THE RECENT PROLIFERATION of Chinese buffets has done little to heighten the image of Chinese food, a legendary genre deserving of reverie and respect. But recently I was tipped off to a grand exception to the run-of-the-mill Chinese buffet: Renton's Foody Goody. Certainly weirdness abounds here (like the Santa-theme fabric on the dining-room chairs). But despite the oddities, Foody Goody's excellent and attentive service, massive array of fresh and carefully prepared foods, and wildly diverse clientele make for a curious and edifying meal.

Seafood delicacies claim center stage at the eight-rowed buffet area, set off to one end of the large, warehouse-like dining room. (So industrial is the room's feel that my guest and I almost went looking for a time clock to punch, and as we were seated at our table with the Santa chairs, we felt like we were going to work.) The sautéed squid with vegetables is succulent and juicy, and the accompanying vegetables are consistently fresh and crunchy. Some eaters complain about the current "undercooked" state of Asian vegetables, but I thank the lord for the trend. Foody Goody's seasonal red peppers are allowed to strut their rich, ruby tang, while fist-sized heads of bok choy add mellow field-savvy flavor to more exotic dishes. Speaking of vegetables, both my guest and I were stunned by the eggplant with spicy garlic sauce, a sweet dish with an almost unfathomable degree of velvety smoothness. Cooked to a flawlessly soft consistency, the eggplant's shimmering skin yields to the most gentle forking, and the honey-sweet flavor is a true surprise.

Whole talapia in a brown mushroom sauce serves as a reminder that talapia is simply one of the most underestimated fishes around. With a smooth texture and mild flavor, talapia is a well-kept secret deserving of a much wider audience. Part of the problem is the extreme and occasionally dangerous boniness, but once you learn your way around a talapia, it's nothing but blue skies.

Foody Goody does poultry in just about every conceivable fashion, and except for the dry and pedestrian deep-fried lemon chicken, all versions are superb. Generous pieces of BBQ thighs taste fresh and carry a moist confidence found in all the non-fried poultry, including the similarly prepared BBQ duck. Even the teriyaki is worth noting, with its deep ginger character and soft, supple body. (A note about the Foody Goody's deep-fried fare: these items should be eaten only by the timid and unadventurous, and only in an emergency.)

Large, whole, sun-yellow Bartlett pears, some tinted with a reddish blush, serve as a beacon to the fruit and salad bar, pulling diners toward large piles of ripe, fresh fruit and cut vegetables, all glistening with dewy drops of moisture. Crisp and pungent kimchee share the table with routine items like sliced olives, providing a little something for just about any taste. Haupia (firm, Hawaiian-style coconut pudding) and fresh-baked almond cookies headline the vast dessert selections. Lemon custard and blueberry ice-cream are rich and creamy, and serve as marvelous tongue-coolers after some of Foody Goody's spicier items.

With Foody Goody's mostly authentic food, I was surprised to see nary a chopstick in the house, and wondered about the significance of such an absence. I was also surprised to learn of the full bar, which I spied only as I exited the facility.

While all buffets attempt to cater to families, Foody Goody does a particularly notable job, with a variety of kid-friendly food: mini-pizzas, onion rings, jo-jos, macaroni and cheese, blue and orange Jell-O, and bountiful selections of ice cream and desserts. Eating at Foody Goody feels like attending a large family picnic. There's something about exchanging smiles as you walk past total strangers, each of you with overloaded plates, that signifies family. The community-building feel of eating with such a diverse crowd cannot be minimized: Samoans, Caucasians, Asians, African Americans, East Indians -- all were there, digging into Foody Goody's dazzling and spirited presentation.

Foody Goody Chinese Buffet, 601 S Grady Way, Renton, 425-227-8898. Lunch: Mon-Fri 11 am-3 pm ($6.49, $3.99 ages 4-10); brunch: Sat-Sun 11 am-3 pm ($7.99/$4.99); dinner: Mon-Thurs 4-9 pm ($8.99/$5.99), Fri-Sat 3:30-10 pm ($11.99/$5.99), Sun 3:30-9 pm ($11.99/$5.99).

"Where to Eat" Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-20; $$$ = $20 and up

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