Relatives in Granite City told Yan "Michelle" Guo and her husband, Xu Dong, that metro-east residents really like Chinese food.
That was enough to convince the young couple to move from their home in Arkansas, rent a former Dairy Queen building in Cahokia and open Panda Chinese Buffet.
"To be a businessman, you have to be brave sometimes," said Michelle, 27, of Cahokia.
The restaurant opened Sept. 6. It offers an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet for $7.56 with a soft drink (includes tax). The price goes up $1 at dinnertime, when choices are expanded to include catfish, mussels, shrimp and steak.
Customer favorites range from orange chicken to pepper steak, pork fried rice to shrimp lo mein.
"I'm addicted," said Kim Peters, 30, of St. Louis, who works as an administrator in Cahokia. She has been to the restaurant seven or eight times in two months.
"It's really good," she said. "I like the pot stickers, and I love the sesame seed ball. It's got red bean paste in it, but it's actually sweet like a dessert. It's delicious."
Michelle and her brother emigrated to the United States from China in the mid-1990s. Their parents already were living in Arkansas and operating a restaurant.
"After school, I would go to the restaurant and learn, and then I worked on weekends," Michelle said. "I got everything from my parents."
Michelle became a U.S. citizen at 18. She met her husband in New York City's Chinatown after a friend's wedding and married five years ago. They have two children, ages 2 and 4.
Xu was trained as a chef in China. He cooks at Panda Chinese Buffet, while Michelle serves as manager.
"We do everything ourselves," she said.
Buffet carryouts cost $4.25 a pound at lunch or $4.75 a pound at dinner.
The restaurant also has a regular menu with appetizers, soup, fried rice, lo mein, chop suey, chow mein, egg foo young and vegetable, chicken, pork, beef and seafood dishes, as well as American favorites such as chicken wings, chicken tenders and catfish.
"I like their crab rangoon," said Gloria Robbins, 32, of Cahokia, who stopped by on her way home from school for a carryout. "And I don't feel like cooking tonight."
At a glance
What: Panda Chinese Buffet
Where: 1411 Camp Jackson Road in Cahokia
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Seating: 150 people
Party room: Yes (no charge)