For more photos of Star Kitchen's dim sum, go to westword.com/slideshow
I woke up to the sound of pigeons beating themselves against the porch eaves. It was sunny, ridiculously warm and clear, beautiful for Colorado in February. Global warming or whatever. The world was coming to an end, but in the meantime, the pigeons seemed quite pleased.
I was on the couch, and the sun streaming in the windows was blinding — God's own alarm clock. I got up, brushed my teeth, splashed water on my face and ran fingers through my hair. I turned on the TV, but it was full of bad news because these days, there's no other kind. So I decided to go eat. I gathered my jacket, my cigarettes, my phone, my book — Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives. The night before, I'd eaten Indian food in a strip mall in a Russian neighborhood in Greenwood Village; I could smell the faint traces of curry and tandoori spice on my fingers whenever I took a drag off my cigarette. I got in my car and headed out of my Aurora apartment complex. Muslim men stalked the sidewalk in their simple dishdashas, white, cream or pale blue and thin, hanging to their ankles, while the women, clustered in groups, talking, walking quickly, seemed to float in their floral abayas and black hijabs like laughing ghosts. The parking lot of the neighborhood mosque was full, and I wondered if it was a holiday, something special. People streamed in like they knew something I didn't.
It was early — earlier than I usually get up — so I turned a corner, drove a few blocks and stopped at the pho shop across from the Ethiopian restaurant and down from the Korean market for Vietnamese coffee. The Bolaño book was good and the coffee even better, but I didn't linger. The section I was reading (reading again, actually, one of my favorite bits) follows Latin American poets from cafe to cafe, where they sit and drink coffee and read books. They fall in love, too. And eat. The synchronicity brought a touch of magic to the morning and, more, made me even hungrier. So I paid my minuscule tab (like, a dollar), walked out and pointed my car toward the city — past the mosque, past Koreatown, my book about the Chilean and Mexican and Uruguyan poets beside me, headed for the Vietnamese and Mexican neighborhood along South Federal Boulevard and a Chinese brunch. If I were to drive carefully, to choose my route precisely, I could've gone the entire distance without ever slipping the veil, piercing the illusion of otherness, of a world built from no known map, right here in suburban Denver, in the middle of America.
I didn't; I took the highway. But I could have if I'd wanted to.
God, sometimes I love this town.
And I love dim sum. Star Kitchen opened this fall, started by Jong Ng, who'd moved here from Los Angeles, got a job cooking at Super Star Asian and then, when the moment was right — when money and space and availability all came together — went out on his own. He and his wife picked up a forgettable Chinese buffet in a strip mall with a big sign and a small parking lot and flipped it, fast. Four months in, the room — with its slight decor, its greening live tanks in the back full of suckfish and uglyfish and lobsters, its daily specials written in careful, clear Chinese script on colorful sheets of construction paper hung on the walls — still had the feel of a skin-of-the-teeth operation. But also an expert operation, practiced and precise and well thought out. Boiling with trade.
One of the hostesses surveyed the room with cool, squinted eyes, like she was looking at a battlefield; another stood pop-eyed, seemingly stunned by the chaotic ballet of tables coming and tables going and tables turning and the snapping, billowing linen as bussers laid fresh tables for the fresh customers pressing in past those trying to go out the door. Servers and bussers darted everywhere, pushing carts full of dim sum and trolleys full of soups and congee; carrying plastic cafeteria trays loaded with more food that the kitchen just kept turning out, small white plates of steaming broccolini and cabbage and special dumplings and weird, quivering cubes of black beans in gelatin topped with perfect, square caps of white cream.
I got one of the last tables in a room full of tables of twenty, of eight, of one, and asked for tea. The host brought me a pot of fresh green tea, loose-leaf, still steeping. I opened my book, thinking that the place was so busy I'd have to wait for the first cart to come my way, but then quickly closed my book as the cart ladies, having spied me, descended like smiling, dive-bombing Stukas.
"Dumplings? Shrimp and pork."
"Pork and shrimp?"
"Shrimp with mushrooms and pork?"
"It's new. Just made."
Congee rice porridge with scraps of...something. Sweet, sticky rice balls wrapped in banana leaves with chunks of Chinese sausage. Beef and beef tripe in a red broth. I opened my book and closed my book. More steamers. BBQ pork buns like giant snowballs filled with meat candy. Spare ribs in some gooey, clinging gel (I passed). Fried taro cakes (I passed). Shrimp paste, breaded and fried in a ball stuck with a stub of sugarcane like a chicken drumstick. Yes, please. And the mayonnaise to dip it in? Uh...no.
The carts just kept coming. The rice crepes with shrimp were spongy and odd, but delicious. The rice crepes with beef were thin and delicate and a little bit gross; not to my taste, perhaps, but they seemed a popular item at other tables. When the pastry cart rolled by, I waved it off because there was no room left on my table. Instead, I split shumai with my chopsticks and let them sit, broken side down, in puddles of soy sauce until they became so salty they tasted like pretzels, because I am a dumb savage and that's the way I like them best. I ate orange dumplings with pork and (maybe) wood ear mushrooms with my fingers. They looked like they were wrapped in the paper used for making padded mailer envelopes but tasted like heaven — like earth and salt and pig and bright-green spikes of chive. I opened my book and ate one-handed while around me, the tables turned and turned.
Roberto Bolaño was a poet until he realized, at forty or so, that there's no money in poetry. At that point, he became a novelist. The first book he wrote (the one that I — the bumbling white boy in the Chinese dim sum restaurant — was poring over in translation) was about what it was like to be a young poet in Latin America, Mexico and the D.F. in the 1970s. He and his friends wandered the streets seeing beautiful things. They invented literary movements (Bolaño was one of the founders of Mexican infrarealism) and then dissolved them, ate in strange pizza places and Chinese restaurants, hung around coffee shops talking about poetry and poets, fell in love with waitresses, fell out of love, threw tomatoes at Octavio Paz, wrote poetry and then went out for more coffee, ham sandwiches, Chinese food and more conversation. Sitting in Star Kitchen, I realized that, aside from the poetry, I was apparently living the life of a Latin American poet circa 1975. Other than the poetry and the throwing tomatoes at Octavio Paz, I was apparently an infrarealist.
Outside, the sun climbed toward noon and people kept pouring into the restaurant. Star Kitchen serves dim sum by cart until two or two-thirty on the weekends, and though I could easily have camped out that long, eating dumplings and reading, drinking thimbles of hot green tea, each one getting successively stronger as the leaves steeped, I chose not to. I waited for the carts to make a final circuit, waiting for the pastry lady with her plates of shining buns and mango custards and — most important — sesame balls. I'd seen them (three plates of them) when she'd gone by the first time, the second, the third. I'd waited until there was room on my table (and in my belly) before flagging her down — but that was obviously a mistake. As she approached, I saw some other table, a mixed bag of young Chinese and brave gastronauts and elderly chaperones, get her attention and grab all three plates.
Sons of bitches.
Sesame balls — with their stiff skins studded with white seeds, their chewy taro middles and sweet custardy cores of lemon (or something far stranger) — are weird and delicious, as filling as eating raw dough, sweet in the most unexpected of ways.
So I got some sort of cream puff instead. And let me tell you, Chinese cream puffs are odd. Not bad, necessarily, but peculiar. Two bites and I was done. I closed my book and walked over to the counter where you pay, set up like a bank, allowing one cashier to handle three or four or five parties at once. My bill was ridiculously cheap — ten courses, twenty-some dollars. I felt like I'd gained five pounds in an hour.
In the parking lot, I was nearly run over by a Chinese family in an enormous black SUV; I stepped out of the way at the last second, feeling the breeze of the car's passage fluttering my shirt. When the driver stopped and then backed up, I had a brief thought that he was coming back to finish the job, but he was actually coming to apologize. And when he rolled down his window — smiling and saying sorry — I could hear Mexican tuba-and-accordion music playing over the stereo.
God, I love this town.