Cafe Society

The dim sum shines at Star Kitchen

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"Dumplings? Shrimp and pork."

I nodded.

"Pork and shrimp?"

I nodded.

"Shrimp with mushrooms and pork?"

I dithered.

"It's new. Just made."

I nodded.

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?

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.

How nice.

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.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan