Buffet Fantasies and the Golden Dragon

I had some bad Chinese food the other day, and I totally should have seen it coming. I will elaborate, but first I offer this question: Would you eat lunch here?

main front.jpgYes, there is a restaurant in the picture. I'll help you find it. First, find the tattoo parlor with the creative sign: STRAIGHT TO THE POINT. Next, find the strip club. Now, look at the yellow sign in between that says, "Golden Dragon". Jackpot.

After nearly four years at my workplace location downtown, it's shocking that I coexisted with a buffet in close proximity, yet did not one time grace it. A mere two blocks away from my 6x6 cube, I had passed near the Golden Dragon on foot infinity plus a google times. It seems as though I'm always hungry, and I rarely shy away from opportunities to eat enormous proportions or try a bizarre combination. I'll never forget a chocolate ice cream and bacon shake I tried a few years ago here in Portland. The first few bites were great, then the flavors...evolved, let's say. I suppose I'm a food prospector, always looking for that next enormous or strange bite. A food adventurer, if you will. You might also call me a glutton. You choose.

I like Chinese food pretty well. And 'buffet' is a word that lands softly and sweetly on my ears. It's my comfort word. Sometimes when I am having trouble getting to sleep, I just picture steam tray after delicious steam tray of meatloaf and ears of corn and mashed potatoes and gravy with it's skin lining the perimeter. In this soothing fantasy, I'm sliding a giant platter along giant buffet rails on an enormous steam table. As I add each enormous helping, I hear the platter grind slightly louder against the rails until it's a deafening roar at the end by the desserts. But while this cacophony disrupts everyone else around, it comforts me like white noise on the television after I've fallen asleep.

And buffets have meaning for me, as well. In my personal nomenclature, 'buffet' is synonymous with 'license to binge with or without shame'. Pop psychology has saturated us with the concept that the Chinese translation for 'crisis' incorporates both danger AND opportunity (apparently this is not actually true, but it's a legitimate idea based on the nature of change, nonetheless), and I believe it is also the most accurate description of my experience when I've engaged virtually every buffet through the years. First, opportunity: I fill myself to the brim with semi-tasty, unwholesome calories and finally feel complete as a person. Second, danger: Immediate dizziness, occasional narcolepsy followed by ALL of the predictable consequences of an overtaxed gastrointestinal system.

Last month while again passing by the Golden Dragon Chinese buffet and wondering how on earth it had taken me so long to set foot inside, I took a moment to superficially explore the surrounding elements for clues. Of course, there was the ever-present sandwich board outside that has always read "$5.95 All You Can Eat". I think my glances at the buffet's advertised cheap price had subconsciously triggered ambivalence, touching simultaneously on my thriftiness as well as my vague concern for taste and atmosphere. It also occurred to me how off-putting it was that I couldn't see any patrons from the sidewalk. Most restaurants have a window providing quick validation that normal people are eating normal meals inside. This restaurant-foul provided yet another challenge to me. But, as I described in the picture above, the Golden Dragon's neighbors--bookends of vice--have most likely provided reason enough to dine elsewhere. Despite my persistent generalized hunger. Despite my relative fondness for Chinese food. And even despite my fantasies about buffet food. I've taken the liberty to illustrate a number of challenges the Golden Dragon must overcome to get someone to their cash register:

main front.edited.jpg
Overcome with curiosity about the Golden Dragon, I recently decided to ignore all the obvious negatives and dine there alone for lunch. Proudly shame-free, I strolled over to this seedy block for a cheap dining adventure. Here is what I saw after opening the door:

gd-stairs.jpgAnother challenge and another turnoff for me. I had to admit that a nice long pre-meal flight of stairs was the perfect exercise for the buffet consumer. You might call it a show of compassion from the Golden Dragon. The Chinese-looking references and stylings in the tattered wallpaper and ceiling fixtures helped remind me of where I actually was despite the stairwell's odd likeness to the urban sequences of any of the Matrix movies. As I began to climb towards the summit, I had the unique experience of full awareness--awareness that through the wall to my left were folks were paying professionals to put permanent stains on their skin, and through wall on my right were other folks paying professionals to put permanent stains on their clothes. If awareness is supposed to be followed by internal calm, I was mostly aware that I was not calm. It's not that I am fully opposed to tattoos and strip clubs. As I've discussed previously, buffet experience is an emotional one for me, so intermingling with a little grime gives me pause. Cresting the stairs, my wariness eased a bit with the subtle knowledge that I was now above fray and riffraff, about to eat Chinese buffet with other like-minded individuals.

A friendly Chinese woman then greeted me and asked me what I wanted. I replied, "How are you doing today?" She smiled back and said, "Fine." Pause. Then, "What is your order?"

"Um, do you own the Golden Dragon?" She glanced towards the wall, smile fading, "No." I cleared my throat. "Who does?"

"My brother," she said with finality. I appeased her, "I would like one buffet meal, please." While my credit card processed, I exercised my small-talk superpowers with, "How long has he owned this place?" She put the receipt on the table with a pen, then said, "Twenty years," while walking away. But it was ok. After all, I was at a buffet, and I knew the rules.

The idea that one person owned this place for twenty years stuck in my head for a little while as I looked around the place. I got the impression that they must have given up on atmosphere years ago. Reminds me of when single or widowed men get into their 60's and don't have anyone to remind them the comb their hair or put on clean clothes when going out in public or to trim their ear and nose hair. The Golden Dragon is a widowed 65 year old man that is not yet retired and sees no end in sight, wearily working simply because someone will employ him and he must continue to survive.

The dining room was enormous. I counted 25 people eating, but it felt like 5 were actually there. There is a bar (picture below) that I walked through and actually thought was kind of cool. But with zero booze, it was merely a memory of happier days, possibly when then the homeless patrons currently eating their won tons were a little better off. It was also the place where they store piles of dishes in bus tubs waiting to be washed.

gd-mainroom.jpgKeeping my belongings on my person at all times, I grabbed a tray and a couple of hot plates. I piled some orange chicken, fried rice, egg rolls and pot stickers and chose to sit from one of many big, empty booths. I was able to count by feel three distinct springs holding me up beneath the ancient seat fabric. Unfortunately, I needed to use the facilities and I spotted them here behind the bar:

gd-restrooms.jpgThe emergency exit doubled as the entrance to the restroom. After eating some of this food, it was clear that this hallway had probably serviced many "emergencies" that were solved easily via fast access to a toilet. I was cheered a bit by "Rest Rooms" glowing in neon (camera couldn't decipher the lettering well), but I don't believe the owner was thinking of my mood when he hung it there. I'm all but certain the sign was given it's second or third chance at utility here at the Golden Dragon after being pilfered from some poor failed restaurant long ago.

After customarily stuffing myself with average Chinese food, I felt strangely depressed rather than whole again. The other folks eating their fried fish and rice looked a bit crestfallen. Some looked downright impoverished, or even homeless. Suddenly there was noise outside as a parade of 15 protesters marched down the sidewalk calling for a Free Tibet. Normally you would see a group of people get up and check it out. Instead, everyone glanced up for a second, but then just continued eating through the ruckus (many of the windows were open) without care, myself included. Maybe that's just life in downtown Portland with the frequent demonstrations, but I wonder if we were just all too overcome with calories and melancholy to move. I started to pack up my belongings and fought off the urge to search the steam trays for antidepressants. This passed quickly as I suddenly realized I might not be feeling the good "buffet effect" kind of physically bad, but instead just physically bad.

Aware my insides were decidedly wrong and settling back on my three springs for another moment, my thoughts drifted to a happy place. I saw myself at a buffet, gliding my platter along the steam table rails and happily noticing it's weight making more and more noise. Then somewhere between a malodorous vagrant passing me by and the sight of six tables unbussed, it occurred to me that it was time to make my exit.

As I staggered green to the bottom of the stairs and went out the door, I turned back trying to remember if I had all my belongings with me. A middle-aged man and his loving bride passed me on their way out, smiles around. The man apparently mistook me for someone entering the Golden Dragon to eat. He said, "You'll enjoy it...best Chinese food around. Enjoy."

4/7/09 Addendum: You may wonder why there might be a strip club in the middle of downtown Portland and not on the outskirts of town. The answer is simple: Strip clubs are not disallowed in the City of Portland. They aren't on every street corner as one might imagine, but strip clubs are here and there all over town.


pittorgan writes:
Is the Golden Dragon close to The Food Hole? Looks like the same block. There's a sign that draws you in: it is written with masking tape.
Gavin Morgan writes:
While Golden Dragon shares 3rd Ave, your Food Hole services NW 3rd and Golden Dragon is on SW 3rd. Most likely the patrons are similar.
krildog writes:
"As I began to climb towards the summit, I had the unique experience of full awareness--awareness that through the wall to my left were folks were paying professionals to put permanent stains on their skin, and through wall on my right were other folks paying professionals to put permanent stains on their clothes." That's poetry. There's a place by my office called Palominas Texas Buffet, with a huge horse on the building. I always imagined that the workers all wore boots, cowboy hats, and bandannas. But instead it's just another Golden Corral or Sirloin Stockade poser.
Gavin Morgan writes:
My theory about buffets--and I'm certain there exists accurate research about this somewhere--is that their patrons are going for quantity not atmosphere. So why paint a big horse on the outside and have a horsey/cowboy name to imply atmosphere, then produce nothing inside? You know aa a buffet owner that overeaters will beat a path to your door nomatter what. Disappointing, indeed.
Schu writes:
Pretty brilliant Gav
Jack3d writes:
Hey, I recently started reading your blog - thanks for the good work. I wanted to inform you that it's not displaying correctly on the BlackBerry Browser (I have a Tour). Anyway, I'm now on your RSS feed on my home PC, so thank you!
N/A writes:
Now The Golden Dragon is a strip club, with tattooed dancers. Your worst nightmare, jerk. PS-Straight to the Point is a piercing shop, they don't tattoo

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