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Whose Line Is It Anyway?: L8 serves it up, buffet style.

Better Late Than Never

The name was supposed to mean 'Lucky 8,' not 'Late,' but the owners of the L8 Buffet have found a niche

By Jessica Neuman Beck

"In Chinese, eight is a lucky number, so Lucky 8--L8," explains Zhen Wang about the name of the restaurant he owns with his wife, Ying, at 431 Front St. "But people pronounce it 'late.' When we first opened, we closed at 9, and people would say 'This is not late. Your name is Late Buffet, you have to be open late!'"

He laughs. "I said, 'OK, how late should we be?' and they said, 'At least 10.' Most of the downtown restaurants close at 9, and they don't have any place to eat."

Zhen knows a thing or two about seizing an opportunity. That's how he came up with the idea for a downtown Chinese buffet in the first place, while he was a student at UCSC.

"I was always dining around, looking for a good Chinese restaurant," he says, "and there were no really good Chinese restaurants in this area. We always had to drive to San Jose for good Chinese food." After he graduated, a friend suggested he solve the problem by opening his own restaurant, and L8 was born.

A chemist by trade, Zhen remembers well the challenges of being a student in Santa Cruz. He strives to make his restaurant into a place where he and his friends would have felt welcome. "We have students come here sometimes to study. I want to make sure it's a really student-friendly environment."

The restaurant is decorated in calming shades of purple, maroon and jade green, and equally gentle music plays in the background. The food is laid out buffet style, with the smell of each new dish wafting out toward the dining room.

"When a lot of people first come, they never expect a buffet restaurant like this. At most buffets, the food is blah. After they eat here, they know it's something different. Every dish tastes different," says Zhen. "Also, we don't use MSG at all. We want to make food that's as fresh as possible."

He smiles. "That's the thing in Chinese food," says Zhen. "It looks good and smells good and tastes good. You must have those three parts to it. I cannot cook, so all I can do is look for good chefs. We've been very lucky through the months that we get better and better chefs."

As Zhen and Ying fine-tune their kitchen, the food has gone from strictly Chinese fare to a mixture of Chinese, American and Japanese foods, running the gamut from roast beef to sushi.

"I know Santa Cruz really likes healthy food, so we made a larger sushi bar, and a vegetarian section, and also we increased the salad bar," says Zhen. "Also, we try to make everything fresh here, all the cookies, all the cakes, everything is baked here. We have really good chefs. They do a tremendous job, so I don't have to worry about that."

The challenge of getting customers to a restaurant which is essentially hidden has been difficult, but Zhen believes that the buffet-style setup will ultimately bring more customers. "A lot of people think that to come to a buffet you have to be hungry. But if you go to any restaurant, you pay the same amount of money for a plate of food. You pick something from the menu and it might not be your favorite, you may order something you completely dislike and you're stuck with it," he says. "Here you can try everything, and then find your most favorite; one and go back for seconds."

Ying is an acupuncturist who worked for three years as a medical doctor in China.

"We happened to open the restaurant here and at that time I had my first baby," she says with a smile. "Now I work in Five Branches as a part-time job."

As an acupuncturist, Ying sees food as an integral part of a person's overall well-being. "In China, food is very important to your health. When you have some diseases, you cannot eat some things. When I eat fried food, it is not good for a cough. If you have low energy, then maybe you should take some meat, but not much." Ying wants to use her knowledge of Chinese medicine to create dishes that will promote health in her customers.

"She wants to use her knowledge to help the chefs," Zhen says. "You really need to figure out your recipe, make sure it looks good and tastes good."

"In China, the food itself is medicine," says Ying. "You eat well, and you are healthy."

It will take some time to integrate Ying's expertise into L8's menu, but in the meantime, Zhen and Ying Wang want to make their customers as happy as possible. "You can always come here and enjoy a very delightful dinner or lunch," says Zhen.

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From the February 18-25, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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