Sum More, Please
For two solid hours at Super Star Asian, from one until three on a Sunday afternoon, the food never stopped coming. Brought on carts and plates, on unbreakable orange plastic cafeteria trays carried by smiling, indomitable women packing scissors and wearing rubber surgical gloves, this was some of the strangest food I've ever eaten. For two hours I didn't say no to anything. Unwilling, unable to refuse, I was like that toy bird that drinks water, head dipping time after time after time in an exaggerated nod, just repeating, "Yes, please. Yes, please," and meaning "Don't ever stop."
Fried taro, steamed beef meatballs that squeaked when I bit into them and gummy rice-flour crêpes with sweet shrimp swimming in a spoonful of salty soy sauce, clipped in half by the server's scissors. Warm, steamed chicken feet with the claws removed, served with a bowl of thick black-bean sauce -- sweet and spicy, like K.C. Masterpiece gone Chinese and drizzled over...feet.
If there's a heaven for potty-mouthed itinerant Irish restaurant critics and brave gastronauts with an Asian bent, Super Star is it. If I could eat at only one restaurant for the rest of my life, Super Star would be high on my list of choices. I know I've been to better restaurants, but sitting there on a Sunday in that blank, bunkerish, almost completely anonymous space -- just a restaurant-shaped hole in Alameda Square, next to the place that offers herbal medicine, phone cards and tax advice, down from another place with $1.99 Mexican lunch combos, and with its fraying GRAND OPENING banner still hanging over the front door -- I couldn't quite remember when. I know I've probably had better food, too, but when the woman with the cart stacked with steamer baskets came around, stopped beside my table and revealed, one by one, five kinds of perfect, beautiful, handmade dumplings, I couldn't recall exactly what that food might've been.
Like some kind of commercial for the pleasures of Chinese dining, the dumplings were actually wreathed in fragrant steam when she pulled off the lids of the baskets and tilted them in my direction. "You like?"
How could anyone in his right mind have said no?
Super Star opened back in January, when new owners took over what was already a Chinese restaurant. The menus -- there are at least three of them, maybe four, listing dim sum during the day and dinner after that, with one version for Chinese-speaking customers and another for everyone else -- are in constant flux. So are the prices. The dim sum offerings (served from 10:30 a.m. until around 4 p.m. seven days a week) change every day, and every day they are amazing, overwhelming, habit-forming to the point that now, after just a few visits, I find myself hoping for fortune's favor in a language I don't even understand -- rising up a little in my seat to scan the carts going by and praying phonetically for siu mai.
But on that first Sunday, I ate like a blind king: pointing, nodding, having not the slightest clue what I was asking for as the crowds surged and the carts rolled. There were dumplings upon dumplings, whole fingerling fish lightly battered, fried and eaten like carrot sticks -- three bites and gone. I ate sweet sesame balls and gelatinous slabs of seared, blistered water-chestnut paste and unspeakably good shrimp purses in translucent dumpling skins topped with a spray of orange tobiko. Farther off, I spied carts holding more chicken feet, this time cold, and spicy jellyfish and stuffed eggplant that never made it as far as my table because every time a runner leaped out from the kitchen carrying fresh plates to re-stock the cart, those plates were snapped up by diners closer or quicker than I was -- in particular, the guy seated behind me, who must've eaten four servings of eggplant by himself.
The wait for a table on the weekends is extreme -- an hour, easy, sometimes longer -- and every inch of floor space is packed. The lanes between booths and tables are so narrow that two carts going in opposite directions can't pass each other. Complicated traffic jams -- tangles of food and servers and runners from the kitchen and customers trying to find the bathrooms -- occur every few minutes and are solved only with delicate maneuvering, the backing of carts, the rearrangement of chairs and people sitting on each other's laps.
And at the door, more people wait -- clustered around the entrance, packed together shoulder to shoulder, holding newspapers and squirming children, making way for the carts when they pass, pointing at favorite plates going by. They squeeze up against the small raised box where the hostess works, watch as she adds names to her list in fine Chinese script, bringing some modicum of order to the swarming chaos with shouts across the dining room as tables are turned and a system of hand signals as byzantine as a Wall Street floor trader's.
No matter how long the wait, no matter how crushing the press at the door, no one leaves. People coming from the Asian markets park their loaded shopping carts in the breezeway between Super Star's two sets of doors. They talk in a half-dozen languages, and when I can understand it, the conversation is never about anything but food: how good a certain dish was the last time they were here, what they're going to eat today when finally, eventually, their name is called.
Language -- or at least my native tongue -- is insufficient to describe half of what I've eaten at Super Star, and I still don't know the names of the other half. Some plates were offered with no description, and I said "Yes, please," just because they were pretty, because I was curious, because I was afraid that, were I to say no, I might miss out on something amazing. If you never say no, you never miss a thing: the motto of the terminally overserved.
Other plates I was simply ordered to eat -- with my acceptance of them and of the wisdom of the cart ladies implicit in my wide eyes and beatific grin.
"Eat vegetables," I was told, then handed a plate of something jade-green and leafy, the heads separated from the stalks with a single knife cut, straight as a razor, and both ends laced with something that might've been oyster sauce but also might've been something else entirely.
Another cart. "This, you'll like," I was informed, and I reached out to accept a plate of three crackly, egg-shaped puffs with shells that looked like deep-fried spider webs (probably taro), filled with gray mush (probably water-chestnut paste and disturbingly squishy), and cored with a tiny dab of amazing, sweet barbecued pork and shrimp chunks that made the entire package seem to suddenly explode with flavor.
Even the special, hip-kid food glossary I work from can't help me describe the plates of baked poodle ass -- pure-white baked buns that were filled with bright-red barbecued pork or cream but looked, more than anything, like the hind ends of tiny show poodles aimed at the ceiling. Or capture the experience of eating whole shrimp crusted in salt, jalapeño and dried chile powder, fried in the shell and served head-on with the best, most powerful kick of flavor coming from the creamy, pasty, red-tinted stuff clotted up around the joint where the head connects to the body. The most efficacious way of getting at it was to jam a finger or a chopstick into the broken-off head or just raise the head to your lips and suck it out. The brain tasted creamy, shrimpy, salty, briny, sweet, hideous, delicious, messy, gross and wonderful at the same time. And since there's no one word for that, I have to use them all.
And that was just what I ate for breakfast -- or lunch, depending on how long I waited for a table. That was just dim sum, an intimate meal shared with a hundred of my closest friends while fifty more waited for me to be done, already -- to stop eating and waddle my fat ass out to the car so that they could have their turn.
Dinner at Super Star is quieter, stranger in its own way and possibly even better, though it lacks that awe-inspiring rush of seeing so many plates and so much good food just waiting for you to point and eat. The dinner menu is long, photocopied onto dog-eared pages of green construction paper stapled at the spine, written in Chinese, Vietnamese and English. There's another menu, too -- this one a single page, printed on white paper and written entirely in Chinese. It might list special dishes meant only for the neighbors, or could offer mortgages with low down payments, for all I know. My high school didn't offer conversational Cantonese.
Still, the expansive green menu alone holds more than enough adventure for anyone. For any two anyones. There's whole abalone -- a scarce and murderously expensive commodity -- and more abalone served chopped, in sauce, and made into a sauce. And if whole abalone are in short supply in Denver, then shark's fin soup is almost unheard of. But Super Star has it, in a half-dozen varieties -- despite the fact that possession of shark fin is virtually illegal, and the ordering of any that slips onto a menu somewhat prohibited by the cost: $46 for a small bowl.
Of course, I had to try one of the shark's fin soups and found it thick and rich with a deep, earthy, almost fungal flavor barely lightened by shreds of crabmeat that I knew was fresh, because the crabs sat awaiting execution in tanks right next to the kitchen. The broth was shot through with cartilaginous shards of the shark fin itself -- a texture that started out unpleasant when the soup was lava-hot but softened into an oddly appealing stiffness almost like rice noodles as the soup cooled. But it remained, well, shark-flavored.
I had war wonton soup as well, which smelled like coffee grounds and tasted like a dark, powerful pho even before the addition of soup dumplings and sliced scallop, shrimp, cold pork and something spongy that tasted like erasers soaked in cold saltwater so was probably squid.
Because I was curious to see how Super Star would make more Americanized dishes, I also tried the lemon chicken. Now I can say with confidence that this kitchen handles faux Asiana just as well as the real thing -- which is to say, better than nearly anyone else. The chicken was breaded in panko and sliced like katsu, the lemon sauce a restrained compound concoction more like a French lemon-Sauternes than anything honestly Chinese.
I've just started to eat my way around Super Star's traditional Chinese dishes, and I plan to keep going back until I've had them all. I've been told that the French beef cubes are excellent. I'm interested in the fish maw soup and the sea cucumber and the duck web, mostly because I didn't know ducks had webs. I'll be there later this week for plain roasted duck, because I have a powerful passion for duck skin when it's done just right -- all crackly and crisp and fatty. And come Saturday (or Sunday, or both), I'll be lining up again along with everyone else, waiting for my turn at the carts, hoping for siu mai and taro balls, praying fervently for rice crêpes, chicken feet and baked poodle ass, and trying to get in ahead of the guy who eats all the eggplant so that this time I can try some for myself.
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