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CHEAP EATS

You name it, they've got it in Quincy

If Wal-Mart ever went into the Asian restaurant business, the prototype would be International Buffet. How to explain this place? It is a warehouse of food. The utilitarian dining room is a vast ocean of tables -- it seats 500 -- and acres of buffet stations (eight, actually, but eight is a lot of buffet stations, and that's not counting the carving area, sushi and sashimi bar, and self-serve ice cream cooler). It is both uniquely Asian and uniquely American. And it is a case study in why this country is so fat.

Here are the basics: International Buffet is primarily a Chinese restaurant but suffers from an epic identity crisis. The kitchen churns out red bean soup, Swedish meatballs, shark fin dumplings, chicken nuggets, wonton soup, clam chowder, Peking duck, French fries, mussels au gratin, steamed tilapia, pork fried rice, mashed potatoes, chicken feet, chocolate pudding, turnip cakes, and about 150 other foods that grace tables worldwide.

The selection is overwhelming, amusing, and somehow disturbing in its excess. Some of it is genuinely good, some utterly abysmal. The problem is there are so many choices you can barely keep track of what you're eating -- or differentiate among dishes. I probably tried at least 75 different foods during two visits. How many do I remember clearly? Not many. That's because the flavors eventually blended together, so teriyaki chicken tasted a lot like kung bo chicken, which tasted remarkably like pork with black bean sauce, which was similar to salt-and-pepper squid, which wasn't all that different from shrimp dumplings.

A companion summed it up nicely before returning to the buffet for her umpteenth refill. "I'm going to try another batch of whatever," she said as she headed for the salad bar, sherbet, and Taiwanese steamed buns.

Of course, the point doesn't seem to be eating for flavor as much as volume. The consequence of that was obvious at a table of teenagers, their ample guts protruding from midriff-baring shirts and low-riding jeans, making return trips for chicken fingers, onion rings, crab rangoon, and chocolate cake. The good news is you can eat healthfully by sticking with sushi, steamed veggies, and fresh fruit. Or you can give yourself a myocardial infarction by loading up on cheese sticks, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, and maple-walnut ice cream.

If you doubt your self-control, you can order off the menu. But the staff was so unfamiliar with that concept on my second visit that one server told me the menu was available only for takeout, something a manager later contradicted. Whatever the case, most menu items are available at the buffet anyway. With so many people stampeding through -- the restaurant serves roughly 1,000 customers each weekend day -- foods inevitably become intermingled. So be alert to shelled shrimp in your jello and egg yolk in your cream puff.

With careful effort, it's possible to have a quality meal. Boneless spareribs were delightfully sweet. Spring garden -- a trio of broccoli, green peppers, and snow peas -- was tasty. Carved duck was intensely flavorful (ignore the sullen carving-station attendant). Pork with mushrooms and bamboo shoots had nice flavor. So did chicken with scallions. I also had a delicious piece of salmon, a summertime-sweet ear of crunchy corn, and sinfully buttery garlic bread. The fruit -- watermelon, honeydew, cantaloupe, bananas -- was fresh and ripe. The silky ice cream was excellent. And I loved the sugary coconut porridge with honeydew and tapioca.

But the shrimp, crabmeat, and seaweed salads were so drowned in mayonnaise they resembled soup. Onion rings were soggy, ricotta-filled pasta shells watery, French fries limp and bland. A vat of gummy clam chowder was stiff with coagulation. Lo mein was greasy, fried rice dried to a crisp. Some sort of awful fried food called "apple pie" looked like a hash brown and tasted like a cinnamon-sprinkled chicken finger.

The dessert buffet, too, is a confused patchwork of cuisines: miniature pastries (forgettable), boiled eggs (bizarre), chocolate and vanilla pudding (pretty good), orange slices (they taste like orange slices), coconut milk with tapioca pearls (soupy-sweet), and sesame sticky rice balls with red bean filling (irresistible).

The prices agree with anyone looking to stretch a buck. The lunch buffet is $6.95 on weekdays and $8.95 on Saturdays, while the dinner buffet is $13.95 all week, including all day Sunday. Kids pay less (from $3 to $6.50) according to age.

Takeout buffet food, sold by weight, ranges from $3.75 a pound at lunchtime to between $4.25 and $8.95 a pound at dinner, depending on whether seafood is included. Sushi goes for 50 cents apiece. And when it comes time to pay penance for the overindulgence, the gym membership will vary in cost.

All Cheap Eats reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at ae.boston.com/dining

Sarah's Cafe 200 Concord Ave., Cambridge. 617-876-5049. Hidden like an oasis in the back of a convenience store, this deli-grill serves fresh, very cheap, quasi-gourmet meals in a super casual, but comfy setting. Place your order at the walk-up counter for homemade soups, impeccably fresh salads, upscale sandwiches, simple pastas, and satisfying dinner specials (and good breakfast items too), then sit back and enjoy the sweeping view of the store's snack food displays. (3/25/04, D.T.)

Flux 1 Appleton St., Boston. 617-695-3589. It's taken a year for the brainchild of Max Ultimate Food to find its footing. Now the spare Flux is filled with some of the South End's most beautiful men, who treat the space like a cocktail party and make it a lot of fun, and the food emerging from the kitchen is simple and startlingly good. (3/18/04, S.J.) Madina Market's Kitchen 72 Brighton Ave., Brighton. 617-787-4400. Don't let the bare-bones look and feel of this small storefront scare you away: It's what happens in the kitchen that counts. The food is aromatic and spicy, though you can decide just how spicy you want to get. (The cook will ask.) Try the chappali kebab, the Pakistani equivalent of a hamburger -- though much more interesting. The naan, or bread cooked in the clay oven, is wonderful, the tikka masalas creamy and flavorful, the tandoori chicken and shish kebabs moist. Wash it all down with a mango lassi. (3/11/04, B.E.)

Moogy's 154 Chestnut Hill Ave., Brighton. 617-254-8114. You could describe Moogy's as a sub shop. But that wouldn't capture the merry madness of this place, which has checker boards built into its tabletops, hoagies with names like Jolly Green Giant and Cow Meets Egg, and specialties like banana-cheese omelettes and grilled triple-decker peanut butter, banana and marshmallow sandwiches. All-day breakfasts are particularly good, especially the peanut butter-chip pancakes and French-toast sandwiches. There's even something for Fido: homemade bone-shaped dog treats flavored with "pea-mutt" butter. (3/4/04, S.P.)

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