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Cheap Wine & Cheaper Words #2 / Anthony Neil Smith

My Local Chinese Buffet is No Place for Maison Barboulot

When we moved from one small shitty town in Minnesota to a larger, not-quite-as-shitty town (at least it has trees and lakes), the one thing most notably downgraded was our local Chinese buffet.

The one in our old town was, really, one of the higher quality Chinese-American joints I’d had the pleasure of gorging myself on. The portion sizes were massive. The hot and sour soup was exquisite. The won tons were perfect. During the pandemic, their takeout window helped keep us sane. Unfortunately, they closed at some point in 2022 while we were still in town, so when we moved closer to the end of the year, I was excited about the prospect of a new Chinese buffet to fill in that vacuous hole in my appetite.


The new place is, first, huge. Three separate sections of dining room, each with its own personality – the left, closest to the grilled-to-order station, the middle, the coziest, and the right, a pretty wide open path to the buffet stations…of which there are many.

And those stations – wow – it’s hard to imagine the sheer volume of food being cooked and dumped into place on even your most basic weekday night, let alone during a rush. The greasiest, gloopiest, sweetest, saltiest, most average American Chinese food I’ve ever had, I swear. The fried rice is the same laser yellow as the hot mustard packets. And yes, packets. Just packets of all the sauces – soy, duck, sweet and sour, all in packets by the thousands. The hot and sour soup is sludgelike after god knows how many hours under the heat lamp. All of the typical sticky chicken dishes are tooth-achingly sweet. The shrimp is either fried and beaten until flat, or boiled, I think, until the shell sticks to the meat as if superglued. The pork on a stick is pork on a stick, as advertised. There is a sushi station, but I’ve never seen anyone take anything from it in the many times I’ve eaten there. I could go on, but you get it. Oh, and on the dessert station full of pudding you’ll also find birthday cake. That’s the only way I can describe it. Birthday cake.

I know that two plates full of this, along with fried-to-fuck eggrolls and won tons, will send me sprinting to the bathroom – especially since my gallbladder took its leave of me earlier in the year. The grease is going to get you. It’s going to get everyone.

And I love it. I can’t explain, but visiting this place is a trip. The quality varies widely from “tasty” to “wait, what?” I’ve tried things I can’t name, because there was no name telling me what it was, which is weird because I’m a notoriously picky eater. This place makes me feel loved and hated at the same time. The aroma as I go in the door both welcomes and warns me. More please. Tears in my eyes, I’m still gonna say “More.”

There’s a woman who wanders around the stations checking to see if any item needs replacing. When they do, she speaks into a wireless mike with the reverb and distortion turned up to “Michael Winslow doing guitar solos with his voice in the eighties” levels. It sounds as if she’s calling out bingo numbers.

Now, you think I’m going to recommend a cheap wine to go along with this, don’t you? But I’m not. There’s no booze at this joint. My beverage of choice is usually Dr. Pepper.

However, once I’m home and have emptied my very being of the wonderful bounty of fat I have ingested, I’ll reach for something to make me feel fancy again. I’ll pull out one of my favorite all-time Trader Joe’s specials – Maison Barboulot Cabernet-Syrah from France. That’s right. A TJ from France for…six bucks a bottle.

Sometimes less if you’re lucky.

I’ve now had about five bottles of it, and it’s always been good. Well, except that one time I had a cold that might’ve been Covid even though I didn’t test positive, and wine tasted wrong for about a week. I wasted three various bottles – including one of my beloved Maison B’s – hoping my taste will have returned to normal. But nope, each time, it was like potato salad and vinegar. I hate potato salad.

Other than that, I have yet to be disappointed by this beauty.

Look at the label. It’s simple, but classy. It screams “I’m classy, bitches!” It’s got a little red stripe on it, and a red “o.” Its lack of whimsy signals some serious wine, right? The only thing lacking is a sketch of the winery itself, a usual dull-as-dirt mark of high fucking quality. If there’s one thing I learned from YouTube, a drawing of a chateau on a French wine label means the juice inside is divine…ly expensive. But no, you don’t even have that here. No need for a drawing. The label is black and white – one of my fave color schemes for book covers, and for wine, too. It’s in a traditional but boss font. It makes you want to pick it up, admire it, then guzzle all seven-hundred-fifty milliliters of it.

Next time I’m over Minneapolis way, I’m bringing a case of it home.

Settle down by the fake fireplace on your giant TV, sip some, and read some French noir. Like Manchette, or Simenon (Belgian, but he wrote in French, so…) – especially the standalones. His Maigret books are slim and fun crime novels, but his psychological noirs get under your skin and stay there. Dirty Snow, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, Mr. Hire’s Engagement, some really strong medicine.

Anyway, I’ll be back in four moons with another bottle worth writing about, matched with some literary goodness. Pop some corks and swill the plonk, y’all.


ANTHONY NEIL SMITH is a mystery/crime fiction writer who has had a great number of his short stories published in literary magazines and crime writing zines, and has also published numerous novels. His work ha appeared in Best American Mystery & Suspense 2023. He is co-creator of the well-received online noir journal Plots with Guns. He was also an associate editor with the highly regarded literary magazine Mississippi Review, having put together several special issues featuring crime fiction for the online edition. He currently edits Revolution John and is a Professor of English at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, MN.


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