Chinese buffets can be the pinnacle of greasy gluttony or a truly perilous trap that causes sharp stomach pains and regret. All too often, lonesome envelopes of crab rangoon shimmer beneath heat lamps; mountains of lo mein quiver in steamed trays; and bowls of neon green ice cream melt side by side with mussels crowned with congealed cheese. But a Chinese buffet isn't always the provenance of the drunk or the desperate. A good Chinese buffet can be a glorious smorgasbord once one locates the redemptive dish: a pert dumpling here, a hefty egg roll there. The key is to hone in on what the buffet does best and load your plate accordingly (and repeatedly). Here's a cheat sheet.
Juicy mystery meat hugged by chewy dough, slick with soy: Changsho's Peking ravioli are just as they should be. Their buffet includes your choice of soup and a decent sushi selection, plus virtuous offerings like miso-glazed fish. The buffet also has the usual Kung Pao and General Gau's chicken, lo-mein, crackly spring rolls, and neon-pink spareribs, and so forth. Everything tastes fresh, and servers are quick to whisk your dish away as soon as you're ready for seconds. But despite the typical buffet array, it's the thick, puckered ravioli you really want. Bonus: They offer free parking, a Cambridge rarity.
1712 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-547-6565
This bright pink roadside shack on a grim stretch of highway in Malden is easy to miss. Once inside, however, you're rewarded with the aroma of incense and the kind of reverential service that makes you feel like you should leave a tip before even eating your food. On weekends, they offer a Sri Lankan-Indochine buffet. This isn't the classic gloopy buffet of your hungover dreams; instead, it's a medley of Asian flavors that borrows from India, Sri Lanka, and China. Gobi is the runaway hit: cauliflower cubes, marinated with curry leaves and deep fried, rendering the texture of General Gau's chicken and the lightness of popcorn. There's also vegetable or chicken fried rice, egg noodles sauteed with chili sauce, and aromatic egg drop soup. Chances are, if it's not on the buffet and you see it on the menu, the laid-back servers will kindly whip it up. (We asked for a strawberry smoothie on our visit to temper the spice, and it appeared 30 seconds later, with a smile.) Crucial hint: Ask for smoky tomato chutney on the side.
105 Broadway, Malden, 781-397-1307
The Westford outpost of a mini chain has a big, popular Sunday night buffet with plump, fresher-than-it-has-to-be sushi, plus all the Americanized Chinese specialties you know and love, from a slick kung pao chicken (miraculously uncluttered by celery) to enormous cauldrons of coconut shrimp. There are juicy Beijing ravioli with hints of ginger, mammoth lobster tails and claws, chicken swimming in pungent garlic sauce, and pillows of crab rangoon that actually taste of crab. Here, anything fried (chicken on skewers, lightly battered tempura, and so forth) is a must. Somehow, the kind folks at Bamboo manage to coat their proteins in a kind of delicate, crispy cloak that actually leaves the diner feeling pleasantly full, instead of bloated. The dining room is clean and bright, too, even if you do have to flag down your server for refills.
1 Lan Drive, Westford, 978-589-9666
The people-watching is excellent at this Chelmsford buffet. The seemingly bottomless pit of lo mein is almost as spicy as the boisterous clientele, who include curious locals grateful for exotic food in the burbs and nearby office workers. Feng Shui's standout lo mein is mixed with a trace of garlicky, spicy mustard. It's remarkably clean and greaseless, with a healthy smattering of crunchy green peppers. Other worthwhile pursuits include flaky, greaseless scallion pancakes, sesame balls, deep-fried jumbo shrimp coated in a milky coconut sauce, and delicate green spinach dumplings that retain their structural integrity even after a few dunks in soy.
285 Chelmsford St., Chelmsford, 978-250-8888
North Andover's China Blossom is the type of place your curious grandparents used to visit when they wanted something ethnic. Here you'll find French fries side by side with egg rolls, which stand like hopeful soldiers, propped up in a tray. These turgid little missiles really are the main reason to visit: crunchy, fat, doughy, and best dunked in spicy mustard. Waitresses have been here since the dawn of time and survey the scene with bemused expressions. You're mainly here for the ambiance and the eggrolls, but be sure to chomp into the deep-fried, blindingly golden, sneaker-sized chicken fingers, which function as a crunchy vehicle for the saucer of duck sauce the waitress will happily deposit on your table.
946 Osgood St., North Andover, 978-682-2242
About the Author: Kara Baskin is a frequent contributor to The Boston Globe and writes Boston.com's Restaurant Hub. She's also the co-author of Size Matters: The Hard Facts About Male Sexuality That Every Woman Should Know. (Yes, there are food tips included in the book.) Visit her website and follow her on Twitter.