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Waiting Four Hours for the Free Mandarin Buffet Was the Best Way to Spend Canada Day

We sent a fearless reporter to Canadian-Chinese buffet The Mandarin's free all-you-can-eat Canada Day extravaganza.

All photos via Jon Reyes.
For those who don’t know, The Mandarin is a 35-year-old Canadian-Chinese buffet chain founded in Ontario. It serves relatively decent Chinese food at relatively decent Chinese food prices.  Canadian-Chinese is the key—we’re talking a very whitewashed ‘ethnic cuisine.’ Not to take away from it, but you can get garlic bread there if you want. I’ve been only once as a child and I barely remember it, save finding the fishtanks infinitely more interesting than the food. That said, people LOVE the Mandarin. And why shouldn’t they? If you’re stuck out in the sticks there is no Chinatown to get "cold tea" and 5 AM dim sum. You have to work with what you’ve got, and if you’re from Ontario you can probably tell me exactly where the nearest Mandarin is.

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Five years ago—on Canada Day 2009—The Mandarin offered the unthinkable: free food to anyone who can provide Canadian citizenship. Period. No purchase necessary, no loopholes, no nothing. They called the event “Thank You Canada” as a reference to the fact that most of the staff have immigrated to our fine country and as a way of giving back. Hey, if they’re happy, I’m happy. Based on the absurd mathematics of giving away a BUFFET MEAL for free to thousands of people, they claim they can only do this every half a decade. I knew that this would require a special disposition, a lot of patience, and a strong appetite for both adventure and chicken balls.  On Canada Day 2014, I woke up at the ungodly hour of 9 AM and headed to Etobicoke.

My strategy was to try and avoid both the walk-in traffic of a downtown Toronto location AND the overall awfulness of driving to the suburbs, so I figured the Queensway location was the logical choice. My previous experience as a moron (sneakerhead) prepared me well for standing around in absurdly long lines waiting for Chinese garbage, so my will was strong. At 10 AM the line was around the Winners* and practically to the Zellers* (*CanCon). The staff had informed me the first person in line arrived at 1 AM the previous night. Once again: the first person in line arrived at 1 AM the previous night. Really let that sink in.

The mood was cheery. Fathers were throwing footballs around, kids were half-heartedly belting out the first few lyrics to Nicki Minaj’s "Pills and Potions" and I wasn’t that afraid of the teenagers like I normally am.  We all knew we were in this together and we all knew we were getting the same thing. There was no need to be cutthroat. Plus, despite a little rain, it was a beautiful sunny Canada Day, and what better way to spend it than melting in a Zellers parking lot?

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The four-hour wait was not an exaggeration. If anything, I shaved a few minutes off. Thankfully, the staff (who were sleeveless for whatever reason) provided water, just as I was arguing that there was no way in hell they were going to provide water.

Godspeed, old dude.

Despite the welcome hydration, some people couldn’t hack it. This old man was the first to go.  His poor, brittle, frail, elderly, senile, withered bones just couldn’t take the heat. I assume this is him being taken away to the badlands to live out his last days in peace.

One interesting aspect of the line was that we essentially had to go through someone’s backyard between the Winners and our goal. There are things in life that really force you to reflect—standing inches from someone’s garden while waiting in line to slowly kill yourself with fried food is one of those things. However the promisedland was nigh!

After finally passing through the gates and being greeted by an impressively upbeat and unhaggard staff, I passed koi ponds to my right and the sweet smell of victory to my left.

The decor and vibe was completely different to the no man's land of outside. To avoid mass-hysteria they were pulling the classic club tactic of running the line while there were still spots available. They knew what they were doing. The decor is what I'd like to describe as tastefully gaudy, like if the set from Big Trouble In Little China threw up on your grandparents' house.  The scene was very quiet, no chit chat. People got all of that out of the way in line—they were here to eat. I was given my seat, grabbed a plate and got to work.

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Truly, is there anything greater than a plate with eight different shades of brown? The play-by-play is as follows: Chicken balls, noodles, fried rice, some kind of whitefish I forget, honey garlic chicken wings, mussels (yes, I dared), an egg roll, a piece of garlic bread, a slice of cheese pizza, two pieces of grilled pork, corn on the cob.  How was it? Look, it’s the fucking Mandarin, what do you want from me? We’re going for quantity here. Everything tasted better than it had any business tasting, including the pizza.

My waitress Candii was a delight, happily pouring me Coke after Coke and kindly explaining to me that today was almost as busy as Mother’s Day. I regaled her with some pretty impressive armpit sweat and a dumb look. But look, we’re here to eat, not make friends. Onwards to plate two.

At this point I’ve clearly lost my mind. A caesar salad? Roast beef on top of cold shrimp? A croissant? Is that a poutine on top of mashed potatoes? Remember earlier when I tried to play it like I was some expert on food and this peasant food was beneath me?  Kindly tell me to ‘fuck off’ in the comments. I powered through the starch-filled nightmare and focused on the dessert coming to me next.

The stream of new people kept coming. Hearing people complain about waiting in line "Almost two and a half hours" almost compelled me to say something, but I buried my head in my eighth coke and finished my croissant (why the hell did I get a croissant?). The fake skylight mocked me.

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My dessert plate makes as much sense as anything else.  It’s a sugar-free cheesecake, a slice of watermelon, a slice of pineapple, vanilla ice cream stuffed into a waffle and frozen yogurt.  In my delirium I even thought it would be funny to put those little should-be-cheese-flavored-but-aren’t sticks in the frozen yogurt, as if I forgot I had to eat it (verdict: DELICIOUS). At this point I’m a bumbling, incoherent mess. The four hours of sun followed by two hours of stuffing my face with garbage was a system shock. The only thing I needed more than actual nutrition was a cold shower and a good cry.

I bid farewell to my kingdom and began to climb back down Everest, walking about ten paces to my car.

As I left the line had dissipated slightly, but at this point it was already almost 5 PM, too late for lunch, too early for dinner; the calm before another storm. Overall, the day was a total delight. I can’t think of anything more Canadian than a bunch of polite people standing in an orderly line waiting their turn to half-appreciate, half-co-opt another culture for free on an arbitrary special day. In all honesty, it was a genuine celebration of Canadians as ‘nice people’ and Canada as a wonderful place, filled with opportunity and possibility. And chicken balls.

Will I be back to the Mandarin? I dunno, maybe? Are you going? I’ll go if you’re going.   Follow Adam Jackson on Twitter and watch his web series at www.wastedtimeseries.com.