A huge wave of Chinese immigration moved into California’s San Gabriel Valley over the past three decades and has slowly spread east, to our desert shores. Authentic Chinese restaurants are part of the movement, with their bright lights, live fish tanks and shopping mall décor.
HK Star—a large, boxy space where Chinese music videos play on TVs in all corners of the dining room—is our latest example. There are two bilingual menus: one huge regular menu and one for “Hong Kong Specials.” The Hong Kong menu translates to unfamiliar but delicious fare such as duck tongue with XO (dried scallop sauce), deer meat and scallions, or pan-fried oyster pancake.
Fasten your seatbelts—it’s going to be a bumpy night.
If you aren’t Chinese, a sassy female captain in a black vest will try to sell you mundane fare such as orange chicken or fried spring rolls. “It’s easier,” mine quipped with a wink. The spring rolls—three rolls cut into two pieces and served with a red vinegar dipping sauce—are terrific, actually, so no one will blame you if you take the well-trodden path.
I, however, come here for live Santa Barbara, Calif., shrimp wong kam-style (the king’s crown), golden yellow and bursting with orange roe. Live green cod are cooked to order, served whole. Try it steamed with garlic and ginger. “Eat the head,” as NBA star Yao Ming famously tells Dwayne Wade on TV.
The first step after being seated is to insist on a tureen of the house soup. (Though complimentary, they won’t bring it for non-Chinese if not requested.) My table was served a delicious vegetable broth flavored with two large pork bones, spinach and bok choy bobbing to the surface.
The next step is to ask for the earthy Chinese tea called bo lei—another by-request-only highlight—instead of the insipid jasmine tea served as the default. Now you’re ready to dig into the main menu, with more than 300 choices. Don’t be intimidated.
One cold appetizer I fancy is the stewed pork leg, delicate slices that look a bit like ham, redolent of star anise and aromatic spices. Try the salt and pepper squid from the hot appetizer list. The squid is fried, lightly, then served with a small heap of spiced salt on the side, and the portion size is huge.
If you’re tempted to order a fried fish, don’t be. The two choices, sea bass and flounder, are frozen and tend to get sodden with oil. Instead, go for the clay-pot dishes, all especially good here; there’ll be one on almost every table. The salt and oil clam hot pot has a bubbly sauce that is incredible spooned onto white rice. How about the frog with lemongrass hot pot? I thought so.
This is the season for my favorite Chinese green, do mieu—pea tendrils as green as a freshly mown lawn, simply sautéed with garlic and oil. If you want something more recognizable, go with string beans, stir-fried with your choice of garlic or XO sauce.
The server tried to dissuade us from trying No. 5 on the Hong Kong menu (preserved meat with stir-fried lotus root), but the dish was a giant hit, with its spears of asparagus and smoky Chinese sausage links.
I’m usually content with white rice when I eat Chinese food, but, if you insist, an impressive selection of rice and noodle dishes is on hand. An excellent spare-rib chow fun with blackbean sauce will satisfy a jaded palate. And don’t forget to request the free authentic dessert, usually a variation of red beans or peanuts, boiled with water and lots of sugar.
Me? I had Dairy Queen instead.