out oranges and sticky rice pocketed in sweet tofu skins (inari) all deserve stomach space. And so do several vegetable dishes, such as snappy garlic green beans, Japanese eggplant in Asian brown sauce and buttery (or was that margarine?) bok choy.
Whatever turns you off, be it the mostly vacant, deep-fried wontons or the mealy boiled shrimp, someone in the next booth will be swallowing a year's worth. Tastes may vary, but the inclination to hoard is universal -- a fact reinforced at the cashier station, where a collection of currency includes bills from customers native to Chile, Poland, Thailand, China and The Philippines. That's right beside Kenner's longest row of quarter candy machines, where you'll stop before exiting, dig into your pocket and pray no one you know sees you.