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In many instances Emerald Coast endeavors to keep fried food from getting too soggy by serving the accompanying sauce alongside. The gravy for the lemon chicken, for example, was positioned in a dish next to the boneless chunks of deep-fried poultry, and the sauce for sweet-and-sour chicken was neighbor to the deep-fried "chicken balls," boneless poultry coated with batter. The effort was wasted, though. Both chicken preparations were dry, and the sauces sugary enough to give a dentist the shudders.
Stir-fried dishes were better able to withstand the rigors of the steam table. General Tso's chicken was tangy, the sauce cooked into the juicy nuggets, while kung pao chicken was wrapped in a zesty Szechuan sauce. (Spicy dishes are marked with red signs.) Beef and pork entrees, too, were hardier stuff. Succulent sauteed beef with string beans was coated with a delicious brown gravy; black-pepper steak was lively and vibrant. A variation on the pepper steak, meatballs with green peppers, was tough but tasty nonetheless.
The best place to go for beef was a carving station that doubled, oddly, as a sushi bar. Ignore the skewers of beef and chicken (they were burnt the night we visited) and try the prime rib instead. This supple cut in itself was worth the entire price of admission. All the accompanying sauces -- a zesty "prime rib sauce," horseradish, and peanut satay -- were flavorful. As for the sushi, bland California rolls made with fake crab were not for the connoisseur, nor were rice pockets, balls of rice wrapped in a sweetened omelet skin and topped with masago or sesame seeds. These were, however, a nice antidote to some of the Szechuan dishes.
Mussels in black bean sauce were a clear standout among the sparse selection of seafood preparations. Shrimp in lobster sauce tasted fishy; the fake crab that accented the eggy dressing was positively awful.
Emerald Coast offers little consideration for vegetarians. There are the vegetarian egg rolls, plus whole baby carrots, corn on the cob, and sauteed mushrooms that look as if they should be served with a steak and a baked potato. And don't expect any of the Chinese-style vegetable dishes to stay crisp; on our visit they were uniformly limp. The noodle dishes suffered the same fate, tending to dry out under the heat lamps. Fried rice with chicken was rife with shriveled kernels, and both Singapore noodles (rice noodles with curry) and lo mein needed some moisture to make them palatable. If you're a a true stir-fry fan, you might want to order something a la carte.)
Dessert offers international options, including soothing creme caramel, moist Black Forest cake, and rich cheesecake. A separate sundae bar is home to the aforementioned eight flavors of ice cream and sherbet, as well as butterscotch and chocolate sauces. Some of the other sweets were ideal little morsels -- miniature almond cookies and tiny coconut tarts, for instance. Fresh melon slices were also a fruity, refreshing finish. But I was happiest to see the honey bow -- a pastry made by frying a won ton wrapper and drenching it with honey -- a treat I look for in New York City's Chinatown bakeries.
The novelty of the Chinese-American buffet may well be its biggest draw. And a serious glut of clones might send this dining trend the way of the pet rock. But there's no denying the value. At Emerald Coast the food is better than you'd expect, and the experience is both filling and fun.
Emerald Coast. 4519 N. Pine Island Rd., Sunrise, 954-572-3822. Lunch Wednesday-Friday and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner nightly from 4:30 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 10:30 p.m.