Neon lights give the large dining area a hip, swanky feel.
Some people are lucky enough to have traveled in China and, after the experience, refuse to so much as drive past a P.F. Chang's. They turn up their noses at all but the most authentic Chinese establishments and wouldn't be caught dead eating orange chicken or putting anything from a food court between their chopsticks.
Let's get one thing straight: I'm not one of those people.
I put authentic Chinese cuisines (they vary widely by region) and Americanized "Chinese food" (the pork fried rice in the oyster bucket that we all know) in two distinct mental categories, and I hold them both dear. I'd never think to ask them to compete. I spent a year perfecting my mapo dofu recipe after studying in Beijing, but I will also get down on some sugary, salty, fried, crispy sweet-and-sour pork during a late-night work session with all the gusto of a tipsy college freshman.
So when I report that U-Like is a disappointment in the Asian buffet category, I come not from a place of snobbery but a place of sincere appreciation for any establishment that approaches dining with a favorable calories-to-dollar ratio. And if U-like's $8.95 for its lunch buffet was its consistent price, I might be okay with the Chinese-food equivalent of really average American business-conference fare. But at $12, the cost at dinner, there's only so much crusty sweet friedness I can chew.
U-Like's atmosphere is pleasant, though it feels underfilled even when relatively busy due to the sheer size of the room and the number of seats. Banquet tables abound, and neon lights give the large dining area a hip, swanky feel.
There are multiple stations: a salad area with impressive Jell-O options, a couple stations of standard Americanized Chinese fare, a sushi station and a hibachi station with a raw bar from which one can select vegetables, noodles, meats and toppings and then request they be grilled to order. The hibachi station is always open, though I have not yet seen an attendant, and I've never seen customers avail themselves of this option.
At their best, items like the chicken and broccoli and honey chicken are definitely recognizable fat and sugar balls that should satisfy those attempting to please a large party or children's sports team. The Bang Bang chicken, a sweet teriyaki-like dish, is one of two dishes that I polished off, along with the teriyaki chicken skewers -- a blessed oasis on a plate filled with risks. Pepper steak is slimy, the green peppers accompanying it are rather plastic-like, and the squid is chewy but bland, except for a day-old-fish character. The rice, whether steamed or fried, is inexplicably mushy, a strange textural element that continued on all visits.
Appetizers were a sorry sight. The sushi is mushy (again, a rice problem) and tastes less than fresh; at best it's food-court grade. We suspected the dumplings were filled with Vienna sausage; the egg rolls are pale and pasty. I ate something labeled "cheese muscle" and found what tasted like a tepid mix of bad mussel, mayo and undercooked egg. This was a new experience that's had me shying away from all fish and egg products for a while.
The lotus-leaf-wrapped sticky rice, one of my favorite dim sum treats, made me weep for all the wonderful lotus-leaf sticky rice I've had in my life. Saccharine ice cream and cookies complete the strange mix of school cafeteria and shopping-mall-quality Chinese offerings.
Yet the people who frequent U-Like seem to love it. While I ate, regulars walked in, smiling and greeting the staff, nodding in appreciation as the servers confirmed their usual drink orders. As an easy-listening cover of "Take Me Home, Country Roads" played overhead, I began to get the feeling that perhaps I was one of those snobs I'd always detested, but another determined mouthful of black pepper chicken and fried rice brought me back to my original assessment.
U-Like is a greasy, gleaming affront to one of the world's greatest cuisines. It had me calibrating my personal line in the sand between "so bad it's good" and just plain bad. I'll stick with Fugu; even its "American-style menu" is better.