2004 Dining Guide
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, October 17, 2004
Some like it hot, and for them there's this spartan Chinese restaurant, whose rambling menu features Sichuan dishes that don't pull any punches. Slices of cold beef brushed with chili oil, and pork mixed with salty-sour green beans and roasted red chili peppers set off four-alarm fires on your tongue, though their individual flavors manage not to get lost in the flames. Look around at what your neighbors, mostly Asians, are eating, and follow suit. Chances are good that they're ordering from among the specials printed in Chinese, but helpfully translated by the efficient wait staff; the selections change from day to day but might include pig's feet, flounder with diced pepper, beef hot pot and stewed chicken. With more than 100 dishes on the full menu, getting bored is not an option. Tables are packed together, and decoration is limited to a mural of the Great Wall. There are more comfortable Chinese restaurants around, but few that can sustain your interest longer. What looks like a yellow football making its way to so many tables turns out to be a scallion "pancake." It deflates when it's pierced, sending a puff of steam into the air -- and customers' fingers flying.
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, June 27, 2004
At first sight, people who frequent local Chinese restaurants will probably peg China Star as someplace they already know all too well.
I know I did.
Squeezed into a corner of a sprawling mall, the small dining room, with its tightly packed tables, could pass for any of a dozen other spots; with the exception of a lone mural -- a dream version of the Great Wall -- and a chandelier suspended from the ceiling, the restaurant seems more practical than pretty. Typically, a few customers are standing in the foyer waiting to pick up food they've ordered from the numbered dishes on the carryout menu.
Once they taste the food, however, those people who thought they knew what to expect of China Star are apt to be proven wrong.
I know I was.
"Try this," a waiter instructs as he drops a dish of pickled vegetables on the table. Just as I'm about to tell him that my dinner companion and I haven't ordered it, he adds, "It's free." Munching on the crunchy and spicy welcome, we scan the plastic-bound menus in our hands. The document is long and rambling, beginning with a page of six or so choices in (uh-oh) Chinese script and continuing on with dim sum, entrees, "home style" entrees and lunch combinations. Then come two pages of dishes that suggest the kitchen is pandering to Americanized palates, with beef teriyaki, chicken noodle soup, even a few steamed items designated "light"; and while parents may be happy to see kids' meals offered, it's a little unnerving in a Chinese restaurant to see it include french fries. It takes a few moments to sort through all these possibilities, but I'm armed with a positive report from a Chinese acquaintance ("If you like it hot . . . ") and some firsthand eavesdropping. "There are two chefs in the kitchen," I hear a manager tell a group of diners sitting near me. "One of them prepares only Sichuan." That's my cue to brace for an onslaught of bold spicing and plenty of fire: Garlic, ginger, chilies and peppercorns rank among the ingredients that fuel this regional style, known as China's "Western" school of cooking. Happily, China Star doesn't hold back. Whether it's an appetizer of thin slices of cold beef, fragrant with five-spice powder and slicked with chili oil, or an entree of crumbled pork tossed with salty-sour green beans and roasted red chili peppers, these are flavors as big and brassy as a Sousa march. Yet the heat isn't so searing that you can't appreciate the nuances of everything else that has gone into the recipes.
Unlike some other Chinese eateries, China Star doesn't wheel out its dim sum on carts. Instead, customers order off the menu as they would any other course. Focus on the starches, several of which are uncommonly good. "Baby wontons" are slippery white noodles with a soft center knot of well-seasoned pork served in a soup bowl full of clear and appealing chicken broth and glistening with chili oil. No matter how many of these wontons you eat, you will want another. The kitchen also makes scallion "pancakes" that are anything but flat; they're golden puffs the size of small balloons, hot, crisp and swollen, at least until you tear into them, releasing a cloud of steam, and they collapse. A bit of scallion pancake makes an excellent foil to all the hot notes you are likely to encounter (as does a bit of rice between bites, veteran hotheads will advise you). Sesame-flecked pumpkin cakes, three to a plate, are chewy and gelatinous, sort of like shrimp toast without the seafood, and more of an acquired taste. From the opening page of appetizers come boiled peanuts, deliciously seasoned with either hot bean paste or pungent five-spice powder; thin slices of tripe spiked with chili oil; and morsels of diced rabbit, similarly spiked but so bony you quickly give up trying to extract every speck of meat.
There are other restaurants in the area named China Star, but they are unrelated to this establishment in Fair City Mall, which opened two years ago and caters to a predominantly Asian clientele. Busy as the restaurant can get, the staff does a laudable job of translating whatever appears in Chinese and helping customers compose a meal from the myriad options. Manager John Chen, a frequent presence -- look for the guy with the phone cord dangling from one ear -- says that the dishes described in Chinese are seasonal specials. Most recently, they have included fried tilapia and a restorative soup of oxtail with chunks of white radish.
It pays to pipe up. Whenever I've asked, suggestions from the servers have translated into memorable dinners. One recommendation, salt-and-pepper eggplant, came from the "home style" category: oval slices of eggplant dipped in batter, fried to an airy crisp state and showered with matchsticks of ginger, sliced garlic and more. Addictive (and better after it cools down some). A second tip, "spicy emperor duck," was a bubbling cauldron of duck pieces, rich with the flavor of sweetly spiced brown sauce and rounded out with whole mushrooms and fresh cilantro. It's listed under "house special" on the menu, as are whole steamed flounder (moist and delicate) and "crystal shrimp," a generous heap of pearly seafood with a ginger-shocked sauce whose pale complexion belies its sublime flavor. A request for more vegetables, meanwhile, yielded a steaming plate of pale green yu choy, the stems of which taste like a mild broccoli, mixed with slivers of garlic. And so it went, meal after meal. My biggest problem with China Star is the endless choices. You could come here every day for months and never repeat an entree.
Eating such carefully prepared food makes me want to stop my neighbor from ordering beef with broccoli, which he can get at any Chinese restaurant, and urge him to give something less common a whirl. In my experience here, standards such as lo mein with pork are just that, standard-issue. To experience the best of China Star, you'll simply have to take some heat.