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