The Chattanooga roll was tasty. (Photo: Staff)

This column is about the experience of food in Chattanooga. I will take people out for dinner and lunch dates at various restaurants in the Chattanooga region. It is not meant to be a review per se, but an account of a one-time experience at a restaurant. Your mileage may vary depending upon your expectations.

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This week, I was invited to try one of Chattanooga’s best-kept secrets-Shangri-la at 14 E. Seventh St. Local Zack Woods and I had been trying to meet up here for a few months. We finally made it happen this week with an early dinner.

Shangri-la is a Chinese food/Japanese sushi restaurant within the Innovation District. They specifically cater to a busy lunch crowd, but they also offer dine-in and carryout until 9:30 every night. Shangri-la is immaculately clean, the staff is friendly, and prices are reasonable-especially if you’re hungry. Don’t let the exterior fool you. This is good stuff.

“No other spot around compares to what they offer as far as style and selection in the downtown area,” Woods said. “Being a little hole-in-the-wall place would make you pass by many times and not recognize this diamond in the rough.”

For college students, downtown business folks and anyone else looking for, as Woods calls it, a “good pig-out spot,” you need not look further than Shangri-la.

Atmosphere/menu
We both arrived at 5 p.m. to an empty restaurant. Woods, an employee at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, enjoys Shangri-la often. He said many of his co-workers order carryout from places such as Rice Boxx (Hixson) without realizing they have Shangri-la a few blocks away.

There is a family atmosphere to the restaurant. I noticed several young workers-the sushi chef appeared to be in his late teens-and everyone seemed excited that we were dining at that time. I was surprised at how different it felt than, say, a No. 1 Chinese-type restaurant, where dining in is an afterthought. At Shangri-la, they want you to sit and enjoy a meal. And that’s what we did.

A smaller portion of Szechuan chicken. (Photo: Staff)

For Woods, the main appeal is Shangri-la’s extensive all-you-can-eat special for $15.95. The menu includes almost every item in smaller portions, and like a sushi menu, you are asked to put a checkmark beside what you want and they bring it to you. There are a few rules, though.

According to the menu, “plates must be empty” before starting another round. No sharing is allowed. Woods said they have never enforced these rules, but he also said that his plates are usually empty. Best not ruffle feathers.

I unbuckled the top button of my jeans and prepared for battle.

A plate of rock shrimp. (Photo: Staff)

The food
We made our decisions and our server took away our order sheets. I am terrible at buffet-style, multidecision dining. Woods was an expert and immediately questioned my choices, and he had every right to do so. In particular, he mentioned that I shouldn’t have ordered fried rice. A bowl of fried rice is just filler food that offers little flavor and takes up too much room. Anthony Bourdain, rock star chef, author and TV personality, once urged his viewers to heed the same advice when eating meat and potatoes. Avoid the starches. The meat is the superstar.

Woods ordered a plate of rock shrimp, a hearty lobster-style shrimp appetizer. He also got an order of pork dumplings and a dragon roll with eel, cucumber and avocado. The sushi rolls are eight pieces and as good as you would find at any other sushi restaurant in town. Off-buffet prices per roll are $9.95-$13, so you could easily just order sushi and make it worth your while.

I went a little crazy too early in the ordering process. Foolishly, I ordered a bowl of miso soup (why?) and a bowl of fried rice. Why would I pay buffet prices for miso soup and fried rice? Before I caught myself acting a fool, I checked off crab rangoons, too, for some reason. It’s not easy admitting your faults, but I have no other recourse here. I tried to redeem myself by ordering a bowl of Szechuan chicken and a Chattanooga roll, but the damage was done.

My first order could’ve easily fed three people. I did my best to consume it all and nearly lost everything toward the end. Having said that, the miso soup was good. I don’t claim to be an expert on Asian soups, but this was a tasty one. The crab rangoons were huge! I unceremoniously ate the entire plate and hit a wall with the Szechuan chicken. Despite my chubbiness, I’ve never been a marathon/quantity eater. Thus my hesitancy with buffets and inability to hang with the professionals.

Shrimp tempura or Lovecraftian dhole? (Photo: Staff)

Woods was a trooper and could’ve eaten three rounds of food. He later ordered a shrimp tempura appetizer that looked as if it were a creature in an H.P. Lovecraft story. I had a bite and, as of this writing, have not descended into a cosmic horrorscape.

Would we go back?
If you are a marathon, all-you-can-eat style of eater, I highly recommend the Shangri-la special. However, if you are a weakling (like myself) and have trouble with decisions involving food consumption, perhaps the standard menu is your best bet. Many of you may not know of Shangri-la, but I hope you give it a chance. Is it the best Asian food in town? Probably not. It’s certainly the best of three other options in downtown, though. And if I lived within the delivery distance (I’m looking at you, UTC students), I’d probably take advantage of Shangri-la three nights a week. Lunch folks should check the sandwich board for daily specials. I’ll definitely be back. A true gem of a place and a great option for downtown diners.

The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, notNooga.comor its employees.

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