I’ve been to HK Star Cantonese Restaurant four times since it opened in the mid-part of the last decade. The first time, back when my law office was around the corner, I strolled in solo, noticed I was the only gweilo in the joint, and had to argue with my well-meaning waitron about what I wanted to eat. (I think he said “you no like” at least ten times before he accepted my order. What arrived — egg drop soup, sweet and sour pork, tepid shrimp — was definitely not what I wanted to eat…or what I thought I ordered.)
The second time was about five years ago, with “Mad Max” Jacobson. We walked in for a weekend lunch, and the place was packed. Immediately, we noticed we were the only gaijin in the joint, but grabbed our table like a couple of hungry fellow travelers. Just about the time I was expecting another kung pao chicken experience, Max barked something in Mandarin — something along the lines of “bring us the good, not the gringo stuff” — and the wait staff snapped to, and proceeded to assault us with a dozen plates of delicately seasoned, perfectly cooked, and largely unrecognizable southern Chinese fare. I don’t remember much else about the meal except Slapsie Maxie practicing his Chinese while I polished off everything at the table.
So good was it, that I decided to return the next week, this time for another solo lunch — and this time to take notes and dive even deeper into the menu.
So, I walked in, this time with confidence. Once again, I was the only round-eye in the joint. It was very busy, but the host managed to find me a solo seat among the throngs of Chinese and Chinese-Americans who looked at me (when they weren’t polishing off plates of their own) with the same sneering contempt the tough cowboys in those old westerns held for the tinhorns who strolled into the saloon without a clue.
“I’ll show them,” I thought. “I’m here for the good stuff, real Chinese food, with nary a sweet and sour sauce in sight. Wait till they see my table piled high with sea cucumber, abalone and fish bladders. That’ll show ’em. That’ll show ’em I’m not a haole to be taken lightly.”
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Because there I sat.
For what seemed like an hour (probably around 20 minutes), with no one (other than the sneering, happily feeding customers) looking at me.
Twenty minutes of no menu. No waiter. No water. Nothing.
Not even a nod from a waitron.
Now, anyone who has ever been in a restaurant with me knows I can be fairly aggressive about getting the staff’s attention when I want something. (This art of the eye-piercing stare and emphatic gesture, to summon a hapless or harried waitron, was learned from Anthony John (Cutsumpas) Curtas 1926-2006 — my dearly departed Dad — a master of the craft.)
So, let’s just say the words “timid soul”, “restaurant customer” and my name have never collided in the same sentence, except this one. And when I want something — a menu, a glass of water, the chef, the check — I’m not shy about making my desires known.
So I waved. I grimaced. I gestured and I did everything short of walking up to the host and grabbing him by the lapels, but still, a menu was not to be had.
So, after many, many minutes, I threw in the proverbial towel, and resolved never to go again….no matter how flaky the fish, or concupiscent the crab.
But then a foodie friend called. A major Asian maven. Someone who loves Las Vegas’s Chinatown almost as much as I do. An aficionado so affected by all things alimentary and Asian that he recently toured New York’s Chinatown, ate his way around it and some of the boroughs, and pronounced our three mile stretch of Spring Mountain Road every bit the equal of what he tasted in the Big Apple.
Yeah, he’s pretty passionate about it, and for years, I’ve used him for tips and tales about the inner workings of many places too inscrutable for a guero like me to penetrate.
And he said, “John, let’s go to HK Star, you won’t believe how authentic it is.”
“I know,” I replied, “but only if a round eye can get a seat….and a menu.”
“No problem,” he shot back. “I’ll even introduce you to the owner Walter, and show you why I’m so nuts about the place.”
So we went, and so we ate. Exquisitely.
Steamed crab soup:
…that kould’ve kome straight from Kowloon.
Delicately deep fried flounder:
….teeming with roe:
…that was as sparkling (and a lot cheaper) as any succulent swimmer found three miles east.
But the real winner of the meal were these crispy intestines:
….that were a revelation. Snowy white and fluffy on the inside, slightly crispy without, they were a testament to the Chinese love of textural contrast, with an almost neutral flavor. Save for the barest hint of gamey-creaminess, they were as far from southern chitlins as Zhang Ziyi is from Honey Boo Boo.
The meal wasn’t a revelation as much as it was a confirmation. Confirmation that HK is the go-to spot for those seeking the genuine article in Cantonese cooking in our humble burg.
But what of the cultural divide that seems an insurmountable obstacle to white people who want to sample the real deal?
My buddy Steven Shaw (who once wrote a book entitled Asian Dining Rules – that should’ve been subtitled “Eating Asian for Scared White Folks”) gave one simple rule for how to get the good stuff: multiple visits over a short period of time– the better to build a true and trusting relationship with the restaurant. As we discussed many times (before his death last year), there is an air of mutual discomfort and mutual distrust that infects the dynamic of non-Asians entering into the truly foreign world of an authentic, Far East eatery. The customer feels uncomfortable from the get-go, and the establishment isn’t so happy either — usually because of way too many Americans ordering way too much sweet and sour pork, or the even bigger disaster of disgruntled patrons ordering something they don’t know about, then complaining, or even worse, refusing to pay for it.
Only with repeated visits can this divide be conquered. Jonathon Gold tells the story of eating at Saipin Chutima’s Thai restaurant in Norwalk (CA, not Connecticut) back in the mid-90s (that she ran before moving to Vegas and taking over Lotus of Siam) at least a dozen times before he even knew there was an Issan and Northern Thai menu he could order from.
So, it’s gonna take chutzpah and it’s gonna take some patience. Even then, you may have to fight to get them to bring out the 1000 year old eggs or bird’s nest soup, but take it from us, it’s worth the struggle…..IF and only IF you are an intrepid, adventurous sort….who’s willing to experiment with what you thought was Chinese food.
For the rest of you, there’s always Panda Express.
As for ELV — the man, the myth, the hawker of all things Hong Kong-ian — he knows the drill now at HK: ask for Walter, sit down, close your eyes, and point:
…or take an Asian maven with you. No fellow traveler should be without one.
HK STAR CANTONESE RESTAURANT
3400 South Jones Blvd. #15
Las Vegas, NV 89146
6 thoughts on “Incredible Cantonese (if you can get it) at HK STAR”
I used to go to this restaurant often. However, one time I found a wire in my Singapore noodles and another time my chow fun had a piece of metal in it that punctured into my upper gum causing a fairly substantial wound. . When I complained, the waiter thought it was funny. Walter was not there both times and I’ve known him since he was a manager at KJ Kitchen. None the less, after seeing how many times this place was shut down by the health department and my two above experiences, I will never return.. This is probably the only time I am vehemently against supporting your review and this place that you recommend.
you’re a terrific writer, a vegas food and dining champion and an undisputed champion of vegas chinatown. #best chinatown kudos again
You know I love you John, but why does it have to be white?
“But what of the cultural divide that seems an insurmountable obstacle to white people who want to sample the real deal?”
“a book entitled Asian Dining Rules – that should’ve been subtitled “Eating Asian for Scared White Folks”
The issues you describe in your excelent column is not a white – asian concern, it is a cultural and language problem regardless of the race of the customer. If you go to HK STAR with an Chinese friend who only speaks English, you will encounter the same problems because this is a Cantonese restaurant aimed at Cantonese speaking customers. There is a cultural divide that will occur regardless of race, the same issues you describe as a white man would also affect a black man, an Indian man, or even a Japanese woman.
My only HK Star experience was with a Japanese family, it was not easy to get the staff’s attention because it was clear that the only languages our party spoke were English and Japanese. When we did finally get the attention of the staff, we all struggled greatly with communications – but eventually we did order and we were happy. I had to settle for less adventurous dishes because of the communication issue, but it was a worthwhile experience that I will not soon forget.
The last time I checked we were in the United States of America. not Shanghai China or BumfxxK Egypt! Any establishment that wants my business and moola had better be ready to welcome me and provide prompt service. I respect that ethnic establishments have unique qualities and patrons should be ready to deal with exotic and may be out of ones comfort zone. That being said whether you are white, black, blue or green to be treated like John or other posters describes is unacceptable . To quote Lt Colonel Frank Slater in Sent of a Woman: “I ‘d take a flamethrower to the place”
Would it be easier to just order take-out?
(in response to Art above) – the one error you made is assuming they actually want your business or the business of any one not matching their cultural and language identity. They don’t.
It is unacceptable though, and were someone who just spoke a non-English language walk into a restaurant whose waiters and waitresses only spoke English, and were treated that way and served items they didn’t order so they wouldn’t come back – I would expect it to make the news.
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