Location: 100 McIntyre Square, 7900 McKnight Road, North Hills. 412-364-9933
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sun. noon-9:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $4-10; entrees $8-24
Fare: Authentic Sichuan Chinese
Atmosphere: Strip-mall suburban
Liquor: Wine and beer
If you've been to China, or know someone who has, you're surely conversant in the fact that food in China doesn't much resemble what we call Chinese food in America. For one thing, no American menu could hope to represent the myriad regional traditions in so large and diverse a country as China. Another difference between authentic Chinese and Chinese-American dishes concerns the amount of meat (although that's often less to do with preference and more to do with wealth, and as China has grown richer, meat consumption there has skyrocketed).
Finally, the worst clichés of Chinese-American food -- gloopy sauces thick with cornstarch, the same vegetables tossed in every stir fry -- are just that. They represent losses in translation, ways in which the traditional preparations and ingredients of authentic Chinese cuisine could not be replicated with American groceries and equipment.
Then there's the fact that the Chinese, when they do eat meat, simply eat much more of their animals than we do. You could -- and we do -- use tripe, for instance, as a barometer of the authenticity of Chinese restaurants. If we see that honeycombed stomach lining on the menu, then we know the experience is going to be a lot closer to dining in China than a rendezvous with General Tso.
China Star, on a paved plateau above McKnight Road, aces The Tripe Test. While there is a standard, full-color Chinese-American menu available, the real action is on the humbly Xeroxed Sichuan menu that's all in Chinese. Fortunately, there is a translated version available, and the names read like a gourmand's exotic fantasy: duck with devil's tongue yam. Rabbits in flaming pan. If you still have questions -- and you might, since poetry like this doesn't necessarily reveal exactly how a dish is prepared or will taste -- the owner is more than happy to spend some time at your table explaining the various options. Mouths watering to explore, we kept the dishes coming.
First up was jiao ma shrimp. These smallish shrimp were served in a sort of juicy, grass-green pesto of pureed scallions and Sichuan peppercorns, which gave them a bright, citrusy kick. Our other starter, tan tan noodles, was a superlative version of a favorite dish we make at home, The noodles were tossed at the table with a spicy sauce studded with savory minced pork, providing a supple base for the intense flavors of chiles, garlic and sesame.
With the aforementioned duck, the cultural differences really kicked in. Not only was the duck still on the bone, but it seemed like most of those bones were vertebrae. (Indeed, it's possible that legs and breasts were reserved for other dishes; it was hard to tell, but we didn't spot them.) So we had to work a bit for our flesh, but the flavors were distinctive and rewarding: The brown sauce was brothy and tasted more of star anise and peppercorns than soy sauce. Fingers of gelatinous burdock root provided textural contrast.
Seafood with sizzling rice crust was, indeed, served so hot that when the seafood and its sauce were poured over the cakes of crisp-fried sticky rice -- like Rice Krispie treats without the marshmallow -- it sizzled. The result was that the rice partly absorbed the sauce while retaining most of its crispness, creating a textural delight. Even more delightful, the array of seafood was beautifully cooked in a light white sauce, unifying the rice both with the seafood and a tasty array of vegetables. Filets of white fish (possibly basa, or Vietnamese catfish) were tender and moist without disintegrating under assault by chopstick; thin slices of sea scallop were meltingly soft; and the large shrimp, unlike their smaller cousins in the jiao ma, were somehow soft, yet not mushy.
Ribs with winter melon were brought to the table in a hot crock and distributed into bowls, where we were confronted with a broth so subtle as to be nearly flavorless; substantial but dull chunks of short rib; and undercooked, hard little white beans. The saving grace of this dish was the thin slices of hard squash, cooked long enough to become as pliant as a piece of peach or plum.
Unless you have a broader knowledge of Chinese cuisine, the food at China Star will likely be so unfamiliar as to make ordering akin to cracking open your fortune cookie: You won't know exactly what you're getting until it arrives. Of course, that is part of the fun, and when your meal is unlike anything you've seen or tasted before, you're assured of a memory you'll savor.