The smiling face of continuity greeting the regular customers these days at Great Shanghai, previously New Garden Buffet, at Westgate isn’t Chinese, it’s Mexican. Raul Lopez, originally from Chiapas, has worked there for more than two years. “Let’s say I’m a waiter,” he says. He’s never had to give his job title before, and “waiter” doesn’t quite fit what he does, since most people serve themselves from the buffet. Neither is he the manager–the new owner’s son, Zhen, is technically the manager, but he’s in school and often not around.
Whatever Lopez is, he’s clearly the owner’s right-hand man. The new owner, a gracious, willowy woman from Shanghai named Xiu Li, speaks little English. Lopez handles the English-speaking clientele, who mostly come for the buffet, a vast expanse of steam tables that fills the entire back half of the restaurant, including everything from whole fish and snow crab legs to stir-fries to some endearingly retro comfort foods like Jello cubes. English speakers who don’t want the buffet–and who show up when Zhen, the only bilingual employee, isn’t around–are largely out of luck, since the only menu is in Chinese.
The New Garden Buffet actually became Great Shanghai on paper several months ago, when Andy Chen sold it to Xiu Li and her husband. The sign out front was switched in May. The customers, many of them regulars who plan in advance their surgical strikes on the all-you-can-eat buffet–$6.55 at lunch or $9.99 at dinner ($10.99 on weekends)–haven’t really noticed the change in ownership, though Lopez says some Shanghai specialties have been added to the buffet, like sweet and sour ribs. “We call it sweet and sour because they don’t know how to translate it into English,” he says, “but actually it is a Shanghai dish. I see Chinese people order it.” A customer named Jon says he comes–and quite often–for the jasmine rice and General Tso’s chicken.
Though the ownership has changed, the chef is still Zhang Xinghai. Lopez proudly takes down from the wall a plaque from a Chinese cooking school. “This says he’s–what, thirty-seventh best chef in the country? Something like that?” he asks Xiu Li, trying to speak slowly and carefully enough so she can understand, but she couldn’t quite confirm that. At any rate, Lopez says of the chef: “So many Chinese people know him. Sometimes we receive a call, and they say ‘Is that guy around? OK, then we need to order.'”
What do Chinese people order? “I see they order a lot of the drunken chicken. You heard about that one? And the bok choy with black mushrooms.” He says a few words in Chinese to Xiu Li, and she answers him. “Some spicy shrimp with chilis,” he translates. “Frog legs too. She’s teaching me Chinese, and I teach her English. We are learning together,” he explains.
Great Shanghai, 2541 Jackson (Westgate Shopping Center). 998-0600. Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. for buffet (open till 10:30 daily for menu dishes).
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