7588 S. Union Park Ave., Midvale ; 801-566-8838
A modern, expansive Chinese restaurant with a concise menu and good cooks in the kitchen.
Cuisine: Asian, Chinese
Hours: M-Th, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; F-S, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Su, 4:30-9 p.m.
Liquor: Full Service
Recommended Dishes: Lettuce wraps with chicken and vegetables, walnut shrimp, beef with long beans.
August 2, 2006
Asian Star charts its own flavor course
By Mary Brown Malouf
MIDVALE -- Soaring disco ceilings, a wall of glass, valet parking and multilevel dining rooms make Asian Star's new digs feel Hong Kong-style snazzy, even though you know you're really in the middle of suburban Midvale. The Salt Lake County favorite moved from its location at the Canyon Racquet Club to a business-like building on Union Park Avenue and took the change as an opportunity to tighten up.
Asian Star is not your typical Chinese restaurant. Neither frighteningly authentic (I've tried a dish enticingly titled "cold cattle stomach" in a non-English speaking Chinese cafe) nor condescendingly clichéd (there is a notable absence of gilded dragons), Asian Star seems to be trying to create its own style, synthesizing its location and heritage.
Take aquariums. They are a big part of the décor of many Chinese restaurants. Asian Star has a number of them, but these tanks are filled with cheerful little Nemo-like clownfish, instead of sea cucumbers and the other proteins that are prominent at other Chinese restaurants.
And the menu, instead of being the sort of multipaged laminated tome, is an edited, concise list divided into just two parts. One page presents the dinner specials, a list of 10 entrees, all the same price: $11 with rice only, $13 with soup, rice, fried shrimp, egg rolls and cream cheese wontons. The other describes "Chef James specials," a dozen entrees served with rice. If you're thinking that James isn't a very Chinese-sounding name, be comforted by his last name, Lui.
Our tiny young server exuded confidence and professionalism twice her size, only slightly disconcerted when she had to announce that the kitchen was out of dry ice, so they could not serve the volcano cocktail ($7) we had ordered. Well, we were disconcerted, too, because we had no idea the drink involved dry ice. Instead, we were offered a Mai Tai ($5), the plainest, most down-to-earth version of the drink that I've ever been served: no parasol, no fruit garnish on a sword, no maraschino cherry, just rum and lime and a touch of sweetness in a highball glass.
With drinks, we ordered the appetizer tray ($11), a presentation enough for five which, if you're as old as I am, you remember being called a "pupu" platter. Our server told us that on the old Asian Star menu, it was called a "baba" tray, but the owner decided to rename it — another concession to the sensibility of Americans, I assume, who couldn't help feeling silly saying the infantile-sounding repeated syllables. Anyway, I know a pupu tray when I see one, and this had all the expected elements: Chinese ribs as tough as jerky, wonton wrappers filled with cream cheese, which I've always suspected was an aberration that started in the '50s, egg rolls with a strong celery taste and a few butterflied fried shrimp completing the circle around a sterno with questionable purpose.
Other appetizers were more exciting. Pot stickers ($7) were brought on a hot platter; our server gracefully served them to us on individual plates, Western-style. Not quite as crispy on the one side as I like, each dumpling held a pork filling that had been seasoned and formed with a light hand. If you wanted bolder seasoning, you could dip into a clear chili sauce or the usual soy-ginger.
Best of all were the lettuce wraps ($8), the dish that P.F. Chang's made famous (although it's been on Chinese restaurant menus since before Paul Fleming was a gleam in his father's eye). At Asian Star, the crunchy cool lettuce cups had been trimmed of their thin edges, so they were extremely sturdy containers for the crispy hot filling of chicken and vegetables, all diced the same size and fried. There was no sauce to bind these elements together, just the leaf, so they were messy to eat as the filling tumbled out after every bite. Again, our server made up individual plates and as far as I'm concerned, dinner could have ended right there and I would have been happy. Thank you, Chef James.
It's a funny thing about Chinese restaurants that you tend to over-order and under-eat — the leftovers were just as good a day later.
Asian Star serves dishes from all over China. The menu does not claim a region like Hunan or Canton, but neither does it pander to Westernized tastes. Instead, the kitchen seems to be following its own direction, serving dishes that can be tested by taste, not authenticity. For example, noodles are available pan-fried, as lo mein or chow mein ($13), ranging from real Chinese to Chinese-American.
Asian Star's famous version of walnut shrimp ($16) involves coating pale, gold shrimp fried to serious crispness and toasted walnuts in a bare slick of sweetish sauce that somehow did not diminish the crackling texture of the dish. A special of savory beef sizzled with long beans ($13) bore a dark brown, glossy sauce; the slightly blistered beans still had crunch in their hearts. The vegetarian at the table was pleased that so many selections could be ordered without meat and her plate of Chinese vegetables in spicy garlic sauce ($11) was the only one that did not contribute to our stack of Styrofoam boxes. It also was the only dish we tried that was marked with a faint spicy heat.
As usual, we opted out of dessert, except for the fortune cookies, another un-authentically Chinese restaurant standard invented in America. Face it: As a rule, only brave gastronomes want to eat absolutely authentic Chinese cuisine. Asian Star wisely makes no claims about serving genuine Chinese food; what it does serve is reliably good.
Tribune's rating system
1 star Good
2 stars Very good
3 stars Excellent
4 stars Extraordinary
$ Entree under $10
$$$$ Above $25
1 bell Quiet (under 65 decibles)
2 bells Can talk easily (65-70)
3 bells Talking somewhat difficult (70-75)
4 bells Raised voices (75-80)
A bomb Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)
The Tribune covers the cost of all meals at reviewed restaurants. Star ratings are based on a minimum of two visits. Ratings are updated continually based on at least one revisit. There is no connection between reviews and advertising.