If you’re tired of the standard American brunch — coffee, eggs, mimosa, repeat — it may be time to put a new twist in your routine: dim sum. This Chinese version of the social mid-morning meal replaces menus with a train of tempting carts full of dumplings and other delicacies that get wheeled around the restaurant street-food style until you are so full you could explode.
Star Kitchen just off Federal Boulevard offers some of the most authentic dim sum in Denver, which unless you've done a little homework can be a little overwhelming for a first-timer. My friend aptly described dining there as “going through war” — a war between your eyes and stomach, since there's far too much beautiful food for even the biggest appetites to make a dent in. Located in a nondescript strip mall, it’s a quintessential Denver ethnic dining experience, where some of the best food tends to lurk in unassuming locations. Solely a breakfast and lunchtime treat at Star, dim sum service is offered from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends and 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays, afterwards morphing into a more standard Chinese restaurant.
Star Kitchen is definitely not a secret: there's often a horde of people milling about (and even hovering if you’re seated near the door), eagerly awaiting a table or a peek at the carts. The unique seating system takes names from some and gives other numbers, which can only be described as controlled chaos in which you never really know how long you’ll be waiting. Hit it at just the right time and you can walk right in, or you may just as inexplicably be left waiting for upwards of an hour (although you can call ahead and put your name on the list). If you’re really lucky, you’ll be seated at one of the large tables with a lazy Susan in the middle, making it easier to pass sauces and plates, and make friends in the process as you all smile in confusion trying to piece together the servers’ broken English for any clue as to what dish is what.
While tea service is the standard accompaniment to dim sum, Star Kitchen does have a liquor license if you’re dying for a mid-morning cocktail (but culturally it isn't the norm…it’s just to appease Westerners).
The dim sum options are priced into five categories that range from $2.35 to $6.25 a dish; for each item you select, your ticket will be stamped to keep a tally of what you ate. Be careful though because these add up fast and although the cart pushers are not using any kind of hard sell or being super pushy, they will show you every dish on the cart, making it nearly impossible to say no. Start with a noodle plate or fried rice and a few variations of dumplings. The pan-fried shrimp and pork and leek patties are bomb, and the cilantro dumplings are a must (if the slight green hue doesn’t deter you), that go great with the kitchen's homemade hot chile oil. Be sure to hit the dessert cart for some variation (and things not served in wrappers), with the richly stuffed pork bao and double baked egg cream buns a sweet treat to balance out the savory seafood plates. If you want to get really authentic, there’s also a cart with congee, pork blood, tripe, and fish balls, but even I’m not that brave before noon. If you don’t see what you want or if one of the carts never makes it to you, you can request it from the kitchen, including most of the full-sized dinner portions.
By a certain point, there will be so much food on the table you won’t even remember what you’re eating or really care, because texturally it’s all pretty similar. While you’re stuffing your face, try to keep pace with the carts circulating the room, as they take no particular path or order, zigzagging through the maze of tables as the mood strikes. Just flag them down whenever you can. You’ll also want to eat quickly because if you wait too long, the dumplings start to stick to the paper at the bottom of the bamboo steamer pans, which makes the slippery oversized plastic chopsticks even more challenging to navigate.
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When you’re finally ready to wave the white flag after what feels like a competitive speed-eating contest, make your way up to the register operated by a pair of 12-year-olds. Truly a family business, they're taught to hustle at a young age. For a little more adventure, wander around the Asian markets in the vicinity and bring home a few treats for later.