China Star-My first time
Well, we got a sitter thanks to my great cousin. It was last moment and I had to choose quickly. So I chose China Star because it was on top of Tyler Cowen's list.
First, it looks like any strip mall chinese place. In fact if you pick up the wrong paper menu, it is a strip mall chinese place. But fortunately when we sat down they gave us the menu with all the Szechuan dishes on it. Place is pretty plain but at 7pm on a saturday night they were doing a brisk takeout business and there was a line extending out the door. The place was filled with about half asian and half non-asians.
We ordered crab asparagus soup, Szechuan chili tofu, salt and pepper eggplant and crystal shrimp. The crab aparagus was really poor. Not much flavor (expect salt and all the body really came from corn starch thickener). Bunch of the asparagus pieces I got were very though and fiberous. I could not eat it. Clearly the chef had used too much of the stalk.
The salt and pepper eggplant was really amazing. The only thing I could wish for is a bit lighter batter but the seasoning was perfect. I'm eating the leftovers right now and I can tell you its actually better cold.
The crystal shrimp was amazing. I don't really know how to descibe how it looked, its taste or texture. The shrimp were cut somehow to look like cork screw pasta. It came covered lightly in this smooth velvety sauce that had an amazing mouth feel and test. (Would get this every time).
The last was the Szechuan Chili Tofu. We got this because we saw it on one of the tables and my wife asked what it was. They lady at the table told us the name and she also told us that it was increadibly spicy. I actually chucked to myself thinking she must be a light weight. I got the dish, and I could not eat it it because it was so spicy. I actually ate about 5 peices of the tofu and I got dissy and was sweating profusely. I drank so much water. I use to think I could handle heat (eating korean food for over 40 years. I eat jalepenos straight), not anymore. The tofu itself was prepare very well. Very crunch on the outside and soft and smooth in the inside. And the seasoning was fantastic. I just wish I could have eaten more of it. The heat really was different in that it would hit the back of my tongue and I would get a burnig feeling all the way down my throat. I would then slowly start feeling the heat and it would get to a burning pitch about a minute later. Would I order it again, Only if they could turn it down a notch.
Over all I am definitely going back and soon but I would order a few other things. My wife and I struck up a coversation with a chinese couple next to us and they were having the crispy Szechuan duck and fish with mustard green (I going order these next time with the tripe and chili oil). The fish dish look like a soup and almost all the asian tables had it. The couple told us that it was the speciality of the house. It look good.
Thanks for the report Soup. And speaking of, the crab aparagus soup is the only dissapointing thing I've ever had from their kitchen. It's really tasteless. If you like spicy try the Spicy Kwan Beef (I think that's the right name, its the 2nd or 3rd item on the homestyle menu). The quality of the beef is superb, tastes like filet slices, and the brown onion/garlic sauce is pleasantly firery, not painful. They also serve my favorite pot stickers of all time.
The spicy fried fish is outrageously hot (if you eat the peppers in which it's smothered), and just like the eggplant is surprsingly better the next day.
Next time I'm trying the Crystal Shrimp, I've heard raves about it, but hadn't understood how they were prepared 'til your descirption.
I'll have to try the Szechuan Chili Tofu. The similar dish with chicken is blazing, but stellar. And you're right about the chilis. I don't care how "chili macho" one wishes to be - it isn't worth eating more than those that accidentally slip by. But as always - if there's somebody who likes it that hot, and whose system can handle it, more power to them. Such a person is beyond my chili-heat skills.
I had the chicken version of this dish for the first time in LA, and the start of a review I read of the LA restaurant's rendition (which is what made me seek the place out) also applies to the China Star version. That review started out something like
"If Chuck Jones had wanted to draw a dish that the Coyote would hurt himself with, it would probably have looked like the Szechuan Chili Chicken at Chung King in Monterey Park..." As I recall, later in the review, the reviewer came back to the dish, saying something like "...consisted of beautifully seasoned breaded chicken chunks, stir fried with an equal quantity by volume of incendiary red peppers..."
If one can take the heat, it's a fabulous dish, but please do take the time to separate the chicken or tofu from the peppers. With the qunatity of peppers used in the preparation, there's been enough pepper flavor, oils, and aroma transferred to the other ingredient during cooking. One does not need to inflict actual ingestion of them on one's digestive tract - one gets a substantial dose of heat without it.
Note - only the Szechuan chili <whatever> is blazing. The rest of the dishes (at least in my experience) are much less volcanic, though those that are meant to be spicy are still spicy. I would assume that the kitchen would be willing to tone things down upon request.
If you go in a group, you can always order a range of dishes. For example, my last trip to China Star was with a group of colleagues after a work meeting. We had
Spicy Kwan beef
Szechuan Chili Chicken
Sauted Fish with Doufu (spelling? A friend of mine objects strenuously if I use "tofu", the Japanese word, in a Chinese restaurant)
Shredded Chicken with Leek (the "leek actually looks to be "garlic chives")
Fried Eggplant (very nice - the sauce seemed to be hoisin based)
Shredded Pork with Dried Doufu
Sauted Greens with Garlic (I forget which green they were)
At this meal, there were plenty of options for those who didn't want it "zippy", and a nice mix of meats, sauces, and textures. Many people like order several similar dishes, but I find the experience is much more pleasant if one seeks variety and balance.
Definitely try the tripe and the pig's blood in the chili oil. It was very hot and the pepper corns numbed my tongue. But after taking it home and taking off most of the peppers, it tasted wonderful as leftovers.
Just FYI, everyone at China Star gets the same menu; the American-Chinese dishes are at the back, with the Sichuan dishes all at the front. There is an obvious distinction in style between the two menus. I recommend the dry-pot lamb and the fried fish with scallions--both are very good dishes.