Have you ever had one of those nights when you get excited about a restaurant and drive all the way to it, only to find that it's closed? And when you move on to your plan B restaurant, you find that it's mysteriously disappeared from the place Google Maps said it was?
That was me last night. After my first choice restaurant (Maharaja) was closed due to "electrical issues" (at least, that's what the sign on the door said), and my second choice restaurant was seemingly nonexistent (Woodlands), I found myself driving aimlessly up and down Hacks Cross in the rain, confused and hungry.
I was with a friend, and we were both nearing the point where we were about to give up and give in to the Steak Escape drive through when he saw something promising: Chow Time, a Chinese and soul food buffet with a sign ringed in brilliant white light blubs like a theatre marquee.
It seemed like a good idea.
And was it ever.
First of all, while most restaurants have the basic "No shoes, no shirt, no service" rules, Chow Time is the first place I've ever been that has an entire wall devoted to rules and regulations. No sitting for more than two hours. No miniskirts. And everyone must be wearing a shirt at all times. There were so many of them (and they were so specific) that I have to wonder how many of them were written to address a real-life problem.
We were seated immediately by the security guard, and a friendly waitress brought us drinks. Families were eating from plates piled high with food, single men were watching football and we were standing there wide-eyed, staring at the buffet's sections – "China Inn", "Southern Home Cookin'", "Grill USA" and "Salad Bar".
When I posted to Twitter that I was trying Chow Time, I got an immediate reply from @ismh that said "That place is insane." He's right – insane is a fairly accurate descriptor. One might also use "intense".
I started on the soul food side of the buffet. It was sprawling and complete with its offerings of Southern staples (think mac'n'cheese, greens, mashed potatoes, cornbread) and delicacies (like pig's feet and chitterlings).
And then, just because I could, I plopped two egg rolls from the Chinese buffet on my plate, setting them atop my fried catfish to keep them from being soaked by the juice from my greens. The soul food was all pretty tasty, but I have to give high marks to the greens, which (with the addition of a little vinegar) were close to perfection.
As I ate from that first plate, I came to two important realizations about Chow Time: 1. Chow Time is kind of brilliant in its ability to please just about everyone (except, sadly, vegetarians); and 2. Chow Time would be amazing if you were drunk.
On my second trip to the buffet, I went for the Chinese section. I loaded up my plate with Chinese vegetables (water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, celery and baby corn), pepper steak, zucchini in some kind of clear sauce and some rather delicious fried potato wedges.
While most of the food was decent, you don't have to worry about legions of pretentious foodies flocking to Chow Time. The food is good (and some of it, like the greens, is really good) but it's designed for maximum efficiency.
But the quality of the food doesn't really seem to be the point at Chow Time, and that's more than alright. The point is that it's a place that just about everyone can agree on. It's inexpensive (dinner for one with a drink is about $12). Also, it's an excellent people watching opportunity. It's got the kind of concept that seems like it would only work in Memphis.
Chow Time (Note that if you click the link, the website has a sultry song that autoplays while a man talks about how "It's so great to be able to find a place that's so elegant and classy" and urges you to "come to Chow Time and get your chow on" in a Barry White voice.)